The genius of Gene Wilder, who has died aged 83, lay in his control of the out-of-control – his ability, in other words, to turn mania on and off as decisively as if it was a tap.
His greatest performances were in two films directed by Mel Brooks: The Producers (1968) and Young Frankenstein (1974). In these he displayed a mastery of range, scale and pitch that would be celebrated and studied across the generations if only the genre in which he was working had been high drama. But it wasn’t. It was comedy, which never gets its due. Let’s correct that here and now. Wilder was a great actor.
Watch his psychologically convincing escalation from calm to panic to outright hysteria in the long opening sequence of The Producers, in which the hulking Zero Mostel corners, harangues, intimidates and looms over him. Then tell me I’m wrong.
Notice in Young Frankenstein how he signals alarm, disgust, desire or joy with his eyes alone, all while keeping the rest of his body in check, and then try to argue that this isn’t acting of the highest calibre. I dare you.
Even at his coolest and calmest, Wilder transmitted unmistakable distress signals. Gene Wilder wasn’t his real name (he changed it from Jerome Silberman) but he couldn’t have chosen a more suitable one: you looked at his crazy corkscrew curls, and the eyes that popped out cartoonishly on springs, and you could tell he had wildness in his genes.
The species of tension from which comedy arises in Young Frankenstein is the same one that was at the core of Wilder’s talent: the struggle against meltdown in civilised society.
His character, Dr Frederick Frankenstein, tries to distance himself from the reanimation work carried out by his grandfather: he changes the pronunciation of his surname (“It’s pronounced ‘Fronkenshteen’”) and suppresses the similarities in his own scientific research. But he can’t keep it down for long. When he explodes, we are witnessing Freud’s return of the repressed played for laughs.
It’s also there in The Producers, in which he is Leo Bloom, a timid accountant nudged into colluding in a Broadway con-trick with the monstrous Max Bialystock (Mostel). Wilder makes Leo’s panic attacks funny and frightening at the same time. We look upon them in the same spirit in which we might rubberneck at an embarrassing incident in the high street: curiosity, fear, pity, amusement and wonder are all jumbled up together.
There was other superb work too, beginning with his career-making turn as the kidnapped undertaker in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). He kept his cool beautifully while falling in love with a sheep in the best section of Woody Allen’s 1972 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).
He was an oasis of charm amidst the raucous babble of another Brooks comedy, Blazing Saddles (1974). He was also widely-loved for playing the mercurial candy entrepreneur in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), though it’s easy to overlook how fully he infused that movie with his enigmatic blend of whimsy, delight and menace. His performance aside, that picture is a shambles, full of misjudged gimmicks and half-baked ideas. So it isn’t only that he’s wonderful in it – he also makes the film seem better than it is. He was that good.
I saw Wilder in person just once – he gave an on-stage interview 12 years ago at the National Film Theatre (as the BFI Southbank was then called) following a screening of The Producers. He looked frail, his skin translucent, but he was alert. He seemed rattled when he recalled being turned down by Richard Attenborough for the lead role in the 1978 horror film Magic, about a ventriloquist who becomes taken over by his dummy.
What a bold casting choice that would have been. I’ve no doubt Wilder could have done it: he had the severity, the single-mindedness. Audiences may have been less willing to see him in that exclusively serious setting. (Anthony Hopkins got the role.)
Asked for his thoughts on the upcoming Willy Wonka adaptation by Tim Burton, which had only recently been announced, Wilder became visibly irritated, even angry: he spoke scathingly of the commercial reasons behind the venture, and cast aspersions on Burton’s talents.
It was an uneasy moment, since most of us in the audience will have harboured some affection for Burton. There were a few hoots of support and a bit of uncomfortable shuffling in seats. It’s always disconcerting to see a funny man get hopping mad.
Most likely, Wilder was aggrieved about the idea of his own performance as Wonka being overwritten and obliterated by the one that Johnny Depp would go on to give in the new movie. That’s understandable. None of us wants to be forgotten. We all crave in some small way a measure of immortality. What Wilder may not have realised is that he had a better shot at that than most. His work will live for as long as we know how to laugh.