Monday, September 12, 2016

The Charming Madman: A Tribute to Gene Wilder

I realize that as time goes on, I will likely be compelled to write more of these tributes, postmortem, not less. That is just the nature of time, and life. But that won't make it suck any less. Another one of our entertainment legends has left us, a man who was one of my favorite all-around actors, comedic or otherwise, and a man whom I consider to have been a true artist. Not that so many other great actors are not artists also.....just that this was a unique individual who truly mastered his craft, and brought the art of it to the forefront.

I'm mainly going to give some of my personal experiences and memories of seeing Wilder's works throughout my life, but it doesn't hurt to give a bit of background. He was born Jerome Silberman, on June 11th 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He gained an early taste for acting, and showed promise at it, so he pursued acting in his teens and 20s, eventually adopting the stage name Gene Wilder, which he would be known as for the rest of his life. He would land various TV parts in the early to mid 60s, but it would be the year 1967 that really stood out as a landmark for his career.

An irreverent classic. 

Wilder landed his first theatrical role in the film "Bonnie and Clyde", in 1967. But it would be a collaboration with a (relatively) young writer/director by the name of Mel Brooks, that would help him really establish himself as a Hollywood star. Brooks had previously written television for shows such as "Your Show of Shows" and multiple Sid Caesar vehicles, as well as his own break-out project, the classic spy comedy "Get Smart". He made his own true debut as a film director, in the movie "The Producers", starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. A very offbeat, frankly weird film, about a dead-beat Broadway producer who is deep in debt, and involves Wilder's character (an accountant) in a scheme to make "the worst play in history", which they would get major financial backing for, but through tax loopholes would not owe the money back when it bombed. That's the basic plot in a nutshell, and while not a massive box-office hit, it was a major blip on the radar for Wilder and Brooks, both of whom would go on to see increasing success in the 1970s.

Quite possibly his most iconic role, to many.

My own personal experience with Wilder did not include "The Producers", a movie I would not rent and finally see until well into my 20s at the earliest. My earliest memory of knowing who this marvelous man was, was the 1971 hit "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factor", an adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl book. Dahl himself reportedly did not care for the film, feeling it was too commercial (it was used to help promote actual candy), and that it deviated from his original story, but for most film audiences, they absolutely loved it. And that was due in no small part whatsoever, to the absolutely brilliant performance by Mr. Wilder himself. He WAS Willy Wonka, he totally engulfed the role and brought it to incredible life, in a way few actors can ever achieve.

He was so iconic in the role, in fact, that to this day, much like Bela Lugosi for Dracula, or Boris Karloff for Frankenstein's Monster, Gene Wilder is who people envision when they think of Willy Wonka. I'm not sure that Gene himself loved being so associated with the role later in his career, but it must be said that few actors ever achieve the kind of immortality connected to a role that he did as Wonka. "The Producers" put him on the map, and he starred in a couple of very quirky film roles in between (other films I would see in my later adulthood), "Quackster Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx" and "Start the Revolution Without Me". But it was playing Willy Wonka that really cemented Wilder as a major player, and it was that film that landed him the big roles. Though his further success, ironically, in the mid-70s, would again be tied to his friend Mel Brooks.

As far as my own memories of "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" goes, I certainly liked the film. There were many things about it that appealed to my childhood self, such as a mysterious and sinister plot afoot, having to do with a nefarious man named "Slugworth". Or the mystery surrounding Mr. Wonka and his reclusive ways. Or the majestic factory itself, a candy wonderland with all sorts of weird shit that would appeal to most children. OR the fact that the main character (aside from Wonka), Charlie Bucket, just so happened to remind me a bit of myself. Being a poor kid with (at least seemingly in the film) no father around, struggling and having to do without in life, dreaming of a better tomorrow....not to put too fine a point on it, but that role was something I could, as a child, identify with.

And of course the character of Wonka himself won me over, even if he could be a bit terrifying, as well as hilarious. BUT, it also needs to be stated that my mother, who lived with my grandmother and I on and off again as I was growing up, more of a (often contentious) house guest more than an actual mother figure, she went through a phase when I was around 8 or 9 years old, where she would pick some movie, and watch it so often that I would actually get sick of it. Whether it was "The Little Mermaid", or "Spaceballs", or "Willy Wonka", she would watch the ever living shit out of it, to the point that I didn't want to see it again. So because of that, in my pre-teen and early teen years, I'm sure I was rather burnt out on what was otherwise a beloved and great film. But I later got over that and came back around to cherishing the film for what it is: a bit of an oddball masterpiece.

A very underrated, lesser known gem.

One of my other early memories of Gene Wilder, was in an 80s film he directed, called "Haunted Honeymoon". It was the second film where he would co-star with his then-wife, Gilda Radner, in what would sadly be her last film role, as well as a collaboration with the great Dom DeLuise. "Haunted Honeymoon" is an homage to both classic pre-television radio dramas, as well as "old dark house" type films. As a kid, of course, while funny, I took the scary moments of the movie seriously, and so my early experience with it might have been more as a scary film, and not so much a comedy. Much of the comedy is a bit over the heads of children, and definitely distinctive to Wilder's unique brand of humor. It was a film that did not succeed at the box office, but has come to be a bit of a "cult classic" to many fans like myself. It's a film I wish more people would see, because I think it's one of his best works, and it's a great comedy besides.

Such an incredible pair.

The first film he directed was actually another lesser known movie, from 1975, called "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother". Right on the tail of what would later come to be my favorite film of his (more on that later), it was his first hand at movie directing, and his second major turn at writing (after the aforementioned film). Much like "Haunted Honeymoon", the script definitely has his signature wit. His teaming with British funnyman Marty Feldman was very much on point, playing the "Watson" type character to Wilder's "Sigerson Holmes". They have really incredible chemistry together, which makes me wish they had worked together in more films. The plot basically revolves around the infamous Sherlock Holmes' brother having to leave a case up to his brother to solve, and it turns out to involve Holmes' archvillain, Professor Moriarty. The film also stars Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise, and Leo McKern as the villain Moriarty. This is, of course, another film I would not come to see until adulthood, but I really do love it and can't recommend it enough.

Arguably the best film ever made. At least to me.

So the movie I was alluding to, naturally, is Mel Brooks' classic "Young Frankenstein". Wilder agreed to team up with Brooks once more in the 1974 hit "Blazing Saddles", on the condition that Brooks would co-write and direct a project that Wilder had been wanting to do, an homage to classic Universal horror films. Now I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention Saddles a bit more before moving on, because while not the iconic kind of role that I feel really defined Wilder's career, it is still a cherished classic, and to many was Mel Brooks' finest work. I myself first saw "Blazing Saddles", either on TV or video rental, around the age of 14 or 15. It was, of course, hilarious, and far more than "The Producers" had done before it, it really "made" the career of Mel Brooks. In it, Wilder played the role of "The Waco Kid", a drunken, fallen outlaw, whose once-steady shooting hand was now rather shaky. Wilder has a penchant for kind of "taking over" films he stars in, and to me, Saddles is no different. Brooks, Harvey Korman, Clevone Little, Slim Pickens, etc. all shine in the film, but for my money, Wilder's smart-alec outlaw really brings the whole thing together.

True to his word, Brooks agreed to work with Wilder on his pet project, and thus the movie that I personally feel is the best thing either of them ever produced was born, the (in my humble opinion) masterpiece "Young Frankenstein". I don't want to go TOO deep into this film, because I will absolutely be writing about it on it's own later on. But sufficed to say, "Young Frankenstein" is kind of the perfect movie. It is the perfect example of a lot of little parts coming together and working incredibly well. Both Brooks' and Wilder's humor and style shine through, while at the same time, the film manages to be a really great throwback to the "Golden Age of Horror" Universal films that it lampoons. A black and white film in the 70s was already fairly unheard of, not to mention a classic styled horror/comedy hybrid, which was long since "out of style". Yet it worked, to the tune of $86 million at the box office. It worked well enough to give Wilder the kind of leeway to try his hand at direction on Sherlock, and it further established Mel Brooks at the genius he is.

Real life friends, incredible film partners.

Shifting back to my earlier memories of Wilder, I actually saw him in another, darker film as a child as well. He had a cameo in a 70s adaptation of "The Little Prince", in which he played the role of The Fox. That movie was particularly philosophical and deep, not really child's fare at all, and the ending, especially for a kid, was particularly dark. Dark enough to maybe scar me a little, in fact. I actually did not remember Wilder being in it, but upon seeing the film later in my 20s, I realized he was The Fox, a character that I had not really remembered. Which is funny, because again, outside of the snake ("Satan"), The Fox is the most memorable character that the Prince runs into. But I digress.

As seen above, the other key thing in his career that Gene Wilder is probably most well remembered for, outside of his turn as Willy Wonka, was his many pairings with comedian Richard Pryor. The duo had a natural chemistry together, born of a real-life friendship that blossomed, and they made a perfect "odd couple", Wilder being the manic "white" man and Pryor the street-wise black man. Yet the most remarkable thing, perhaps, about their pairings is that while they certainly had jokes that played of their races, the relationship their characters had always seemed to transcend petty issues of race, much like I'm sure there real life friendship was.

The first such teaming is arguably their best, in 1976's "Silver Streak", a dark comedy that also passes as a fairly competent action/mystery film.If you've never seen it, and could only see one of the movies they did together, I'd say to see that one. It is, again, one of the best projects either of them ever worked on. However the first movie I remember seeing them in together, was when my grandmother rented the 1989 film "See No Evil, Hear No Evil". It's another comedy/mystery/thriller type of affair, by the same director (Arthur Hiller) as "Silver Streak", though this time the gag is that both men are disabled.

Wilder is a deaf man, while Pryor plays a blind man, and in the course of the adventure they both unwittingly get wrapped up in, they have to rely on each other and their accompanying senses (to hilarious effect, naturally). While I'm certain I must have heard such language in movies earlier than that during my childhood, "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" is the first instance that stands out to me that I clearly remember hearing the word "Fuck" in a film. Specifically, a hilarious scene early into the movie, where their characters have not yet realized each other's maladies, and Pryor asks Wilder sarcastically "What man, are you fuckin' deaf?", to which Wilder, in his classic, singular crazed style, roars in reply "YES! I'M FUCKING DEAF!!" 

The epitome of chemistry.

In total, Wilder and Pryor would make four feature films together, including 1980s "Stir Crazy", a film that sees them going to prison (and thus trying to escape), and the film that would wind up being both men's last theatrical film role, 1991's "Another You". The latter is, I would say, the "least" of the four, with Silver and Evil, at least to me, being #1 and #2. But that isn't to say it isn't still funny, as it is, and while Pryor was starting to seriously show the effects of multiple sclerosis, the chemistry between the two still manages to shine. For Pryor's part, it was his last theatrical role because his disease would take it's toll on his body. For Wilder, he simply, in his own words, "got tired of the business part of the movie business."

Wilder would go on to do various television projects, before ultimately retiring from acting completely to focus on writing and other interests. Not having as long of a theatrical career as many other big-name actors, having only starred in around 20 or so himself, Gene Wilder still proves the axiom that sometimes "the brightest flames burn quickest". While he did not "burn out" on drugs or other vices like so many other Hollywood types do, he did in fact get "burnt out" on Hollywood itself, and decided to walk away. And while, as a fan, I would have loved for him to have given us even more film roles to enjoy, as an artist myself,  I can and do also respect him for valuing the art of filmmaking and acting over the money.

Wilder described himself as being "an actor, not a comedian", and I think that's true. He happened to have an impeccable sense of wit, and incredible comedic timing, along with his signature manic personality. But as an adult film connoisseur, it's easy to tell that that was definitely his approach to even his funniest roles: taking them on seriously, as an actor first, the comedy being secondary. And I think that is why his performances, in part, are so unique and memorable. Because while a lot of comedians and comedic actors make a career out of trying to be funny...I'm not sure it can be said that Gene Wilder ever tried. He just was.

Thank you for all the laughs and the memories, Mr. Wilder. Know that you are a legend, and you made more impact than most actors could even dream of. You'll be sorely missed.

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