The eyes never stop.
No matter where you sit to watch the movie, this actor’s eyes seem to follow, just like one of those paintings where the eyes appear to track each movement.
For Gene Wilder, who died Aug. 29, the eyes tell the story, welcoming us into this brilliant comedian’s mind, letting us inside this actor’s gentle soul. Even though Wilder had not appeared on the big screen in some 25 years, the impact of his work with writer/director Mel Brooks lasts. And, thanks to the wonders of film, Wilder remains that marvelous performer who can always surprise.
The Producers (1968)
A year after making his movie debut as a hostage in Bonnie and Clyde, Wilder snagged an Oscar nomination for his creative supporting turn in this Mel Brooks film about greed and corruption in the Broadway theater. For those who may best remember this story as a stage musical, check out the original that won an Oscar for its screenplay. While Zero Mostel chews the scenery as the over-the-top producer Max Bialystock, Wilder’s subtle turn as accountant Leo Bloom grounds the film. Just watch the actor’s eyes as he tells Mostel, “I’m hysterical, I’m having hysterics,” before Mostel reacts by tossing water, and Wilder observes, “I’m wet, I’m wet, I’m hysterical and I’m wet.” The moment works because Wilder never lets the joke overwhelm the humanity. It’s a performance of brilliant control. And it all happens with the eyes.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
The success of The Producers gave Brooks the caché to continue filling the screen with outrageous humor. No matter who Brooks tries to offend, he manages to skewer them all in the first few minutes of this Western parody that refuses to follow any traditions of film comedy. As a would-be-hero nicknamed the Waco Kid, Wilder is at his subtle best in a performance filled with suggestion and nuance. Rather than let the dialogue define his portrayal, Wilder uses those eyes, and his gift for expression, to create a complete look at a man who knows he’s the smartest one in the film and is content to wait for others to catch on. As he consoles his sidekick Bart, Wilder asks, “What did you expect? ‘Welcome, sonny’? ‘Make yourself at home’? ‘Marry my daughter’? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.” Some 44 years later, the film still make us laugh. And cringe.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Few movie fans could imagine that, just under a year later, Wilder and Brooks would top themselves with this parody of the films based on Mary Shelley’s novel about exaggerated health care. Nothing prepared us all those years ago for Wilder’s wildly imaginative take on a man trying to live down his family’s questionable reputation while pursuing the medical curiosity that define his name. From his first exchange with his sidekicks Igor and Inga – “Werewolf? Werewolf? There wolf” – to his insistence to anyone who mispronounces his last name – “it’s Fronkensteen” – Wilder beautifully underplays each moment to create a character we believe standing in the middle of a most exaggerated world. The comedian and the film reach their peak when Wilder and co-star Peter Boyle, as the Creature, do their inventive soft shoe rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Lesser comedians would go for the laughs. But Wilder is smart enough to know that, in comedy, less is always more.
Thanks to DVDs and online streaming, Gene Wilder’s film career is easy to access from the comfort of home. Just be sure to fill the house with enough people so you can share the laughter. Wilder’s comedy is wonderfully contagious.
Thank you, Mr. Wilder, for such special moments at the movies.
Gene Wilder: The Magic Continues
The laughs never stop.
Even though, years later, we may best remember the late Gene Wilder for his work on screen with comedy genius Mel Brooks, he created a range of memorable moments in other films and television shows.
Here are a few more moments to remember.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
As wonderfully daffy as Wilder could be in the films he and Brooks created, the actor’s definitive performance may be as a mysterious candy man in this musical based on the novel by Roald Dahl. As simple as its framing story may be – of a young boy who wins a golden ticket to tour a chocolate factory – what occurs inside the walls reveals more about people than a recipe for candy. As with all stories by Dahl, this one has its dark moments, and its life lessons. We learn, one moment, how it’s bad to be a brat, and not a good idea to act spoiled while, a few moments later, we are reminded that it’s okay to make mistakes. We see the downside of parents who are too permissive while we experience the upside of imagination. And Wilder, with eyes now filled with kindness, helps us remember that while people can err, the purity of how they care can overcome almost any adversity.
Silver Streak (1976)
No matter how conventional Wilder’s later films could be, he is at his best when his work feels improvisational, as if the actor is thinking of what he does as he does what he thinks. While the framework of this comedy thriller is predictable – with its story of murder on a cross-country train – the spontaneous moments between Wilder and sidekick Richard Pryor give the film refreshing life. While Wilder must endure a repeating gag of being tossed off the train, the two comedians have a field day when they must try to board the train in disguise. While the specifics of the scene are politically incorrect by any standard, the endearing sense of humor the pair brings to the situation enables them to get away with just about anything. And Wilder and Pryor discover they work so well together they bring their brand of humor to three more movies.
Will and Grace (Television)
After his creative flourish of the 1970s, Wilder’s big screen career slowed in the 1980s with a series of movie disappointments as well as the tragic death of his wife, comedienne Gilda Radner. Later, he tried to recreate his comedy magic with a television sit com, Something Wilder, that failed in 1994, followed by a small screen version of Alice in Wonderland. Only when playing the character of Will Truman’s boss on this landmark comedy series does the Wilder magic return to the screen, albeit the smaller one. It’s as if no time has passed when this grand actor tosses off his one liners as if he just thought them up. And his eyes, still so inquisitive, still so fresh, say more than all the lines of dialogue could express. He still has the look.
Rest in peace, Mr. Wilder.
Thank you for all the moments we savor from your work.