I have long had a fondness for the work of Billy Wilder, the Austrian-born American filmmaker who moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. The Apartment (1961) is my all-time favourite film – I watch it at least once a year, often on New Year’s Eve – while Double Indemnity (1945) and Some Like It Hot (1960) would almost certainly make my top ten. So a novelisation of Wilder’s quest to make his 1978 movie, Fedora, was always going to be literary catnip for me. It’s a wonderfully charming, warm-hearted book – at once a gentle coming-of-age story and an affectionate portrayal of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors – a compassionate, bittersweet novel about ageing, creativity and what happens when an industry changes, leaving a respected artist somewhat high and dry.
The novel is narrated by Calista, a fictional figure looking back to the days of her youth to a time when a chance encounter with Wilder during a backpacking holiday in America shaped the direction of her life. She is now a composer of music, predominantly for film – a passion fuelled by a lucky break, courtesy of Mr Wilder.
Rewinding to the late ‘70s, Calista – an intuitive musician who also speaks multiple languages – is hired by Wilder’s production team to act as a translator for the Greek leg of the Fedora shoot. The role brings her into close contact with Wilder and his inner circle – most notably Iz Diamond, Billy’s longstanding writing partner and friend.
Through the lens of Calista, Coe portrays the relationship between these two men with great warmth and affection. Like every great couple, Billy and Iz have their differences, blowing hot and cold with one another throughout the shoot. While Iz favours the bittersweet comedy of their earlier films, Billy is keen for Fedora to be a more serious drama, one with a melancholy, poignant tone. And yet the film should also retain a sense of elegance and beauty, qualities that seem to be falling out of fashion with the US studios as a new wave of directors begins to emerge.
[Billy:] ‘… I know that this picture, the one I’m making now, it’s one of my most serious pictures, of course – I want it to be serious, I want it to be sad – but that doesn’t mean, when the audience comes out of the cinema, they feel like you’ve been holding their head down the toilet for the last two hours, you know? You have to give them something else, something a little bit elegant, a little bit beautiful…’ (p. 214)
With the focus shifting in favour of the ‘kids with beards’ (the new generation of brash filmmakers including Spielberg and Scorsese), the Hollywood studios have refused to back Fedora, forcing Billy and Iz to make the film in Germany. This is not something that Billy is entirely comfortable with, particularly given his family history. As an Austrian Jew, he moved to the US in 1933, where his work as a screenwriter went from strength to strength. Nevertheless, this success was tinged with sadness as Billy lost touch with his mother, stepfather and grandmother – all of whom most likely perished in the concentration camps during WW2. While Billy is mostly portrayed as a genial, wisecracking figure – albeit one underscored with a discernible seam of tragedy – there is a steeliness to some of his humour, a degree of seriousness that can pierce and bite.
[Billy:] Well, you know, it was difficult to raise the money for this picture in America. So I was very glad when my German friends and colleagues stepped in. And now, I think it puts me in a kind of win-win situation.’
[Reporter:] ‘What do you mean by that?’ the woman asks.
‘I mean,’ Billy says, ‘that with this picture I really cannot lose. If it’s a huge success, it’s my revenge on Hollywood. If it’s a flop, it’s my revenge for Auschwitz.’ (p. 183)
Commercially, Fedora ultimately turns out to be the latter, but that’s somewhat by the by. It’s clear from this novel that Coe holds a great deal of affection for the film, a feeling reflected perhaps in Calista’s thoughts on Fedora as she looks back from the viewpoint of middle age.
So it’s a film I struggle to see clearly. But when I do see it clearly, it remains, for me, a thing of great beauty. Great beauty and determination. Billy’s urge to create, to keep on giving something to the world – a fundamentally generous impulse – had been as strong as ever when he made it. And, as I had tried to convince him at the time, the film shows such compassion for its characters: for its ageing characters, in particular – be they men or women – struggling to find a role for themselves in a world which is interested only in youth and novelty. (p. 240)
At the heart of the novel are themes of ageing, transition and a heartfelt longing for times past – some of which are echoed in Fedora itself which features Marth Keller as an ageing movie star at the end of her fame.
What Coe does so well here is to convey a portrait of Wilder in the twilight of his career, a man who clearly feels a deep sense of disappointment that the film world has moved on, no longer valuing the style of work he wants to create. It is also a love letter to old Hollywood, to values of elegance, beauty, romance and soul – the kind of qualities embodied in Wilder’s films. There is even a sort of homage to Wilder and Iz’s scripts, as a vignette from Billy’s past is presented as a mini screenplay within the book. It’s a poignant, evocative piece, perfectly capturing the cultural milieu in which Billy circulated in the early ‘30s.
A CAPTION reads: ‘BERLIN, 1933’.
The camera takes in the whole interior of the café – waiters as in tuxedos weaving their way between busy tables, old guys, playing chess, businessmen reading newspapers, friends exchanging gossip and young couples lost in each other’s company – before zooming in on one table near the window, where a boisterous group of young men are engaged in a loud discussion. The air is clouded with cigarette smoke and the steam from innumerable coffee cups. (p. 127)
You’ve probably gathered this by now, but if not – I loved this novel. There is so much warmth and generosity here, qualities that seem lacking in many aspects of our external world right now. It’s also a real treat for fans of Billy Wilder, with nods to some of his other movies such as Sunset Boulevard and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Finally, it offers an insight into the world of a creative genius, reminding us of the lasting value of art, irrespective of the fads and fashions of the day. A wonderful book, very highly recommended indeed.
Mr Wilder and Me is published by Viking, Penguin Random House; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).