(Photo courtesy of Jason Mecier)
In all likelihood, the events of this past week probably didn’t offer any more or less sadness and pain to be distributed among willing and unwilling recipients, a.k.a. all of us currently participating in the game of Life. It’s a strange, unsettling time to bear status as a citizen of the world, wherever it is in that world one happens to call home. But speaking as only one of billions buffeted about by the weirdness of a human condition in which terrorism has started to feel commonplace, and in which the policies of political campaigns are used as flimsy opportunities to stir fear, prejudice and an increasingly volatile mythology of helpless American victimization at the hands of hordes of murderous invaders, the sorrow contained in this past week crested perhaps a little higher than might have even been expected.
Gene Wilder had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989, but according to his nephew, Jordan Walker-Perlman, when the actor died this past Monday it was from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. In a statement released to the press, Walker-Perlman said, “We have been among the lucky ones-- this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him, 'There’s Willy Wonka!' would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble, causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
Wilder came into the world in 1933 as Jerome Silberman, later trading in for his more familiar name when, as an aspiring actor, he couldn’t imagine “Jerry Silberman as Hamlet” on a theater marquee. But when he left this world last week at the age of 83 he was known by quite a few other names as well—Leo Bloom, Quackser Fortune, the Waco Kid, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (you know how it’s pronounced) and Willy Wonka. Wilder’s gift was not only just neurotically walking the line between mania and compassion but sometimes doing pendulum swings between the two and expertly mining the tension on the approach to both for comic gold. In The Producers (1968) Bloom’s hysteria upon discovering that the plan to produce a Broadway flop-for-profit has instead resulted in a hit is hilarious, but the sudden, momentary silence after his partner, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), has doused him with a glass of water, is even funnier, because you can see in the actor’s manic eyes that it’s only a very brief break in the storm.
Young Frederick Frankenstein’s attempt to control himself while trying to understand what Igor (Marty Feldman) is telling him about the abby-normal brain he’s stitched into his monster is even more brilliantly tantalizing in its perfectly choreographed approach to emotional explosion. “Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain…” he posits to his assistant, the façade of calm now slipping away in delectable measure, “into a seven-and-a-half-foot-long… 54-inch-wide… gorilla?! Is that what you’re telling me?!!” It’s that beautiful combination of the staccato strangulation gesture and the sharp intake of breath just before “gorilla” which really sends Wilder into the comic stratosphere. (Here’s the whole scene. )
And few actors ever managed such a sublime balance between an accessible, gentle countenance and the eccentric, perhaps even pathological authoritarianism bubbling up around the edges of that welcoming exterior as Wilder did in portraying candy man extraordinaire Willy Wonka. It’s a performance that, despite being the centerpiece of a very mainstream attempt to capture the strange magic of its source novel, absolutely honors the sardonic delight Roald Dahl took in putting gluttonous, deceptive parents and children through their paces before revealing the sweetness at the center of its eponymous protagonist. (Not for nothing was the film known as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, better to emphasize Wilder’s magnetic turn over the film’s somewhat treacly Charlie who had starred in Dahl’s title.)
Yet one of Wilder’s for-real sweetest, genteel comic performances might just be his turn in Mel Brooks’ raucous, racially potent Western free-for-all Blazing Saddles. Only once does his alcoholic ex-gunslinger the Waco Kid let his placid demeanor slip (“Little bastard shot me in the ass!”)—otherwise, the Kid is the face and voice of reason, providing quiet, moral reassurance to Cleavon Little’s prejudicially besieged Sheriff Bart, in addition to, upon drying out, a supernaturally fast draw.
There’s a screening of Blazing Saddles happening tonight in Burbank, and even though I’ve seen the movie probably 40 times (including most recently in the presence of Mel Brooks, who introduced it at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater during the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival two years ago) I’m awfully tempted to go see it again. I just can’t think of a better way to say good-bye to Gene Wilder than seeing him in full cowboy regalia at movie’s end, feet up on a crate, munching on a box of popcorn and asking Bart where he’s headed next. As he has every other time I’ve seen the movie, tonight Bart will answer his friend, and the Waco Kid will respond in kind: "Nowhere special? I've always wanted to go there." And this time I’ll think of the journey Wilder has taken us on as moviegoers, as connoisseurs of comic genius and seekers of good, prickly laughs. Perhaps I’ll shed one last tear, I’ll tip my hat and then forever count us all, alongside Wilder’s nephew and the rest of his family, among the lucky ones who got to travel a small part of the way in the company of this very talented man.
(Click here to read the story behind the Willy Wonka candy portraiture seen above.)