Marcel Proust, in the second part of his Remembrance of Things Past—Within a Budding Grove—wrote,“But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. . . . To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal line which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. Similarly, the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”
Certainly a wordy passage for one of the wordiest of novels. Yet, like practically every sentence in Proust’s masterpiece, these sentences paint a colorful and insightful picture into the human mind and condition. Genius is not brute force. Genius is the grace-like ability to expand, enlighten, and, like Proust said, transform. Genius lies in the application of talent, not so much the exposition of it.
If there is one way to describe the comedy of Gene Wilder, then, it is genius.
Never one for bombast or exuberance, this son of a Jewish novelty-shop owner in Milwaukee honed his trademark effortlessness into a comedic ouevre that has stood the test of time even better than such contemporaries as Peter Sellers and Zero Mostel. His roles in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and, above all, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, are among the few roles which every generation alive today remembers, respects, and treasures. This timelessness was not an accident. It was born from Wilder’s incredible, transformity ability to lift a script, like the “lifting power” described by Proust, into the “delicate atmosphere.” He had the power to transform his personality into a mirror reflecting his genius.
He, himself, admitted to that. Only a few years ago (three or so, I believe), Wilder sat down with Robert Osborne in an interview before a live audience. When asked what the biggest misconception people had about him was, Wilder answered quite quickly. He said: “What a comic! What a funny guy! All that stuff. And I’m not. I’m really not. . . . I make my wife laugh once or twice in the house, but . . . nothing special.”
“Except,” he added, “in a comedy, in films.”
That Wilder was a mostly private man—especially after the passing of the legendary Gilda Radner, his third wife—was no secret. That he was mostly soft-spoken is also an image that is generally associated with him. He was not a stand-up comic. He was not a sketch comedian. He spent time in the Army and at the Herbert Berghof Studio in Greenwich Village, trying to learn how to be a method actor. It seems that comedy was his character in the acting sense, not in the personality sense. And, in this regard, Gene Wilder is undeniably one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen.
I personally ranked Wilder as one of the greatest actors in the history of world cinema. I ranked his performance in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as one of the greatest acting performances in movie history. He is mentioned three times in my list of the greatest movie lines. Clearly, the impressions Wilder left not just on comedy, but on acting and film generally, were indelible.
He was also underrated (even, it seems, by himself) as a screenwriter and director, with such credits to his name as See No Evil, Hear No Evil; The Woman in Red; and the mythical team-up with Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein (which was uniquely Wilder’s film). He was probably best known for his work with Brooks, which also included Blazing Saddles and, my personal favorite film of his, The Producers, for which he was nominated for his first Academy Award. The second nomination was as a writer for Young Frankenstein.
He also paired up with other comedy legends. He worked with Woody Allen on Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Too Afraid to Ask). He famously paired with Richard Pryor, the greatest stand-up comic of all time, in several memorable films from See No Evil, Hear No Evil to Stir Crazy to Silver Streak (for which Wilder garnered a Golden Globe nomination). Sidney Poitier said that Pryor and Wilder comprised the “funniest pair that’s ever been onscreen.” With such pairings as Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis as reference points, this was surely no light remark.
The later years of his career were marked particularly by another pairing. His most socially-beloved companionship off-screen was bright on-screen as well: his works with Gilda Radner included Hanky Panky, The Woman in Red, and The Haunted Honeymoon. While these films weren’t lauded by the critics, there was no denying the greatness of their headliners.
His ability to coexist onscreen with such talents as these was yet more proof of his unique blend of passivity with comedic energy. He was a brilliant foil to the styles of his compatriots, and each of his films seemed more for them than for him. His was the ability to make an entire picture better, not just his own role.
Perhaps no role most defined his career, though, than his standalone role in Willy Wonka. Along with his performance in Young Frankenstein, these films act as the truest exhibitions of his greatness not just as a comedian, but as an actor generally. In his profound soft-spokenness were hidden sudden bursts of exclamatory bombast. Wesley Morris of the New York Times appropriately called it an “understated nuttiness.” There was an honesty when he raised his voice with those maniacal eyes blaring. Viewing these performances on mute, if only to watch his facial expressions, is a rewarding experience. Unlike the works of a Rowan Atkinson or a Jim Carrey, Wilder’s comedic use of expression was a daring work of subtlety. If there is anyone to which you can fairly compare Wilder’s unorthodox blend of grace and mania, I believe you have to look outside the realm of comedy into the Shakespearean stylistics of Peter O’Toole. Only then can you find such delicate mastery of mood in the honing of his craft.
It was in his role as Willy Wonka that Wilder showed that he was more than just a foil for comedians, and that he was more than just a comedian himself. He was an actor, whose concern it was was to transform the movie of which he was a part into a mirror of its own genius. His respect for the film was palpable. As a result, it is difficult to pigeonhole his comedic style. It was fluid, depending on whether he was working in a Mel Brooks slapstick satire or a crude adult comedy with Richard Pryor or a multi-generational family masterpiece. In essence, it wasn’t comedy at all. It was art, in its own way, in his own way.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw him dance on stage with Peter Boyle singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” (Again, another example of Wilder’s deliberate and tasteful ability to defer to his costars.) I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard. Never will I forget those precious and unshakable five-or-so minutes when he rode in the backseat of Bonnie & Clyde’s car in Arthur Penn’s crime masterpiece, or when Zero Mostel doused him with water to calm his hysterics. On the flipside, I don’t know if I’ll ever remember the first time I saw Willy Wonka…it’s like trying to remember the first time you had ice cream, or the first time you met your cousin. That world of Pure Imagination, his world, is just a part of who you are.
The world has lost a lot of great people this year, from musical stars to sports stars to television stars. Muhammad Ali, Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Garry Marshall, Merle Haggard, and so many more. To lose Gene Wilder is yet another blow in a difficult year. Though all of these names were historically significant, and many played some role in the development of film history, I don’t think any of them had quite the same impact on film that Wilder did. Though he had been mostly silent for decades now, the thought of a world without him is a sad one indeed. As with all celebrity passings, though, I hope that this brings a much-deserved return to some of his classic performances, and a swell in new viewers of his special form of genius.