Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Contained explosions: the screen persona and refreshing honesty of Deceased Artiste Gene Wilder

There have been a flood of pieces written about Gene Wilder in the days since his passing. A handful of his film performances are so beloved (and rightly so) that the emotions unleashed by his death have been of the kind that usually accompany the passing of a pop star or an A-list movie star. Wilder hadn’t been in a box-office hit since the Eighties and yet viewers have a strong love for him, a love that was kindled by about a half-dozen truly great films and another half-dozen that are well remembered because of Wilder’s interaction with other great comic actors.

I would argue that anything Wilder was in from the late Sixties to the mid-Seventies is worth seeing — the Eighties much less so, and he gave up the ghost in the early Nineties, working in only a handful of TV movies and series before an unofficial “retirement” in 1999.

A quick commercial break…

The brilliance of his low-key performances, which often erupted into wonderful outbursts of hysteria, was showcased perfectly in the Seventies — that period in which so many performers and filmmakers made superb films and then it all disappeared in a Star Wars-fueled frenzy of crap.

Although most discussions of that era deal exclusively with dramas (or films that were both drama and comedy like The Long Goodbye), the “maverick” period was also exceptional for comedies. Three alumni of the Sid Caesar “school” of comedy writing — Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and (to a lesser extent) Neil Simon — crafted a number of truly excellent films that, in the case of Brooks and Allen, were as daringly original as the brilliant “revisionist” films of that period, and the best all-around comedies since the Golden Age of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Fields & West.

Wilder was an integral part of this, as he costarred in one of the most perfect comedies ever, The Producers (1967), and starred in and coscripted another flawless picture, Young Frankenstein (1974). During the period of “maverick cinema” he made his debut in Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a prologue to the flood of brilliance provoked by the success of Easy Rider), made the three classics with Mel, starred in an underrated romance (Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, 1970), made a memorably downbeat comic TV movie (Thursday’s Game), reunited with Le Grand Zero in the ambitious mess Rhinoceros (1974), distinguished himself in Woody’s anthology Everything You Ever Wanted to Learn About Sex… (1972, seen at right), played a rabbi in the Old West in the Robert Aldrich much-loved comedy The Frisco Kid (1979), and gave an unforgettable performance as the infinitely cool, refined yet cruel, Willy Wonka.

Two of the lesser known items above: first a scene from Quackser Fortune

and the entirety of Thursday's Game:

Like many, many others, after Jaws and Star Wars pushed Hollywood into the “blockbuster zone” from which is has never escaped, Wilder never got the same kind of roles after the mid-Seventies because those kind of comedies weren't being made any more. The two masters of American film comedy in the Seventies, Allen and Brooks, became, respectively, a fine filmmaker whose films were no longer overt comedies (and whose artsy ambitions were visible in every Bergman lift) and an unfortunately spotty, uneven director who eventually looked, sadly, like he was copying those (coughZuckerAbrahamsZuckercough) who had learned from him.

So the reason that Wilder's death was greeted with an outpouring of sadness was based on a handful of sublime performances he gave us in the span of a decade. He underplayed his roles beautifully during that period and thus, when the time came — as it so often did — for him to explode, the resulting hysteria was funnier. Willy Wonka might well have remained his best-remembered role because he is the one Wilder character who was utterly in control of his environment.

Wilder was a disciplined actor and, despite his repeated protests in interviews that he was not a funny person, he had perfect comic timing and was (let's be honest here) incredibly lovable. The maverick era saw Woody Allen and Elliot Gould at the two poles of Jewish masculinity in screen comedy — Woody as the uber-nebbish, Gould as the disaffected guy who was big enough to actually fight back if he wanted to.

Wilder was somewhere in between, since he was never as macho as Gould, but he was a more developed, well-adjusted, and more handsome nebbish than Woody. He could thus make Victor “Fron-kon-steen” both a convincingly debonair socialite and a raving madman.

It is a joy to explore Wilder through the Seventies, doing the occasional scene-stealing cameo (as in The Little Prince) while also starring in a string of features that range in quality from absolutely perfect to ambitious misfires like the American Film Theater version of Rhinoceros, which found him reuniting with Zero Mostel:

After the maverick Seventies turned into the blockbuster Eighties, Wilder's career did truly slow down. The films he directed in the style of Young Frankenstein didn't take off, and he was too "neurotic" to play in more conventional rom-coms. His films with Richard Pryor and The Woman in Red (1984) were the only box office successes in his later career (more on those below).

Having invested wisely and never a part of the Hollywood “industry” he stopped making films in the early Nineties, and subsequently appeared in only a handful of TV movies and sitcoms, like the rather bleak Something Wilder (1994-’95), which did have one interesting guest-star:

What interested me about the interviews with Wilder is that, while some of his anecdotes were indeed stories he'd told time and again —how cheering up his ill mother made him a comic performer (best discussed in the interview below), how he met Gilda Radner and his widow Karen — he was also incredibly honest about the relationships with the three individuals that interviewers and members of the public wanted to know about.

The first was, of course, Mel Brooks. Wilder often cited Mel as the one person who got his acting career going for real, after a few years of working in supporting roles in theater and TV. In the process of talking about The Producers Gene also spoke about how welcoming Zero Mostel was to him.

Even though Wilder was Brooks' first choice for Leo Bloom, he found out that he had to audition for Mostel, which made him incredibly nervous. Zero's way of calming him down was to kiss him on the mouth upon meeting him.

The other reminiscences of Zero that Wilder offered were pleasant memories of having lunch with him. When the rest of the cast and crew would be out, he and Zero would sit together eating their sandwiches, with Zero telling him about his past, including his years of being blacklisted as a “Red.”

An animated tangent: Zero and Gene worked together on two films (Producers and Rhinoceros) and the “Letterman” cartoon segments on The Electric Company (the narrator is none other than Joan Rivers).

Back to Mel: Wilder spoke affectionately of him in interviews, discussing the fact that (in spite of Brooks' reputation as an ad-libber), his films contain little to no improvisation; what he wanted performed was the script as written. In various interviews, particularly the Biography episode below, Gene discusses the scrapped project the two were to make after Silent Movie was completed — a comic take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that was dropped when Wilder read that John Cleese had announced a similar project.

Wilder was polite in his interviews in the 2000s (done to promote the five books he wrote), but he was also uncommonly honest (perhaps because he had nothing to lose, having essentially retired from performing). In interviews like this one from 2005 with WNYC's Leonard Lopate, Gene declared that Brooks' films became less interesting when Mel took the starring roles in them.

A bold pronouncement, though sadly true, because as funny as Brooks was and is, his two absolutely perfect films are ones he didn't appear in, while the films he starred in range from uneven but still fun (High Anxiety) to abysmal (Life Stinks). He didn't star in his last two films (the Robin Hood and Dracula spoofs), but by that point his films had indeed started to look like copies of the work of those who were inspired by, or simply imitating, him.

Wilder could be equally blunt about his own work. I was surprised to hear him say in the Biography program above that he wasn't a very good director, as he had spoiled his comedies with untold amounts of “schmaltz.” While I have affection for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and The World's Greatest Lover (1977), it is very true that they needed some of Brooks' over-the-top comic approach, while Mel's post-Young Frankenstein films could have used a dose of Wilder's restraint.

Wilder was also very honest in his statements about his four-time screen “partner” Richard Pryor. He maintained that he had fond feelings for Richard, but that they never really socialized. He was also quick to say that Richard was hard to take during the making of Stir Crazy (1980) because he was always arriving on-set late (that being the time when Pryor was heavily into cocaine).

I'm a major fan of both gentlemen but have felt for years that those movies in which they were paired as a team are unfortunately well below par for both of them. I confess I avoided the final film, Another You, but the other three are indeed meager fare for very talented screen comedians. 

Silver Streak (1976) is an action comedy into which they were shoehorned (pleasant to watch, but not very funny). Stir Crazy is a disappointment for all involved but was incredibly popular at the time it was released (by the point where a prison rodeo has taken over the picture, you tend to forget why you love Gene and Richard so much). 

See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) was the grimmest of the bunch. Wilder proudly noted that he rewrote the screenplay (which was significant to him because it was how he met his wife Karen), but the film is as sad as hell. The villains are interestingly cast (Kevin Spacey and Joan Severance, straight from their stint together in the TV series Wiseguy), but there's an air of tragedy hanging over the film. At the time it was shot, Gene was dealing with Gilda Radner's terminal cancer and Richard was starting to look ill (he was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis).

So both men look haunted throughout this light comedy and, to make matters worse, it's a farce about a blind man and a deaf man who stumble onto a criminal conspiracy. Like the other Pryor-Wilder films, it made a lot of money but was just another mediocre comedy vehicle picture.

Wilder's life was indeed filled with many triumphs, but as he got older, there was a vibe of tragedy that viewers associated with him. This was due in no small part to his “dream relationship” with Gilda Radner. Everyone was so smitten with both of them that their real-life romantic union seemed like a comedy dream come true — the love story of Leo Bloom and Roseanne Rosannadanna.

The details of their relationship were chronicled in countless interviews, Gilda's memoir It's Always Something, and Gene's autobio Kiss Me Like a Stranger. It did seem like a perfect romantic comedy partnership — although the three movies they made together were as meager as the Pryor-Wilder comedies. Their love story was doomed to a tragic end because of the return of Gilda's cancer (which she celebrated beating in her memoir), which lead to her death in May 1989 (a week after See No Evil... was released).

The amount of affection the public had for both of them, and still has (those of us who remember and love 'em both), ensured that Wilder was to be forever thought of as “the tragic widower of Gilda Radner” long after her death. His involvement in founding the charity Gilda's Club further identified him with her.

Thus, it's fascinating to hear him say in the very informal and informative interview below (which isn't dated by the 92nd St Y on YouTube, but which took place in 2007) that Gilda was definitely “not the love of my life.”

He clearly had loved her, but the chronological truth of the situation is that he began dating his widow Karen less than six months after Gilda's death, and he and she remained married until his death from Alzheimer's last week (their union having lasted 27 years; he and Gilda were a couple for seven years).

The honesty that Wilder exhibited in these interviews is not just endearing, it's rare to find in chats with movie stars, who spend most of their time walking on eggshells when asked about their feelings for a collaborator or a loved one.

Wilder's most notable characteristics as a performer were his lovable-nebbish quality and his tendency toward hysterical explosions. The fact that he was uncommonly blunt in conversation makes him even more lovable in my estimation.

"I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!"

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