Some people establish themselves as giants of film through the sheer volume of their work, becoming so ubiquitous and visible that they can’t possibly be ignored. Others, though, through either the vagaries of Fate or simply personal choice, don’t have as long of a filmography, and gain the heights of cinematic Olympus by having just one or a handful of roles so powerful and iconic, so influential, that the rest of their work (or lack thereof) effectively doesn’t matter.
One such person was Gene Wilder. While he mostly retired from on-screen work after the 80’s, the combination of his touchstone performance as Willy Wonka and his collaboration with Mel Brooks on three of the greatest film comedies of all time (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein), all of which came out in the 60’s and 70’s, have long assured his immortality to lovers of great acting and great storytelling.
The moment that, for me, perfectly sums up his power as a performer and a comedian happens in his very first scene with Zero Mostel in The Producers, where he plays a somewhat hapless corporate accountant who is eventually drawn into the seedy underbelly of Broadway showbiz by the (literally) seductive Mostel. This entire opening remains a gold standard of cinematic comedy in terms of its writing, visuals, and characterization, but its highlight is a moment where the *ever-so-slightly* neurotic Wilder, growing increasingly nervous and agitated over Mostel’s scheme and sleazy behavior, takes out his little blue security blanket to calm himself down. Mostel, curious, grabs it out of his hand, and Wilder’s resulting flip-out is, quite simply, beyond words. It’s a perfect example of sheer, instinctive acting, the sort of thing only someone with a talent like Wilder’s could make even remotely believable. You can’t script it, you can’t plan for it, and God help you if you try to copy it.
I’m amazed, looking back, by how old Wilder looked, even back then, and how little his face seemed to change over the years. There was such age, wisdom, and even a tint of sadness in his eyes, and it lent an air of seriousness to all his roles. Which, maybe, was one of the keys to them being so damn memorable.
Some might say it’s a shame Wilder couldn’t establish himself as well as a director, or that he should have kept up making movies throughout his life. Personally, I think his core work is so strong, so perfect, and holds up so well that I couldn’t have ever wished for more from the man. He’s left us some remarkable treasures to remember him by, and I feel it will be some time indeed before we have a generation untouched by this man’s gift for bringing a smile to just about anyone’s face.
Rest in peace, Gene. We love you still.