OK, first of all, I hope to write something that will be distinguishable from every other Gene Wilder remembrance you’ll read online or hear in the news. And, secondly, I hope to figure out why I should write something that I know probably won’t be distinguishable and therefore won’t do the man the justice he deserves. In any event, I’ll try to keep it short and refrain from as much hyperbole and proselytizing as I possibly can ... Good luck to me.
As so often happens in a media-saturated culture, a decade or two passes, and, before you know it, the finest work of our greatest performers fades from our collective memories; so distracted are we with the antics of the Kardashians and other reality television morons, some of whom eventually wind up running for president. So, I just hope that you’ll read this and you’ll want to pay Gene Wilder a visit or two.
Singular. He was singular. Gene Wilder did not look like many movie stars. There was no one like him before or since – in looks or behavior on screen. I keep hearing this phrase “great comic actor” when people talk about him. That's true, but what made him a great comic actor was that, above all, he was simply a great actor. Certainly, he starred mostly in comedies because that’s where he excelled, but why he excelled was because his performances were all so rich, so deft and full of nuance and real feeling. Few comedic actors so deeply commit to their neuroses like Gene Wilder did. He doesn't act funny - it's simply that his behavior is funny.
We think of the movie comedy greats and we think Groucho Marx, Abbott & Costello, Bob Hope, Jim Carrey, and even Will Ferrell. But these people were comedians first and if you ever got something lasting out of them, something that hit you as really humane, it was likely an accident or the result of really great directing. Now, I’m a big Jim Carrey fan, so just to head dissenters off at the pass: yes, he is a fine actor, but if you’re being honest you have to admit - especially in dramas - there’s always something a little labored about a Jim Carrey performance.
Gene Wilder never labored - even though he sometimes gave big, manic, over-the-top turns. But even his most outsized work was always rooted in human behavior. He made humanity funny. Sometimes he made it hysterical. But he always made it human and, in making it human, he made it hilarious. Watch this scene from Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask in which he denies being in love with a sheep. Oh, he's definitely in love with it and has been having sex with it, but watch these two reactions. The first is when his wife casually comments that he smells of lamb chops and the second is when he is actually busted in a hotel room with the animal. Skip ahead to the 2:29 mark and then stick through to 3:30 for the payoff.
Wilder started his film career in the '60s with a dramatic part in Bonnie and Clyde and then rocketed to comedic stardom in Mel Brooks' The Producers. You all know those movies he made with Brooks – The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. So many great films. And don't forget that great run of fun collaborations with Richard Pryor after those. But, let’s do this thing ... His performance as Willy Wonka In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of the greatest gifts any artist gave to the world in the 20th century. There, I said it. So much for refraining from hyperbole.
I loved that film as a kid, and I watched it a million times more with my oldest son when he was younger. I was worried that we would watch it too much, that we would watch the life out of it and I would risk ruining it for us, mostly myself really. But that's not what happened. In fact, every time we watched it, Gene Wilder bewildered me again and again. He lifted me. He charmed and challenged me. Mystified and delighted me. He gave me something new. Every damn time. And it was a lot of times, believe me.
There are a few actors who, when you see them on screen, you instantly like them. Gene Wilder was that kind of actor, but he was something more than that. When we see Gene Wilder on the screen, not only are we instantly drawn to him, but we want him to like us. I don’t know if there’s anybody else in cinema like that. All I know is it’s a singular achievement. He was a singular achievement.
Now to be honest, I didn’t do a whole lot of research for this. But I did tool around the Internet a little bit and what I came across were some interviews with him. Of course, you should go back and see some of these films and you should certainly revisit Willy Wonka if only to hear him deliver the line, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”; or to watch his entire segment in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex. But, if you want to see what I mean about him being so absolutely, stark raving unique is to simply watch him in a few interviews talking to other human beings. I promise, you won't be able to take your eyes off him and all the while you'll be wishing you had known him. And that he had liked you.
Johnny DiLoretto writes and stars in the Not-So-Late Show at Shadowbox. The next performance is Thursday September 29th. Click here for ticket info and details.