My mind has formed a habit of going back to that place where you just want to know what someone is up to, how life is treating him or her. While Gene Wilder has been absent from the big screen for quite some time now, he was one of those actors fitting the bill of interest and concern. His passing a couple of days ago was triggered by Alzheimer’s, which Wilder was suffering of. I say triggered rather than caused because at 83, it’s mostly time that causes someone’s demise. And while I dislike the idea of writing obituaries and plastering the deaths of countless artists to improve IMdB’s…erm, sorry, my click through rate, I reckon I’m insignificant enough to just write whatever I want and not injure my/ most people’s sensibilities. So here goes, a bit about Gene Wilder and why he mattered to me.
As recently as a couple of months ago, I saw him in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Yes, I know, shame on me for only watching it now. I wasn’t even aware that the movie was Wilder’s first major motion picture, but as soon as he popped up, I saw before me the quintessential Wilder character, the naive, endearing fool:
The same year saw him appear in what I would argue to be one of the most sublime comedies ever made. Sure, it’s Mel Brooks, so the humour tends to be sledgehammery, but, as the subsequent remake highlighted (even if in a musical transposition), comedic perfection resides in the execution delivered by Wilder and Zero Mostel. The former, under the guise of clueless accountant Leo Bloom, gets caught in the fiscal schemes of the latter, playing the bombastic theatre/musical producer Max Bialystock – point and counter-point, in a two man show complemented by the talents of Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn.
The Producers wasn’t a great commercial success upon release and even today it is considerably less popular than the three major movies Wilder did within the next decade. The first and arguably the picture he is best known for was Willy Wonka and & the Chocolate Factory (1971). It’s a very different take to the recent remake starring Johnny Depp and it’s also darker in tone. Wonka isn’t just another eccentric Depp/Burton persona in the original, he is imbued by Wilder’s warmth and candor, in a way the only normal person alongside Charlie in a crowd of mad and overindulgent parents-children combos. And then there’s the song.
1974 introduced a couple of Wilder-Brooks collaborations, widely seen as the crowning jewels of both their careers. The first, Blazing Saddles, is a western parody I honestly remember nothing about. I didn’t much enjoy it in a laugh out loud way, although it sure is witty and biting in taking apart the usual tropes of westerns. The second, however, ranks close to The Producers, with Wilder producing a more deadpan performance in The Young Frankenstein. The movie is a continuous stream of mostly brilliant one liners, speeches and puns, rendered by equally brilliant actors.
Few to none of his later projects are considered (as) accomplished – although I did hear some good things about his collaboration(s) with Richard Pryor. Then again, many actors don’t have more than a couple of pictures to showcase at a level as high as Wilder’s four cornerstone movies. I don’t know if my preference of The Producers says anything in particular about my appreciation of Gene Wilder, seeing how that is the one film in which he appears alongside an equally excellent lead. Fortunately, his performances have enough depth to stand apart from one another and what is really special is that they have a universal appeal – even if they are particularly relevant to the American mainstream of the era. And now that I think of it, there’s a good chance his most famous work is not even his own.
So, then, here’s more about the man. I was vaguely aware that Wilder had some unfortunate cancer connection, having been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999, which was ruled in remission by the mid 2000s. But his first brush with the disease occurred in the late eighties, when his second wife, Gilda Radner, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Even having this half-knowledge only came about because Wilder took up a proactive role in improving awareness of the disease. He details some of this in a poignant letter written after the passing of his wife, which encapsulates how unlikely and overwhelming such an ordeal can be. The admittance of how ill prepared he was to handle the situation is a powerful statement to his and our humanity.
Gilda compared the effect of their relationship on her life to going from black-white to Technicolor. That’s not far off from what Gene Wilder did to modern comedy on screen with his endearingly anxious characters. And if not to comedy as a whole, then at least to my sorry ass perception of it, because there are few to no actors whose characters I relate to so easily and can still laugh about it. Being me is serious business, of course.