The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Gene Wilder
I was pretty heartbroken when I heard Gene Wilder had passed-away. Sure, he was eighty-three and no longer really active in film, but I just liked the idea of him being out there...somewhere. With his wispy, curly hair and distinctly non-leading man looks, Wilder was a moviestar unlike any other. A writer and director in his own right, from his debut in a supporting part in BONNIE & CLYDE to his final guest turns on shows like “Will & Grace”, Wilder was a truly unique specimen.
I grew up watching his movies. While everyone sees WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY as a kid, for me it went much deeper than that. My dad raised me on a steady diet of Mel Brooks movies, and THE PRODUCERS, BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKESTEIN were the cornerstone of my film comedy education. I loved the guy, and I was thrilled whenever a movie of his would play cable, meaning I watched things like his genius prison comedy with Richard Pryor, STIR CRAZY, over and over. I also really liked THE WOMAN IN RED (which is now mostly remembered for being the film that introduced Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You”), and even a crappier entry like ANOTHER YOU got some heavy VHS play from me way back when.
Not all of his films were winners, but more often than not even obscure ones like FUNNY ABOUT LOVE were worth checking-out. Some of them, like his spoof THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (opposite two of his best co-stars, Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman), HANKY PANKY (with his late wife, Gilda Radner) or THE FRISCO KID (with Harrison Ford) are hidden gems, and I hope this column encourages some of you out there to seek them out.
While people will always remember Gene Wilder for WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, it’s actually not my favorite role of his. In fact, I prefer his two most famous Mel Brooks collaborations, BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKESTEIN, with the edge going to the former. While it’s a two-hander with Cleavon Little, Wilder is absolutely perfect as the drunken “Waco Kid”, a lightening fast-gunslinger who becomes Sheriff Bart’s only ally in Rock Ridge. The pairing of the quiet, shy, white, milquetoast Wilder with the cool, manly, black Cleavon Little was a good preview of the kind of dynamic he’d have with Pryor (albeit somewhat warmer) and watching the two play off each other is a joy, like when they share a joint and Wilder’s voice raises several octaves, or the “get drunk, play chess, screw” response to Little’s innocent inquiry into his guest’s pleasure. God I love this movie, although it would never get made in today’s P.C culture (even if the message is a very positive one).
As much as I love Wilder and Pryor as a duo, their last two films were dire. Everyone knows that ANOTHER YOU is garbage, but their earlier collaboration, SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL, where Wilder plays a deaf man and Pryor a blind one, is a total piece of tasteless eighties crap. The two witness a murder (Wilder sees it, Pryor hears it - yuk-yuk) and are chased around by Kevin Spacey’s (one of his first roles) British-accented assassin. Oddly, it was a sizable hit, although it’s worth remembering only for the fact that it allowed Wilder to meet his wife, who helped him research the part, and maybe Joan Severance’s awesome nude scene (yowza!).
While STIR CRAZY is the most famous, and certainly the funniest Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor collaboration, I have a soft spot for Arthur Hiller’s SILVER STREAK. Far more of a straight-up adventure-thriller than you’d think given that it’s a Wilder/Pryor vehicle (although Pryor doesn’t come in until it’s half over), it’s a wildly entertaining flick and gives Wilder a pretty-convincing attempt to play a legitimate leading man. Sure, there are jokes, such as the not-very-P.C scene where Pryor disguises Wilder in black-face and tries to teach him how to “act black”, but for the most part it’s pretty thrilling stuff, as milquetoast Wilder finds himself embroiled in a diabolical plot (by The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan) that puts his love interest (the late Jill Clayburgh) in danger, resulting in a few surprisingly violent shootouts and some great chases. Even if (for some weird reason) you’re not really into Wilder’s brand of humor this is worth checking-out even if only as an action-disaster picture (Toronto’s Union Station gets demolished).
Wilder had a very specific, goofy sense of humor. While he could ace a pratfall, he was lower-key than that in his more personal work. As opposed to BLAZING SADDLES, where he was a hired gun, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was his baby. The idea was originally his and he brought Mel Brooks into the writing process a bit later, although the finished film is certainly a full-on Mel Brooks masterpiece. Yet, to me the humor felt more Gene Wilder-like than Brooks-ish, particularly one of my favorite scenes, where Frankenstein (“That’s Fronc-en-stein!”) tries to pass-off his newly rehabilitated monster (an amiable Peter Boyle) as a “sophisticated, man-about-town!” as they sing “Putting on the Ritz.”
Wilder leaves behind a massive legacy, and his movies are required viewing if you’re serious about film. Heck, as least a few of them are full-on masterpieces, so if by chance you haven’t seen many of the movies listed here get cracking! You’re going to have a lot of fun.