Earlier this week, the world mourned the loss of Gene Wilder, with many describing him as one of Hollywood’s greatest comic talents. I too would like to pay tribute to Wilder, but rather than analysing his legacy – as many outlets have already done – it makes more sense to write about Wilder’s impact on me.
Like most children, I grew up watching Wilder in the 1971 musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It told the story of a young boy named Charlie and his journey to the Wonka Factory to meet its elusive, eccentric owner. As a child, I was perplexed by Wonka’s juvenile personality, yet I couldn’t help but be drawn to him. Underneath his madness was this warmth and kindness that made him so admirable – even when he lost his temper, even when he was being a selfish buffoon. It’s only as an adult that I realise what a great performance Wilder delivered. No wonder so many children were still writing to Wilder four decades after the film’s release, despite it being a box-office bomb.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I viewed another classic of Wilder’s – the 1976 comedy-thriller Silver Streak. Directed by Arthur Hiller, who also passed away recently, this Hitchcock-esque story saw Wilder as George Caldwell, a divorced author who through pure coincidence becomes part of a murder mystery. Silver Streak saw the first collaboration between Wilder and Richard Pryor (some critics consider it to be their best) as well as a surprisingly sincere performance from Wilder – this movie is very much an example of his dramatic talent, and is a must-watch for any fan.
Finally, a performance from a more notable comedy – Mel Brooks’ send-up of the Hollywood western, Blazing Saddles. In America, this picture is considered a classic, but in Australia physical copies of Blazing Saddles are very hard to come by. Hence, I didn’t get to see the film until a couple of years ago – but I’m mighty glad I did. Wilder’s turn as “the Waco Kid” is just one of many memorable performances, and since he’s a supporting character he doesn’t often get the opportunity to demonstrate his comic abilities. But when he does appear, you can tell he’s giving it his all – it’s delightful to see.
Gene Wilder’s loss is an unfortunate one, mostly because the 83-year-old was largely forgotten about until this week. His last high-profile role was over a decade ago, and the three performances mentioned here are all from films over forty years old. But if these movies are to be his legacy, that’s hardly a bad thing.