The Waco Kid…Skip Donahue…Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced FRONK-un-steen)…Leo Bloom…(nearly) Royal Tenenbaum…and, of course, the true Willy Wonka. The world lost a legend today with the death of Gene Wilder.
Because my father knew the value of a good comedic education, my introduction to Mr. Wilder’s particular, inimitable blend of laughter and adorableness came with Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles. Considering that this is a film known primarily for a minute-long flatulence sequence and enough use of the N-word to make Quentin Tarantino blush, what I remember most is Wilder as the washed-up, gin-soaked gunfighter with the fastest hands in the West (correction…in the world). He breezes into the film at the end of the first act and simply owns it from there on out…nothing, not even a man punching out an horse, can match his effortless good nature, his timing, and the contented smile that comes to your face whenever he’s onscreen.
Not to mention his inspirational speeches.
This was one of three corroborations with Mel Brooks, along with 1968’s The Producers (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, legitimizing this post) and 1974’s Young Frankenstein. In fact, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were, respectively, the first- and fourth-highest grossing films of that year.
If I had to pick a favorite Wilder film, and I would hate to have to, it would be Young Frankenstein, for which he also wrote the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to The Godfather Part II…we’ll argue the legitimacy of that when I get to the 47th Awards). The story of Victor Frankenstein’s relatively-sane grandson, desperate to forge a reputation untainted by his “accidental relationship to a famous cuckoo,” the film manages at once to be a irreverent parody of and a loving tribute to its source material, making the case that destiny can be a force for good and that embracing it can lead to wonderful things, like scientific breakthroughs and marrying Teri Garr.
And the finest charades game ever committed to film.
Beyond his work with Brooks, Gene Wilder also distinguished himself in Start the Revolution Without Me, a 1970 comedy about the French Revolution which Orson Welles is not in. He co-stars with Donald Sutherland, and if you haven’t seen this underrated gem I suggest you do so now.
Wasn’t that amazing? Even though you just watched it, I’m going to post one of several of my favorite Gene Wilder moments:
The rest of humanity wishes it could strut like this.
I suppose the role for which he will always be remembered is the one that frightened the shit out of us all as children, the unpredictable, amoral, lovable psychopath that is Willy Wonka. It’s one of those parts that would never have worked with someone else (to which the recent Tim Burton remake attests), and he plays it with a manic, childlike enthusiasm that no one else can match…it was the role he was born to play.
That introduction was his own invention…the idea was that it would instantly establish Wonka as a prankster whose motivation would never be clear and whose verisimilitude would always be questioned. Not only that, it was the first time any of the main cast had seen Wilder as Wonka…Charlie’s shocked expression is completely real.
I haven’t even touched on Stir Crazy, his wild, mostly improvised pairing with Richard Pryor; his sheep-loving doctor in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask; or even the supremely weird The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. All of these I saw at an early age…Gene Wilder films have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In short, a big part of my childhood died today, and at the young age of 83. I can’t imagine anyone else like him, or any of the films he made without him. His films will be a part of the world of comedy for as long as there are humans to watch and admire them, and his contribution to the art will never be forgotten. I, for one, will never cease to be inspired by his unquenchable optimism, his sublime, inspirational, unassuming genius.
So much time, and so little to do. Wait a minute…strike that. Reverse it.