Our Favorites: Gene Wilder.
We pay loving respect to the incredible film career of legendary comedian Gene Wilder.
Dammit, 2016, what is wrong with you? David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Prince, Alan Rickman, and now this! I know science teaches us to accept our failures, as well as our successes, with quiet, calm dignity…but you sonofabitch dumb bastard! Gene Wilder was the epitome of funny to a whole generation, as well as an inspiration to people struggling with illness and loss. He bore himself always with class and humility, and his loss is heartbreaking.
It has become a bittersweet tradition here to honor distinguished performers with a See It Instead tribute. One last chance to show younger audiences some of the best works from some of the greatest film icons. Trying to fit Gene Wilder’s best performances into three picks is just not going to cut it. Here, I’ll break down much of his filmography, highlighting the many wonderful roles he gifted us throughout his legendary career.
Gene Wilder: Warmth, Humor, Humanity.
Born Jerome Silberman in Wisconsin, Wilder had a relatively late start in show biz when he scored several well reviewed performances on Broadway in 1961, as he neared his 30’s. A chance meeting with Anne Bancroft introduced him to director Mel Brooks, and the two men would go on to craft three of the funniest comedies of all time, and to be nominated together for an Oscar. While working for Brooks, he met Richard Pryor, and started a run of successful comedies as a mismatched duo. When Pryor struggled with personal issues that took him out of acting, Wilder made a chance pairing with Gilda Radner, and the two would go on to make three movies of modest fame, and eventually wed. Her battle with cancer and eventual death led Wilder to create Gilda’s Club, a charity focused on cancer patients and their families. Wilder himself would go on to quietly battle the disease himself, withdrawing from the public eye.
Wilder’s big screen career effectively began with his eye-opening turn as a high-strung accountant in Mel Brook’s The Producers (a role he received an Oscar nomination for) and ended with his last big screen turn in Another You, alongside long time collaborator Richard Pryor. Wilder would go on to make several notable television appearances, but his greatest contribution was always to cinema. It is easy to remember his many wonderful comedies, but Wilder was a man of many talents. He made several crime thrillers, and seemed especially invested in the detective genre. He often played soft-spoken characters who hid their talents (and manias) behind a calm and reticent demeanor. His versatility and pathos made him famous for comedic roles with strong heart and emotional power. By all accounts, he was as sweet and humble in his daily life as he was on the big screen.
Nominees: Mel Brooks, Arthur Hiller, Gene Wilder himself.
Winner: Mel Brooks
Wilder teamed with Hiller on two of his four collaborations with Richard Pryor, though the quality of those projects often varied with the mercurial Pryor’s stability. While Gene did write and produce several vehicles for himself, none really achieved the lasting recognition of his early work with Mel Brooks.
Brooks and Wilder were lightning in a bottle…if it were designed by Tesla. The two had a consistent and varied collaboration that spanned several genres, but always included hilarity. Brooks alternated between using Gene’s soft spoken charm and his electrifying manic comedic style to great effect. All three of their collaborations rank highly in the AFI’s greatest comedies of all time, with good reason.
Our Favorite…Supporting Actor
Nominees: Zero Mostel, Dom De Luise, Marty Feldman, Richard Pryor
Winner: Richard Pryor
While Wilder scored many acclaims with all four nominees, no collaborative pairing was as long lived and successful as his wild ride with Richard Pryor. There were tensions and troubles as Pryor struggled with substance abuse and personal demons, but the finished products were almost always top notch comedies. Playing off the frenetic energy of Pryor, Wilder’s shy and awkward characters proved to a perfect foil. The constant theme of sanity and normalcy that drove all four movies perfectly encapsulated the working relationship of the two comedic giants.
Our Favorite…Supporting Actress
Nominees: Gilda Radner, Terri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Carol Kane
Winner: Madeline Kahn
Despite genuine chemistry and talent, Gilda and Gene never translated well onto the big screen. The most productive pairing for Wilder was with another of Brook’s favorites, Madeline Kahn, who teamed up three times in their careers. While Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is hardly a well known classic, it’s big brother, Young Frankenstein, is as immortal as the big blue monster it featured. As a demented German sex-pot in Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn proved herself to be the first lady of comedy in the Brooks pantheon (and many other classics, like the murder mystery spoof, Clue.) Both Kahn and Wilder were well versed at flipping from stately to silly at the drop of a hat, leading to a on-screen pairing that was hilarious.
Nominees: Bonnie and Clyde, The Frisco Kid, Blazing Saddles
Winner: Blazing Saddles
How the West was Fun! Blazing Saddles sits proudly in the top ten of the AFI’s Funniest Comedies of all Time list, despite having a premise and jokes that would probably get the film pulled from the theater these days. You couldn’t make this film today. The overt riffing on racial tension, stereotypes, genre tropes and colorful language would make audiences swoon. Mel Brooks proved he was a director who could and would say anything as long as it was true and funny. Part of the reason he got away with it was because Wilder played such a charming and soft spoken protagonist, and because of the palpable respect and reciprocity with which he and co-star Cleavon Little split the jokes. The two leads, a Black sheriff and a Jewish gunslinger, were so likable and relatable, it allowed the rest of the cast to be completely off the wall.
Blazing Saddles is a triumph, filled with a legendary cast, wonderful jokes, great set-pieces and Mel Brook’s trademark irreverance. It spoofed a genre near and dear to the heart of audiences (“You’d do it for Randolph Scott!”) and managed to be a biting social critique of Westerns in general and 1970’s culture in particular. It’s a classic that belongs in everyone’s library.
Nominees: The Lady in Red, Sunday Lovers, Acts of Love and Other Comedies, Funny About Love
Winner: The Lady in Red
Besides featuring a wonderful soundtrack, this romance showcased the subtle charm Wilder could bring to a project. Audiences used to his manic comedy were treated to a nuanced character who is actually not very likable on the surface of things. He plays a man with a perfect life: loving wife, smart kids, good job… but he almost throws it all away with an infatuation for an alluring stranger in a red dress. From the get go, he’s playing a heel. The fact that he can still gain the audiences sympathy is a testament to his genial delivery and gentle charisma. All while still delivering a strong comedic performance. It’s not his best film, but it is a fantastic look into his varied and developed skills as an actor.
Nominees: Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Stir Crazy, See No Evil Hear No Evil
Winner: Young Frankenstein
How do you choose Wilder’s funniest film? You have his Mel Brook’s films, his pairings with Richard Pryor, and the catalogue of the films he wrote and directed. They’re all gems. It’s a terrible dilemna…just kidding. It’s Young Frankenstein. It’s always going to be Young Frankenstein.
My copy of this film boasts “The Funniest Comedy of All Time!” and it’s not lying. For years this film topped the lists when it came to laughs. Brooks and Wilder shared writing duty on this epic spoof of the monster movie, and the film features a cast that is second to none. It’s hard to think of a more quotable comedy, as this film is filled with one iconic moment after another. I seem to have spilled a lot of ink talking about Frankenstein movies on this site, and this film is still the one to beat.
Our Favorite…Small Role
Nominees: Alice in Wonderland, Bonnie and Clyde, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask, The Little Prince
Winner: The Little Prince
Few may be familiar with this gem, but since a second big-screen adaptation was released this year, it should be on more people’s radar. The story of a lost pilot who encounters the young monarch of a tiny asteroid in the wastes of a burning dessert is a mesmerizing allegory for the journey of the creative soul. It features a strong cast but lacks big names, excepting Wilder, and relies heavily on the musical numbers to translate the story onto the big screen. Wilder plays a fox that teaches the little prince about love after the prince has despaired of ever seeing his prized rose back on his home planetoid. Wilder is serene and affable but skittish, perfectly mimicking a wild fox with only a brown business suit and his trademark wild hair as a costume. Fans of the source book should check out this version, as well as the charming animated version released this year.
Our Favorite…Bad Movie
Nominees: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The Frisco Kid, Haunted Honeymoon, The World’s Greatest Lover
Winner: The Adventure Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
I certainly have a place in my heart for Haunted Honeymoon, the World’s Greatest Lover is quirky and likable, and seeing Wilder team up with a very young Harrison Ford in The Frisco Kid is a blast…but my nod goes to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.
This film is a farcical detective spoof with Wilder playing the hapless but earnest younger Holmes brother, who has always been jealous of his illustrious older sibling (played by Gene Hackman in brief sequences.) Wilder confidently bungles the deductive method at every opportunity, aided by an exasperated Scotland Yard agent (Marty Feldman) and a mysterious actress (Madeline Kahn.) As you can see, it’s pretty much a second take with the cast of Young Frankenstein, because the studio roped everyone but Mel Brooks into making a two picture deal. The quality is a bit off, with some odd musical moments, but the cast retains their charm and excellent chemistry. As Wilder’s first directorial job, it set his behind the camera ambitions back to have the film tank, but it’s not such a flop that you won’t find some pure comedy gold.
Nominees: Blazing Saddles, Hear No Evil See No Evil, Young Frankenstein, The Little Prince, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Winner: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Was there any doubt? Despite what Tim Burton and Johnny Depp may think, this production of Roald Dahl’s confectionery masterpiece cannot be improved upon. The musical numbers are fantastic, the sets and costumes are a visual treat, and the cast is wonderful (especially since it features so many children in pivotal roles.) The crown jewel of the whole collection is Wilder’s Willy Wonka, a character that leaps off the screen.
He is charming, eccentric, inscrutable and frightening all at the same time, and provides humor, wit, and warmth as needed to keep the entire fantastical adventure moving smoothly. Roald Dahl’s works often have an element of danger to them, and from the first scene Wilder provides Wonka with a devious and sometimes truculent nature. He never forgets to keep his wild genius approachable, and this role endeared Gene Wilder to generations of fans who may not have been aware of his more adult comedies.