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.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.
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.”
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.