Saturday, September 3, 2016

Gene Wilder

Earlier this week, actor Gene Wilder passed away at the age of 83 due to complications from Alzheimer’s. Now I don’t want to make the tragic death of another person all about me but this is another brick in the wall that’s sealing off the shriveled remains of my long ago youth.

I remember seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in a movie theater; no, not when it first came out but in one of those re-release showings theaters do for kids to keep ‘em out of trouble for a few hours in the summer. To tell the truth, the first 1/3 of the movie is a bit of a chore to get through. I empathize with Charlie and his outsider status among the other kids but it’s not so much a good time hanging out with poor Charlie and his overworked mother and those 4 old people who I am never convinced are as invalid as they appear. I mean, Grandpa Joe gets up and does a song and dance number! Those old fogies are faking it! Meanwhile we have to watch those insufferable brat children finding their golden tickets and we know Charlie’s gonna get his hands on one or we wouldn’t be following him around this dang movie and can we just get to the chocolate factory already?!?

Ahem. Sorry.

But we do get to the chocolate factory where we meet Willy Wonka and the movie takes a turn for the strange. Now we can point to the fanciful sets and the Oompa Loompas but really, the true strangeness at the heart of this factory is Willy Wonka.

Gene Wilder imbues Wonka with a manic charm, an offbeat guy who is liable to say or do anything and quite frankly shouldn’t be leading children around. Gene Wilder channels a childlike innocence that pierces you with a sinister gaze. You can’t quite trust this madman but you dare not let him go.

Many years after I first saw Willy Wonka and became a fan of Doctor Who, I made the connection between the two. Except for the unfortunate circumstances of being born in America, Gene Wilder would’ve made a most excellent Doctor if Wilder’s turn as Willy Wonka was any indication.

I don’t remember when I first saw Blazing Saddles but Gene Wilder’s Waco Kid was quite an invention. Wilder looked more like an accountant than a gunslinger but that just made the character actually seem even cooler. 

Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder

Wilder actually plays an accountant in The Producers when he gets caught up in a scheme to bilk investors in a guaranteed flop of a Broadway play. This movie has one of my favorite comedic scenes ever and Gene plays it perfectly. His character Leo gets hysterical over this scheme he’s involved in. If you’re not sure, Leo tells us: “I’m hysterical! I’m hysterical!” His partner Max, played by Zero Mostel, splashes Leo in the face with a glass of water. Leo pauses for a beat and then says: “I’m wet! I’m wet! AND I’m hysterical!” 

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder 
Wilder’s talents for making the most of a pause while trying to tamp down inner emotional turmoil really comes in handy for his tour de force performance in Young Frankenstein. Early in the movie, a student in his class questions him about his legacy as the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein. Wilder takes a moment as a flicker of rage dances across his face. Then, he replies, “It’s pronounced... Fronkensteen.”  The whole movie finds Wilder’s Frankenstein…er, Fronkensteen… surrounded by weird characters who constantly challenge his slowly eroding veneer of sanity even as he gives in to the impulse to continue his grandfather’s work.

Teri Garr, Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman 

Sadly, those four movies represent to me the pinnacle of Gene Wilder’s career. He did well teaming up with Richard Pryor on Silver Streak and Stir Crazy but for the most part, it seemed neither Hollywood or for that matter Gene Wilder himself could really figure out what to do with Gene Wilder. Too many box office bombs put Wilder’s film career in a steep decline. He kept working as an actor on television. His last appearance as an actor on screen was an episode of Will & Grace where Wilder seemed to connect with the old magic one last time, winning a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor on a Comedy Series 

Gene Wilder preserved his privacy so effectively that the revelation that he had Alzheimer’s caught many people off guard. Wilder had retreated from the spotlight; he focused on writing stories and novels. Once in a while, he would give an interview here or there.  It was disconcerting to see Wilder looking so much older.  But if you looked closely, one might see Willy Wonka or the Waco Kid sparkle mischievously in his eye.

It was the look of a man you may not be sure you can trust. 

But you dare not let him go.

Hey, tomorrow’s Sunday and it’s Doctor Who day here on the blog thing.

Until then, remember to be good to one another.  

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