The Mad, Dark Genius of Gene Wilder
The late Wilder was a brilliantly funny actor who infused his comedy with intriguingly sinister notes.
If you were a kid at any point in the last 40 or so years, and you liked funny movies, you almost certainly knew Gene Wilder’s face—that amused oval, capable of both warmth and a wry, half-insane menace. Wilder, who died on August 29 at the age of 83, could cast such a gaze—withering, peculiar, surreally funny—that it became the subject of a wildly popular Internet meme in recent years. A muse and collaborator of Mel Brooks’s, Wilder, and that face of his, were emblematic of the cerebral, absurdist spoof’s heyday.
The first time I saw Wilder was almost certainly in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Mel Stuart’s swirling, scary adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel. Dahl was famously unhappy with the film,, and it wasn’t a huge success in its initial run—but it found an audience later, delighting (and frightening) generations of children. It became an odd, half-loved, half-reviled classic of its era. Wilder, as the saturnine and mercurial Wonka, is at the center of that oddness, entrancing and dangerous in equal measure. That look of his, and his sing-song speech loaded with secrets and hidden meanings and innuendos, burns into your brain. At least, it burned into mine.
When I next encountered Wilder, probably just a few years later, in a pair of Brooks films, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, there was that same surprising, alluring darkness. These are fun, silly movies, but Wilder finds fascinating chords of melancholy and madness to play in both of them. In Blazing Saddles he’s a washed-up, sad-eyed former hotshot gunslinger, a drunk with a wistful death wish who talks with the dreamy fatalism of a Byronic poet. It’s beguiling, and kinda depressing. And yet Wilder locates the humor in the humanity, giving an arresting performance that, in less complicated hands, could have been simply goofy.
The same is true of his Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein, a madcap black-and-white riot. Wilder seems unloosed in the movie, wild-haired and tinged with unwieldy vainglory—but you also laugh with him, share his petty frustrations with his family legacy, his furtive asides laden with skepticism and suspicion. He’s strange, but not quite alienatingly so, inviting the audience in to play around in his weird world. Well, it’s Brooks’s world, too—but Wilder did some kind of transmogrification in his best performances. He could guide a movie’s wavelength toward his own, but not at the expense of the larger story.