How the acclaimed Billy Wilder tried and failed to fail Hollywood | Movies

Some Like It Hot, Double Compensation and The Apartment were just a few of the classics that did Billy Wilder one of the most successful and acclaimed filmmakers in Hollywood.

Some Like It Hot poster with Marilyn Monroe blinking and Tony Curtis hugging Jack Lemmon
Vintage theatrical poster of Wilder’s 1959 hit. Photo: Shawshots / Alay

But when, in his 70’s, he started making a film telling the story of how an aging screen siren, Fedora, is lured out of retirement, he was haunted by the studios that once celebrated him.

The story of the embarrassing shooting of the 1978 film Fedora was narrated in a novel by Jonathan Coe in 2020, a book described by the Observer as “novel to like”.

Now Mr. Wilder & I. is about to be transformed into a film with a multi-award winning screenwriter, director and producer. He will also explore Wilder’s journey to central Europe, where members of his family perished in the Holocaust. Wilder himself will be played by an Oscar winner Christoph Waltzwho, like the great Hollywood director, was born in central Europe before becoming a star in recent Bond films.

Bond star Christoph Waltz in a blazer, smiling
Bond star Christoph Waltz plays Billy Wilder. Photo: MediaPunch Inc / Alay

Mr. Wilder & I.the film version of Coe’s book has what the novelist calls a “dream team” behind it: Christopher Hampton for the script and Stephen Frears (The queen and My Beautiful Laundry) as a director, while the producer is Jeremy Thomas, whose films include the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor.

The character Fedora was played in the original film by Marthe Keller, while the main star was William Holden, who was in Wilder. Sunset Boulevard. Coe, whose previous novels include the Costa book award winner Middle England and Kia Carve Up!uses a fictional translator-with-assistant Calista, hired by Wilder to help shoot the film in Europe.

“I saw Fedora when it came out, ”says Coe, a filmmaker who also wrote a biography of Hollywood giant James Stewart. “It was in a cinema in Birmingham and there were four of us in the audience. All my friends were going to see Alien and Upcoming Meetings. I realized that was a moment of change in cinema, and that Wilder had lost his audience. “

Born in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1906, Wilder was one of many talented filmmakers and executives who fled to Hollywood in the 1930s. His mother, grandmother and stepfather were left behind, and all lost their lives in concentration camps.

The new film, like the book Coe, will be reflected in Wilder’s return to central Europe in the late 1970s. Fedora took him on a journey into the darkness of his own genealogy. It was ironic, too, that Wilder, repulsed by Hollywood for Fedorahad to use German funding for his film.

From the late 1970s, Wilder was unfashionable with audiences and hostile with Hollywood. “I’ve long thought it would be a touching topic for a book,” Coe says.

Hampton, whose films include Atonement and, most recently, The Father, knew right away from reading Coe’s book that he wanted to make it a movie. “I first met Billy when I was talking to American immigrants in preparation for Stories From Hollywood [Hampton’s 1983 play about the European exiles who moved to Los Angeles]. He was extremely generous with his time, also admitting to being very interested in a play about those like Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, who didn’t actually succeed in Hollywood. “Wilder, of course, did.

“I later wrote to him about the rights to a libretto for a music version of Sunset Boulevard. He immediately replied that with some “cruel bubo of the capitalist system” he retained no rights. Paramount, who did own them, then rejected me, adding that they were negotiating with someone else. That turned out to be Andrew Lloyd Webber. “

Screenwriter Christopher Hampton, with a mustache and beard, smiling
Screenwriter Christopher Hampton in 2021. Photo: David M Benett / Dave Benett / Getty Images by Focus Features

Hampton, along with lyricist Don Black, then joined forces with composer Lloyd Webber to become the 1950 film musical. “Billy really liked it,” says Hampton, who admits “extravagant admiration” for Wilder’s films. “It simply came to our notice then. What also fascinated me about Jonathan’s book was his treatment of the way in which older artists may feel overwhelmed by the pressures of modernity. “

Coe himself remembers reading an interview with Wilder, who – while clearly injured Fedora not being done by a Hollywood studio – related his feelings about filming in Germany to German funding. “He actually said it was a ‘win-win situation.’ If the film was a success, it was his revenge on Hollywood. If it was a failure, it was his revenge against Auschwitz.

“I felt that this was such a bold comment from someone whose mother had died in a camp that it should have formed the heart of a novel. I felt compelled to try a portrait of a man who could make such a joke. ”

Disappointingly, Fedora was neither a critical nor a box office success. However, the Mr. Wilder & I. a film will at least remind audiences what an extraordinarily talented man Wilder was – even if viewed through the lens of his fading film career.

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