I’ve been thinking a lot about mentors this week. The celebrated film director Billy Wilder had a sign on the wall of his office. It said “What would Lubitsch have done?”. This was Ernst Lubitsch, who like Wilder had escaped the advance of the Nazis to settle in Hollywood.
Wilder was possibly the greatest Golden Era Hollywood director. The run of films he made from ‘Double Indemnity’ in 1944 to ‘The Apartment’ in 1960 is astonishing, crossing multiple genres with aplomb: drama, film noir, biopic, romantic comedy, and jet black satire. There’s even a superb courtroom drama and a Bing Crosby musical (the only Wilder film from this period that I don’t like).
But still, Wilder had a mentor, someone he looked up to and sought inspiration from. In one way, Lubitsch makes sense as Wilder’s hero: he was a master of light comedy and farce. If you haven’t seen it, ‘To Be or Not To Be’ is perfection. Most of Wilder’s work was underpinned with humour so there’s a bond there.
But Wilder’s sense of humour was so much darker and more caustic than his mentor’s; you would call ‘Sunset Boulevard’ a black comedy but it’s hard to imagine one more bleak and bitter – it literally opens with its hero dead, floating face down in a swimming pool. The link between that and the gentler films famous for ‘the Lubitsch touch’ is hard to see at first glance. But Lubitsch was a master of the craft, and I guess that’s what Wilder respected.
I think it pays to seek out mentors and teachers who offer you a different perspective from your own. A friend of mine is a serial mentor in their workplace, not because they seek out people to mould in their image, but because they’re knowledgeable, helpful and crucially, honest.
Their mentees pick them because they act as a sounding board and bullshit detector. My friend is not an ‘everything is awesome’ cheerleader, but they encourage their mentees by helping them to get things right and think for themselves in an organisation that too often prizes obedience and following the party line.
I’d put two names on my version of Billy Wilder’s sign, and they’re not the obvious candidates. Despite me being a show-off monster, both are shy and self-effacing. But they’re also exceptionally knowledgeable and thoughtful. I’m a fundamentally silly, messy character trying to keep afloat in a sector which is (or should be) about detail, precision and measured judgement. I sometimes struggle to be a serious person, and it always helps me to ask what would [redacted to spare their blushes] do?
Mentors should be supportive, but they should be challenging. They shouldn’t just tell you what you want to hear. They should help you to grow but not pander to you. More importantly, while mentors obviously benefit from the relationship, the focus must be on the mentee, on their development, their needs, their future.
There’s one characteristic of a potential mentor that I think is disqualifying. The relationship should never centre the needs of the mentor. If the mentee is allowed or even expected to give up their time and energy to build up their mentor’s profile and career, that relationship is abusive.
I imagine it’s hard to get perspective on a person who you see as your inspiration, who seems to have the things that you want and promises that you can have them too. But if the answer to the question on the wall is ‘make it all about them’, you’ve picked the wrong name.
And if you’ll let me recommend a Billy Wilder film you probably haven’t seen, watch ‘Ace in the Hole’. It’s a tribute to Wilder’s accomplishments that it’s one of his lesser-known films, but it’s an acid satire of tabloid journalism with jaded hack Kirk Douglas whipping up a media circus around attempts to rescue a man trapped in a cave. Audiences didn’t like it at the time, but it’s terrifyingly relevant now.