Today's Monday Mourning is Gene Wilder. The movie of his that I watched most often was Funny About Love. It was on a lot, TBS probably, and not exactly his most acclaimed role but I liked it. It made me laugh, it made me cry. Those are my favorite kinds of movies. The world lost an amazingly talented man. :(
This is from the NYTimes:
Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman but changed his name. With blue eyes that big, and hair that untamed, who else could he be? Gene Wildest, I suppose. But you’ve seen this man do his thing. What made him a star was the modesty of his nuttiness. You had to get a rise out of him. He didn’t come risen. Take the court sentencing from “Stir Crazy,” the 1980 prison-break smash in which he and Richard Pryor are framed for robbery and given 125 years.
When Mr. Wilder hears the verdict, he pops his eyes and tilts his body forward. When he finds out that he’ll be spending more than a century behind bars, he and Pryor freak out in completely different, but utterly harmonious ways. Mr. Wilder loses his breath while shrieking and stammering, “What?” He then smiles through an explanation that this is a mistake. Pryor, meanwhile, simply uses his face, then asks, in that half-sober Richard Pryor way, “Have you got the right case?” As Mr. Wilder hopefully repeats their characters’ names for the judge, he’s calmed down, but is obviously in shock. At some point, he exclaims, “No!” and leaves his mouth so agape that the geometry cracks you up.
Mr. Wilder, who died on Monday at the age of 83, had a great face for comedy. That’s worth noting in 2016 when even the occasional faces of movie comedy tend to be more … usual: Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Gosling. There was no mistaking Mr. Wilder, even when it seemed like putting him in certain roles was a mistake. That’s why they put him there. Mopey gunslinger in “Blazing Saddles” or mad scientist in “Young Frankenstein” (both from 1974)? A 1977 parody of Rudolph Valentino’s silent-movie erotics in “The World’s Greatest Lover” (which he wrote and directed)? All miscast, all the funnier for it. All the stranger.
Mr. Wilder’s eyes were famous. They glimmered even when — in, say, “The Producers” (1968), “Blazing Saddles” or “The Woman in Red” (1984) — he looked sad, even in the black and white of “Young Frankenstein.” (Although, acting next to Marty Feldman or Zero Mostel he didn’t seem to have eyes at all.) But when he spoofed Valentino, he telegraphed the gag by enhancing the diameter of his eyes so that he looked more lunatic than lusty. And his Willy Wonka spent that chocolate factory tour quietly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. For one thing, he never seemed to blink.
Mr. Wilder also had amazing diction. It was as crisp as a potato chip, as precise as some professors and as neat as the curls in his hair were a mess. It all came together when his characters fell apart. His performance in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) was a master class of gradually shattering aplomb. Toward the end of the movie, when Wonka’s obsessive-compulsiveness overtakes him and he erupts at Charlie and his grandpa, who’ve inquired about why Charlie doesn’t win a lifetime of candy after all, Mr. Wilder’s rage struck a very young me the way “The Rite of Spring” shocked those Parisian ballet-goers in 1913. What kind of monster does this to people?
Some of that shock came from Mr. Wilder’s punching every word in Wonka’s tirade. “Wrong, sir! Wrong!” he shouts, and continues, “You stole Fizzy-Lifting Drinks! You bumped into the ceiling, which now has to be washed and sterilized, so you get ... nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!”
Then, just like that, he changes his mind. Mr. Hyde goes back to being Dr. Jekyll. And Charlie wins. Mr. Wilder made the character as unstable as he could make the protagonist of a supposed kiddie movie. But that was him in a nutshell: funny at both extremes. In “Young Frankenstein,” Mr. Wilder lies atop the monster his character has created, peeved that the creature beneath him has been aroused, not subdued as he requested. “Sedagive?” he barks, referring both to an earlier joke about a sedative and the current situation, and turning each syllable into a note of aggravated disbelief.
Mr. Wilder doesn’t have many comedy descendants. He was too much of an original to copy. But there are traces of him whenever Johnny Depp wants to be funny — less as his version of Willy Wonka and more as Ed Wood. Mr. Wilder’s unreliable equilibrium suits Mr. Depp. And those four movies Pryor made with Mr. Wilder remain influential for how they literalized the upside of racial integration as conjoined symbiosis. In their movies, they wanted to be funny only together.
Mr. Wilder made just under two dozen films in his eight decades. That’s a lot of neurosis. But his was something to celebrate. Not many other actors’ crackups could produce this much confetti.