The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, August 29, 2016

"It's Only With the Heart that One Can See Clearly. What's Essential is Invisible to the Eye."-- The Fox: Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

Today's news that Gene Wilder has died hits home:
Gene Wilder, who established himself as one of America’s foremost comic actors with his delightfully neurotic performances in three films directed by Mel Brooks; his eccentric star turn in the family classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”; and his winning chemistry with Richard Pryor in the box-office smash “Stir Crazy,” died on Sunday night at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 83.

Eric Weissmann, who was Mr. Wilder’s lawyer for many years, confirmed the death. A nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said that the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Wilder’s rule for comedy was simple: Don’t try to make it funny; try to make it real. “I’m an actor, not a clown,” he said more than once.

With his haunted blue eyes and an empathy born of his own history of psychic distress, he aspired to touch audiences much as Charlie Chaplin had. The Chaplin film “City Lights,” he said, had “made the biggest impression on me as an actor; it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time.”
And that was the brilliance of the man. He inhabited his characters as fully as if they had been written by Shakespeare. His vulnerability to their sorrows, their fears, and their hopes (there's a reason why some Nietzsche thought hope was the last and greatest evil in Pandora's Box), brought a dimension of complexity to his roles, that adds the meat to his films, however uproarious they are.

When I was about 10 or 11, our parents took my sister and me to see Young Frankenstein. It's one of those golden movies of my childhood that is evergreen and forever altered who I am, like Lester's "Musketeers Diptych" (yes, I know about the third one, but it's not at the same level).

That's not because of Mel Brooks's rapid-fire gags (which are great, don't get me wrong--if there's a funnier movie, I have not seen it). It's Gene.

Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein (that's pronounced Frah-nkenstein) as a genius surgeon who is haunted by the obloquy of his grandfather's infamous madness (nobody believes in the Monster, of course). When he creates his own Monster, though, he slowly goes from comic terror of "the Creature" to compassion, finally risking his life to save it.

And the sincerity of the performance works; stripped to its essence, remove the most obvious schtick, and you have a worthy successor to James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

There's a line I half remember from the liner notes to High Anxiety: Mel Brooks' Greatest Hits, I think written by composer John Morris, in which he says that the parody and the purity of his score were meant to work in counterpart, the lush violin anchoring the "spooky house" cues:

That's a great analogy to how Wilder plays the part. How he played all his parts. Willy Wonka can be bloody scary, all rage and venom (albeit funny at the same time), only because he's so real underneath:

In The Last Hurrah, the dying Frank Skeffington asks his absurdly loyal, clueless aide "Ditto" the question: How do you thank a man for a million laughs? That's my question tonight, but only in part; laughter is the least of what I owe Gene Wilder.

Requiescat in pace.


Unknown said...

Dear John,

I had a sneaking suspicion the Cat would be on the prowl when one of our heroes departed. I was delighted to discover three excellent posts, but I will limit my comments to this space. Several summers ago I toured in the musical version of Young Frankenstein, and although I was intent on playing the role, I was not ignorant enough to preclude an homage to Gene Wilder, most noticeably at the moment when he declares that the monster is "alive." He was truly an actor of range and substance. In fact, was there ever an actor who displayed such diverse comic sensibility? Leo Bloom's hysterics certainly are the other side of the coin to the foppish, yet lovable arrogance of Fredrich Frankenstein. Willy Wonka's frustration and sweetness, the weary detachment in Blazing Saddles, the joy amidst terror in Bonny and Clyde, the adroit foil in the Pryor films...We were fortunate to have him as a music maker, so that we could be the dreamers of the dream. And we are fortunate to have you as the Virgil of our cultural remembrances.

Anglocat said...

Thanks, old friend. Your summation of Wilder is a thing of beauty--and I wished I'd seen you in the part of the Doctor.

And thanks for the kind words. More than I deserve, unless you meant the Virgil Starkwell of our cultural remembrances--which I could just about live up to.