RIP Gene Wilder
One of the all-time great comic actors has passed away today, and I couldn't be more devastated.
As I have read the outpouring of articles about Wilders death, it seems like everybody only remembers Wilder for his unforgettable performance as Willy Wonka. I can see why. "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" has been apart of my life for as long as I can remember. I remember one night when I was very young, my brother made me watch it. While I wasn't interested as first, I was suddenly pulled into this world of wonderment and engagement. I was invested thanks to the fantastic performance by Wilder. Wilder's Willy Wonka was gifted man, but also someone who took sinister glee in tormenting tedious children. That moment near the end of the film, when Wonka tells Charlie he doesn't win the prize for stealing. That wasn't always meant to be shouted. Wilder shouted in that line to throw the other actors off. When you see Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket trembling in the scene, its not acting. Its a visceral, emotional response.
So yes, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" works because Gene Wilder in the character worked. But that doesn't even begin to touch on the watermark Gene Wilder has left us. "Young Frankenstein" is one of my favorite films of all time. In my mental list of top ten favorite films, the movie sits at number three. There was a period of my life where "Young Frankenstein" was my favorite film of all time. A long period. I can never get that movie out of my head, thanks to the work done by Wilder. The man was a comic genius. I don't throw the genius word around often, but in Wilder's case, its true. There are so many comedic actors working today that carry the same personality in the same film. There have been so many comedic actors who hold onto some type of gimmick which guides each of their performances. Wilder was more of a method actor. Willy Wonka is nothing like Victor Frankenstein in character. And those two characters aren't like The Waco Kid, or Leo Bloom, or Dr. Doug Ross, or Sigerson Holmes, or Eugene Grizzard or Dave Lyons. He created a whole new character with each new movie.
He also wasn't just an actor. Not only did he star in "Young Frankenstein," he co-wrote it with Mel Brooks. "Young Frankenstein" works better than most modern spoof movies because there is a genuine understanding of the material Wilder and Brooks made fun of. With each frame of "Young Frankenstein," you can tell that both Wilder and Brooks soaked up Universal Horror Films before sitting down to write this script. There was a cunning and calculated understanding to the many movies that Wilder wrote and would eventually direct, like "Haunted Honeymoon" or "The Woman In Red." Wilder was also an accomplished stage actor. He starred in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" on Broadway in 1963, that had to have been something to see.
Continued words almost fail me when I try to describe the legacy Wilder is leaving, and how well it is going to be cherished. I just hope now in heaven, he feels the warm embrace of his wife Gilda Radner and a firm handshake from his friend, Peoria's own Richard Pryor. I you seek out "Haunted Honeymoon" and "The Woman In Red" and the other films Wilder wrote and directed. I hope you rekindle with "Blazing Saddles" or "Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)." I hope you check out his smaller yet sincere roles in "Bonnie & Clyde" and "The Little Prince." I hope you study the scope of what Gene Wilder's career could offer. It's more than worth it.