Gene Wilder died earlier this week. Here, some of our writers celebrate his best roles.
Apparently, Roald Dahl wasn’t keen on Gene Wilder’s take on Willy Wonka in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Prepare for some big talk: Dahl was chatting out of his arse. OK, it was his creation, yada yada, but Wilder’s portrayal of the sly and playful candy man is perfection.
Wilder’s Wonka doesn’t enter the narrative until nearly halfway through the film, but within moments he’s stolen the show. From the moment he fools the waiting crowd into thinking he has to limp along with a cane, before showboating into a somersault and a grin, the film’s all his. Wilder, who took the role very seriously, had specific reasons for his grand entrance: “Because from that time on, no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.”
Top-hatted, honey-voiced, childlike with eager-eyed wonder at sharing the magic of his creations, Wonka’s personality turns on a sixpence to be sinister and vengeful, scaring the pants off the ‘orrible kiddiwinks in his factory with a whistling flick of his cane. There’s a certain wicked glint in Wilder’s eye whenever he’s amping up the weirdness and it’s ruddy marvellous.
For all the bizarre nonsense Dahl’s cautionary tale for kids and adults packs in, Wilder’s performance is impeccably controlled. As he sings Pure Imagination, he ruffles Mike Teavee’s hair, letting his hand linger a moment too long, before pulling a hair out of the startled kid’s head.
That whole song is a telling moment and a masterclass in acting nuance: once he’s let the children and parents run wild in his edible playground, Wilder carries on singing, mainly to himself, the playfulness stripped away to reveal Wonka to be a rather melancholy, lonely man. Then he eats a cup.
If I hadn’t loved The Producers I would have been disowned; so it’s lucky it’s one of the funniest films of all time. It’s not perfect; it could do with a Madeleine Kahn in it, but then, couldn’t all films?
Having seen seven incarnations of Leo Bloom, I can say they were all great (although I could have lived without John Gordon Sinclair). It’s not so much that the rest didn’t live up to Gene Wilder, more that they were merely excellent performances while Gene Wilder WAS Leo Bloom. Vulnerable but never cutesy. Deadpan even while hysterical. RIP Genius – I’m sure that’s what your friends called you.
Young Frankenstein is about as good a description of Gene Wilder you could want: an actor who could muster both light and shade, look simultaneously young as well as old, kind as well as frightening, and soft as well as angry.
His presence was utterly enchanting, a sparkling-eyed classic movie star with natural funny bones, yet one that could make you happy as… well, hell because his levity could turn on a pin. *whispers* Don’t look behind you but I think his eye twinkle is haunted.
The film reunited Wilder with frequent collaborator Mel Brooks, who admits the screenplay to Young Frankenstein was entirely Wilder’s vision and that it helped him to make his finest film.
Wilder’s meticulous input – even down to the 1930s laboratory equipment from the Boris Karloff monster films – made it all the better and he actually fought Brooks to the point of tears to include the Puttin’ On The Ritz cabaret scene he’d written. Mel conceded, purely as Gene cared so much for it. This clip has been the most shared on YouTube since the announcement of Wilder’s death.
Wilder also insisted Mel Brooks couldn’t be in it. The man was a genius.
Is there a film that’s as seemingly simple but so chronically misunderstood as Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles? Even this week, The Telegraph called it “politically incorrect”, a description so commonly but inaccurately applied to it.
Yes, it is littered with racism and sexism, but not because it didn’t know any better, but because it did. It was Richard Pryor – on writing duties here, because the studio didn’t trust him with the lead role after he rang Brooks to say he was in Cleveland and “didn’t know why” – who insisted that the N-word be so much used because, if you’re going to portray racism, he thought, you might as well use the same words the racists do. And if people are shocked, then maybe they’ll think twice about using the word again.
But enough about 1970s America, let’s go back to the real point of the piece: 1870s America. Anyone who’s watched enough westerns or read enough history will eventually work out that the myth of the West is at best “authentic frontier gibberish” and at worst a complete lie, bolstered by Hollywood portrayals of its noble conquering.
The price paid by Native Americans, immigrant Chinese and recently freed slaves had barely got a mention when Blazing Saddles was made and Brooks was keen to show what a racist idyll the West really was.
It’s hardly surprising then that John Wayne was Brooks’ first choice to play washed-up gunslinger The Waco Kid. It’s also not surprising that he said no. In fact, Gene Wilder wasn’t even the second choice, but after that guy drank himself into an ambulance, Brooks brought him in. And now it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing it, even if is one of the least Wilder of his roles.
He’s subdued and strangely detached – but, crucially, still funny – as the hard-drinking sharpshooter who can grab a chess piece without moving his hands or take out a row of guns and have his arms crossed again by the time anyone looks back at him.
Yes, The Duke might have been perfect in theory, but in practice, there was no better man for the job than Wilder.
Comic geniuses Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder were first thrown together in 1976’s Silver Streak. They made four films together as a comedy duo, my favourite of which has to be 1980’s Stir Crazy.
Harry, played by Pryor, and Skip, played by Wilder, are two down-on-their-luck Broadway guys – one writer, one actor – who decide to make their way to Hollywood to find their fortunes. When they make a stop in an Arizona town, performing a song and dance routine to advertise a local bank while dressed as a giant chickens, two criminals steal their suits, heist the bank and our hapless heroes are left to face the music.
Locked away in a sweaty pokey for the rest of their naturals, they meet an eclectic band of cons, and the real criminals who are in charge of the prison: corrupt sheriffs and wardens. Mild-mannered Skip (Wilder) becomes quite accustomed to prison life and he fits in well because he’s just a happy-go-lucky optimistic guy. Even when locked in solitary in a sweatbox for days, when they let him out he asks if he could have just one more day because he’s almost found himself.
The pair would try to recreate the magic of Silver Streak and the success of Stir Crazy but Hear No Evil, See No Evil and Another You never really quite capture the lightning in a bottle that the first two outings brought to the silver screen.
However, seeing Wilder and Pryor together was always electric on screen and, despite just how good Cleavon Little was in Blazing Saddles, I wonder what it would have been like if it had been the first Wilder-Pryor movie.
As a comedy double act they are as far apart on the spectrum as they could possibly be. A perfect pairing of complete opposites but both great at playing the hapless hero. Both will be sadly missed but thanks to the magic of celluloid, we have them laughing and crying together for the rest of time.
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