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Last Monday, August, 29, 2016, we lost Gene Wilder, one of the cleverest comedic minds to grace the big screen and share so much to make the world laugh. If a comedic actor is measured by how many fans he or she knocks dead with their humor, then Gene Wilder, like his Blazing Saddles character Jim (a.k.a. the Waco Kid) “must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille.” However, the funny business was not the only contribution Wilder (who frequently lived up to his name) provided us, for he also exuded a genuinely caring presence both on and off screen, and undeniably left us with lasting memories.
I’m no expert on his complete filmography as an actor and writer, nor am I tremendously familiar with his literature, but I have seen enough of his work to marvel at the man and how damn talented he was. Nobody paused like Gene Wilder, milking every moment out of shocked stillness and the occasional glance to the side and quick look back. Nobody freaked out like him either, shouting at the top of his lungs and demanding the center of attention even in smaller supporting roles to the overall story. Despite all this, he was not a show stealer unless designated to be as was the case in the iconic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This commanding, yet cooperative charisma is detailed exceptionally well in this Vox video:
One of his frequent collaborators who did not share the spotlight with him was the equally hilarious and incredible Mel Brooks (it will be an especially sad day when we lose him; don’t you ever leave us Mel, you magnificent man!). Wilder and Brooks were friends early on in both of their careers, and worked together to terrific success in 1974, first with the February release of Blazing Saddles, then more closely on Young Frankenstein which was originally Wilder’s idea, as the mad Mel elaborated recently:
Gene Wilder left his mark with so many, and I, while no expert, am no exception. His charm, wit, timing, and overall talent contributed so much to so many films, and so many lives. Today, I am offering my seven, count ’em, seven, favorite performances by Gene Wilder. All are excellent, although they vary in length, and some exceed the others by their sheer boisterousness and/or enduring value. Without further ado, I present to you my favorite Gene Wilder performances starting with number seven.
Eugene Grizzard – Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – Wilder’s major film debut was a rough one for his character, but a grand one for a bit role in a big movie. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had arguably their biggest ever roles as the titular Barrow Gang bankrobbers, but aside from the hyperviolence compared to other films of the time, Bonnie and Clyde had humor to keep it going, and the largest chunk of comedy came from the almost congenial Eugene Grizzard, Wilder’s character whose car is stolen from him by the gang. That may not be the worst thing they bring about to him though.
He had it from the start.
Dr. Ross – Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) – Woody Allen’s infamous exploration into all sorts of aspects of sexuality is perhaps his most unique film, but Wilder’s segment as a doctor who is introduced to a case of bestiality then ventures into a relationship with the sheep in question, steals the show for me. Okay, so he has been known to steal the show once or twice.
Skip Donahue – Stir Crazy (1980) – Once again acting opposite another of his main comedic companions, Richard Pryor (whom he first worked with in 1976’s Silver Streak) Wilder manages to balance all of Pryor’s energy with his own, while also providing a foil with his unique brand of composed calmness. Falsely convicted of robbing a bank, their entrance into jail and later prison is the stuff of legends.
Jim/The Waco Kid – Blazing Saddles (1974) – “My name is Jim, but most people call me… Jim.” It’s hard to peg down my favorite Mel Brooks’ movie, but this just might be it. A hard-hitting, anachronistic ruckus that takes fire at racism as much as it does the tropes of the Old West, Blazing Saddles pairs Wilder with Cleavon Little’s Sherrif Bart, a role originally created for Wilder’s pal Richard Pryor who was a little too cuckoo on cocaine and such for the studios’ liking. Pryor still helped write the film that is undeniably Bart’s story. Nevertheless, Wilder takes on the role of the ever-helpful sidekick and former gunslinger turned drunk with the perfect level of chill to allow Little, and more importantly, the jabs at racism, to shine. He is much like the relaxed version of Dean Martin in Rio Bravo if he and John Wayne rode off into the sunset in a Cadillac.
Leo Bloom – The Producers (1967) – Again, Wilder plays the role of the seemingly calmer man opposite a manic personality, this time Zero Mostel’s washed up Broadway producer. His own wackadoodle-doo quickly emerges though through his insecurities as is coerced into joining a scheme to produce a surefire flop on the stage. Everything backfires when the play becomes a smash success, and Wilder’s mild-mannered accountant who was seizing the day and then some for the first time in his life loses his shit in a similar fashion to how he did earlier on, just with more hilarious screaming. This entire movie is gold, and will be discussed on this blog in more detail in the future.
Willy Wonka – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) – The enigmatic candymaker almost was not Gene Wilder, which seems remarkable now. Wilder told director Mel Stuart that he would only accept the role if Wonka could be introduced leaning heavily on his cane, then somersaulting in front of the crowd of children because no one would know if he were “lying or telling the truth” after that point. And it worked! The scene is magical, as is what follows, and only Wilder could bring the whimsical wonder of it all into focus as a morality tale for children and adults alike. He has the unenviable task of playing the jerk whose motives are unclear and seems undeterred by his tormenting of the children. At the end he and his intent are revealed to be much more noble, but Wilder helps Wonka get there without us hating him by relishing every moment with the rotten brats he invites into his world. As is the same in real life: sarcasm helps immensely. Willy Wonka remains as one of the most instantly recognizable and beloved characters in cinema thanks to Wilder.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein – Young Frankenstein (1974) -Crafted by Wilder himself along with buddy Mel Brooks, this is a natural fit for their collective humor that endures as one of the funniest films ever made, and it’s all carried along by Wilder’s inspired performance. Where Willy Wonka captures a range of joyful emotions that lend themselves well to kids of all ages, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (it’s pronounced Frahn-kin-steen!) revels in a much more adult atmosphere. Wilder’s matter-of-fact delivery works extremely well with both serious and silly banter. The musical number with the monster is what best stands out as a beautiful juxtaposition of muted over-the-top showmanship.
These final four are must-see movies and are what they are because of Gene Wilder. His performance in each propels them to that revered status of being a cinematic masterpiece that demands your attention not once, but multiple times. Wilder is certainly not the only actor/filmmaker to give so much mastery to his craft to the delight of millions, but he does deserve a heartfelt thank you for all that he did. So from the bottom of our heavy hearts, Gene, thank you.
And thank you for reading/admiring the man, the myth, the legend that was and ever shall be Gene Wilder. I hope you enjoyed his work, and that you will continue to do so. If you have not seen as much, or any of these films or his others, I would highly recommend checking them out. Be sure to also check out this site again next Monday when I’ll be writing about some other topic to be determined. In the meantime, you can drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your remarks, stories, or questions.