Gene Wilder, the iconic and energetic American film star and writer passed away aged 83 on the 29th of August. His legacy is a meaningful, memorable and well loved one. Here three of our writers offer personal tributes and discuss what made Wilder so iconic, examining his career through three of his finest films…
Oliver Rowe- The Producers
When I think of Gene Wilder several things come to mind. Two things, however, linger above the rest, and they are interlinked. 1968’s The Producers, and my dad. Not to say of course that my father had anything to do with the making of the cult classic, but most of my early film education came from my dad, and in the genre of comedy this was no different. In fact, because of my youth, it was far more morally plausible for him to show me a comedy than, say, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, but in both cases, he certainly chose well.
The films of Gene Wilder were some of many I used to watch over and over again – the time I must have spent rewinding the VHS tapes of his collaborations with Mel Brooks must have been into days by the time they finally gave in and no longer worked. Gene Wilder, often through Mel Brooks, not only made me laugh excessively and consistently; he made me appreciate the value of comedy and of the comedic genre. Previously, in my youthful ignorance I had always sectioned off cinematic comedies as a lesser genre where story and characters weren’t important. Of course in reality in great comedy films like The Producers the opposite is true – good comedy is all about those things, and they require just as much if not more precision than filmmaking in other genres.
Gene Wilder’s passing may have greatly upset myself and my dad, but we have the perfect antidote ready; the laughter we’ll exude the next time we watch The Producers together.
Phil Gorski- Young Frankenstein
It’s difficult to reflect on the impact an actor has without, to some extent, coming across as pandering to readers. With the best intentions and more than a little personal opinion, here goes nothing… I heard about Gene Wilder’s passing on my drive home from work, during my evening ritual of listening to NPR. It was an abrupt shift in tone, and immediately overshadowed whatever the previous topic had been. Gene Wilder, an actor who had endless frantic charm, was no longer alive? It seemed, and still seems, difficult to process.
To many, Gene Wilder was best known for his role as the eccentric, deceptive, but warm-hearted Willy Wonka. His role as (a very reluctant) Dr. Frankenstein, however, was easily just as great a cinematic treasure. Frankenstein has seen many retellings, but Young Frankenstein has a certain level of heart that was present in the films Wilder was attached to. In the same way Gene Wilder was inspired to become an actor after seeing Death of a Salesman and being left in awe by how it seemed like watching real people experiencing life, rather than actors putting on a show, his portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein plays out like a real man who is resisting his fate (which just happens to be bringing life to an amalgamation of corpses). From the moment he starts correcting everyone on the pronunciation of his name to the oddly heartwarming moment of Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster (played by Peter Boyle). The whole cast feels just right, but Gene Wilder’s perpetually on-edge, well-intentioned, and ultimately highly-relatable Dr. Frankenstein is what makes this film work.
As a writer Wilder took the typically-gloomy story of Frankenstein, dug deep, and found some humanity in it.
Young Frankenstein is particularly special, at least in regards to Gene Wilder’s legacy and greatness, in that he was one of the writers behind its creation. He took the typically-gloomy story of Frankenstein, dug deep, and found some humanity in it, and that’s what makes some of the best cinema what it is. Speaking as someone who enjoyed many laughs thanks to Gene Wilder’s work, as well as someone who developed an appreciation for the joys of making people laugh: rest easy, Mr. Wilder. Thanks for all of the chuckles, snorts, belly-laughs, and the occasional almost-pants-wetting. Hollywood won’t be the same without you, but here’s hoping you are at peace.
George Storr- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on the Roald Dahl novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a musical fantasy full of heart that, for anyone who watched it as a child, will live on in the memory indefinitely.
Wilder’s performance as the wealthy, eccentric, chocolate-factory-owning Willy Wonka is a childhood memory that, for me personally, has remained ingrained since first viewing. He didn’t just perform the part brilliantly; he created a whole atmosphere surrounding the character. Willy Wonka is mysterious and, despite the fact that the film is primarily aimed at children, even quite creepy at times. Moments leave the viewer wondering whether he is really entirely well intentioned in a way almost reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat.
While Johnny Depp has mastered similar roles in the past his portrayal of Willy Wonka in the 2005 remake couldn’t hold a candle to Wilder’s incarnation…
While Johnny Depp has mastered similar roles in the past his portrayal of Willy Wonka in the 2005 remake couldn’t hold a candle to Wilder’s incarnation. Equally one of the easiest criticisms to level at the version which starred Wilder is that Roald Dahl himself criticized it- claiming the focus was shifted too much from Charlie to Willy Wonka, but with Wilder at the performing helm it arguably made sense to let him take the limelight. He’s masterful, despite the shift of focus in the story.
In the scene where the children enter the chocolate factory and Wonka makes his grand entrance he limps slowly towards the assembled crowd, hunched over a walking cane, before falling. He doesn’t fall to the ground but instead into a perfectly executed and remarkably athletic roll, before jumping back to his feet. Reportedly Wilder himself insisted on this as he wanted to keep the audience guessing. From then on, they would not know whether he was bluffing. As such, Wilder created a children’s character, not only with the energy and charisma he always brought to roles, but with real depth. Willy Wonka as portrayed by Gene Wilder is imaginative and timeless.