In Memoriam: Gene Wilder (1933 - 2016)

There’s a great moment in Blazing Saddles that a lot of people will miss if they aren’t careful.  One of my all-time favorite comedy scenes is the closing stretch of that film, as the big fight in Rock Ridge spills off the set and invades other stages and locations on the Warner Bros. backlot (“You’ll be surprised you're doing the French Mistake, Voila!”)  It’s a brilliant sequence of comic anarchy, culminating with Bart and The Waco Kid gunning down Hedley Lamarr in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  It’s meta before meta was invented.

But before this bit of feverish invention from Mel Brooks, there’s a quieter scene between Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder in which The Waco Kid explains why he put his guns away and turned to drinking.  He explains that he nearly shot a six-year-old boy that had snuck up behind him.  “I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled into a whiskey bottle, and I've been there ever since,” he explains. 

Once the news spread that Gene Wilder had died today (at age 83 from complications with Alzheimer’s Disease), a lot of people made plans to re-watch his films.  If you happen to take another look at Blazing Saddles over the next couples of days, pay close attention to that scene.  As Wilder delivers that line about crawling into a whiskey bottle, he does it with a genuine sense of remorse and emotion.  His eyes well up.  It’s real to him.  There’s no question the scene is a riff on the old western trope of the retired gunslinger (Obviously, the entire film is a riff on western tropes.), but Wilder infuses it with genuine feeling.  He means it.  Wilder said it best himself, “I’m an actor, not a clown.”  Like Lucille Ball before him, Gene Wilder is totally committed to the scene.

That’s because Gene Wilder was a real actor.  Did he possess great comedy instincts?  By all means.  You could say Gene Wilder was a comic genius, and you’d be right.  He was one of the greatest comedy actors that ever lived.  But you’d just be telling half the story.  He wasn’t just a comedian appearing in films.  We get a lot of that today: stand-ups or sketch comedy performers desperately riffing to make a scene funny.  Rather, he was a serious actor committed to the truth in comedy.  There is a huge distinction.

When they collaborated, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder birthed three of the greatest American film comedies: The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, for which he co-wrote the screenplay.  The shadows these films cast across the landscape of American film comedy is vast.  They’ve aged incredibly well; they’re still very funny and more than live up to their reputations.  If you re-watch them in the coming days, enjoy the belly laughs (and in the case of Blazing Saddles, enjoy the still relevant social commentary), but also savor the work that Gene Wilder did.  He isn’t just flailing and screaming as Leo Bloom has a panic attack about his blue blanket.  He’s 100% committed to that anxiety.  He isn’t just yelling as Victor Frankenstein learns he’s just put an abnormal brain into his monster.  He’s 100% committed to the rage and the betrayal.  It’s a master class in the truest sense.  It’s funny because the emotion is true.

I’m a particularly huge fan of the Mel Brooks pictures, so I haven’t even mentioned Willy Wonka or his work with Richard Pryor. (Silver Streak and Stir Crazy are both worth revisiting, as well.)  As you take another look at these movies (or if you are watching them for the first time), enjoy them.  But take a moment and savor the work.  We lost a giant today.

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