Sadly, last week a comedic and cinematic legend was lost when Gene Wilder died. Known for his roles in the 60’s and 70’s as a charming, incredibly funny, and over-the-top comedian. From his collaboration’s with Mel Brooks to his most iconic and defining roles in the 70’s, Wilder is still important and remembered well after his career essentially ended in the mid to late 90’s.
Wilder has always held a special place in my life as a fellow native Milwaukeean, but also for his great comedic roles. Wilder always had a bit of an unhinged madness in his performances, and I personally like to think he and Jim Carrey are responsible for the kind of humor that defined my formative years. In order to remember him, it seems appropriate to look back at some of Wilder’s best movies. We can start the countdown with a performance some might remember as infamous instead of famous.
5) Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex *But Were Afraid To Ask
Woody Allen’s 1971 comedy is incredibly strange. Loosely based on the book by David Reuben, Allen’s comedy is four vignettes only related by that each of them loosely dealing with subject matter in Reuben’s book. In the second vignette, Wilder plays Dr. Ross, a general practitioner presented with an odd case. When an Armenian shepherd confesses being in love with Daisy, a sheep from his herd, Ross nervously tries to maintain composure in his office as he kicks him out. However, when he meets Daisy, he is instantly struck and is smitten with Daisy. Wilder is hysterical as he clearly is struck in love with a sheep, but is extremely aware of the taboo nature of his love and slightly revolted by his own feelings. Wilder channels a sort of sweaty awkwardness into his performance that eventually caves into madness as his obsession takes him over and ruins his life. The vignette is a hilarious, absurdist bit of fun and is the best part of Allen’s movie. My suggestion would be to only watch Wilder’s portion and skip the rest.
4) Blazing Saddles
Gene Wilder played the Waco Kid in Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic genre spoof, Blazing Saddles, but you can call him Jim. Working with the new sheriff in town, Cleavon Little’s Bart, Wilder plays a recovering alcoholic gunslinger looking to help Bart overcome the town’s racial fears of having a black sheriff. In this role, Wilder functions more as an anachronistic observer of the town’s backward ways and the only way to cope with his lot in life is to be lost in the bottle. If there is anything I learned from catching up on Wilder’s movies, he plays a drunk better than almost anyone I know. The guy has a knack for being hysterical while acting inebriated, so it only seems natural one of his best roles is as a drunk cowboy.
3) The Producers
One of the earliest Gene Wilder performances, in his first movie collaboration with Mel Brooks he plays a nervous, hysterical accountant dragged into a get-rich-quick scheme by fast-talking play producer Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel. The first third of the movie is where Wilder is allowed to shine in all his nervous, excitable-ness comes out. Bialystock swindles and schemes until Wilder’s Leo Bloom is on board for his cockamamie plan to produce the worst play ever, “Springtime for Hitler”. While Bloom eventually comes around to the scheme and is it’s most avid proponent, when things inexplicably go south for the two producers, he reverts to his previous jitteriness with an added bit of fatalistic resignment to his inevitable imprisonment. He is at his funniest when hope is lost and his eccentricity is tinged with hopelessness. He shows an energy Brooks would capitalize on later and what he would become most well known for. While this isn’t his funniest performance, it is the sprout of what was to come from Wilder’s immense comedic talent.
2) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Of all the roles Gene Wilder played in his career, his role as the eccentric, reclusive candy magnate Willy Wonka is, by far, his most well-known. Fans of the book might bristle at the liberties the movie took with author Rohl Dahl’s material, especially since the author himself disowned the film after the uncredited rewrites of the script by David Seltzer. However, even with those strikes against the movie from fans of the book and the author himself, Gene Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka overcomes them all. Wilder is iconic, capturing the spirit of Dahl’s character. He’s funny, charming, witty, exuberant, and slightly insane. His performance is legendary and makes it impossible for any adaptation in any art form to reinvent Wonka with any success (just ask Johnny Depp). It’s not Wilder at his funniest but it is him at his very best as an on-screen performer.
1) Young Frankenstein
Despite the iconic nature of Wilder’s role as Willy Wonka, his best and greatest role came in the 1974 comedy, Young Frankenstein. Collaborating with director and co-writer Mel Brooks, Wilder plays the American relative of the original Dr. Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s novel. The movie is a wildly creative spoof of Shelley’s original material and is a masterclass in screwball humor. It is the height of Brook’s comedic spoofs and Wilder is both the contributor and beneficiary of his apex. Playing the part with a restrained insanity, Wilder’s Frederick Frankenstein goes to Transylvania to prove he is not insane but does go insane by the end of the movie. Not as referential as Blazing Saddles, it has a creative streak of wisecracks and reoccurring bits like “Werewolf? There wolf. There castle,” and Wilder’s constant correcting the pronunciation of his last name, “Fronkensteen,” only to be upstaged by Marty Feldman’s Igor, “no, it’s pronounced eye-gor.” Clever jokes like these and memorable moments like Wilder and Peter Boyle singing and dancing to “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” is all-time classic material and will forever be my favorite Wilder movie.