Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Gene Wilder - A Gentle Comic Genius

Gene Wilder, 1933-2016

"Yea, but I shoot with this hand." - Gene Wilder, as The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles (1974)

How nice to see the tremendous outpouring of sympathy for Gene Wilder, who passed away at the age of 83. You don't often see this for a comic actor; in fact, it's one of the few things in recent news that has seemingly united Americans across the board.

Why has that happened? There are two main reasons, in my opinion. One, he was truly a class act, not only on the screen, but also in real life. It was well known that he married Gilda Radner, who died a mere five years later, the victim of ovarian cancer. Wilder, without much self-attention, began to become involved in ways to promote cancer awareness. He help found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Research Center in Los Angeles and was co-founder of Gilda's Club, a support group aimed at raising awareness of ovarian cancer. While other celebrities have done some kind acts over the years, few did it with so little fanfare as Wilder.

With Zero Mostel in The Producers (1968)

"I'm in pain and I'm wet and I'm still hysterical." - Wilder as Leo Bloom in The Producers

The second reason why there has been so much love for Wilder is the fact that people were truly impressed by this man. Here was a comic actor, one who was absolutely brilliant. Maybe it was the fact that he played lovable losers or charming dreamers, but we could identify with this man onscreen.

He was a first-rate comic actor, easily one of the finest of the last fifty years. I wouldn't think it to be an exaggeration to list him alongside Chaplin or Keaton as one of the best cinematic comic performers of all time. Could anyone even think that about the so-called comic actors of the past two decades, many of whom emerged from Saturday Night Live? Many of these actors were marginally funny on television, and their film careers have rarely been an improvement. Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey? People know who they are and they sometimes delivered some mild laughs in the cinema, but would you put their movies on a list of all-time great comedies? I couldn't imagine! Meanwhile, Wilder starred in The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Yes, Mel Brooks was the primary creative genius behind these films, but he needed actors to flesh out his best roles, and Wilder created performances that are simply unforgettable.

Then there was his arguably his most beloved performance as the title character in Willie Wonks and the Chocolate Factory (1971). It's been years since I've seen this film, but it's hard not to remember the charm and subtlety he lent to this role. What little boy or girl wouldn't love to be escorted around this wonderful fantasy world by this lovable, kind man?

Gene Wilder, R.I.P.