|Public Domain Publicity Photo of Gene Wilder in 1970. - Photo from Wikipedia|
One thing that I sometimes feel maybe got lost was that, yes, he was funny. But more than that, he was brilliant. Willie Wonka was one of those childhood movies that you watched over and over and over again, and he was always brilliant--mischievous, charming, silly, and at times, even sinister. The scene where he yells at Charlie, the final test to make sure that Charlie is, in fact, as pure of heart as he thinks, is goddamned magic.
Hell, we rewatched Young Frankenstein again in honor of his passing, and it struck me that Wilder didn't play Frankenstein (Fronkensteen!) like some goof nitwit. He played him with exactly the same passion, madness, and menace that Colin Clive played Henry in the 1930's movie.
Seriously, compare these two scenes, one of Wilder as he brings his monster to life in Young Frankenstein, and one of Colin Clive as he reacts to his own monster's reanimation in Frankenstein.
Wilder beat Nicolas Cage in the screaming freakout performances by decades, but Wilder's range stretched much farther than that. His ability to shift on a dime from soft to loud, from manic to gentle, was not easily matched. And his subtlety of delivery on point. Where many comedians would deliver something hammy with a big wink and a nod, Wilder delivered lines almost off-handedly, letting the joke hit you on a delay when you finally process just what he said.
One thing that I wish I could have seen but never got to was Gene Wilder in a legit western. My favorite movie of his is Blazing Saddles. It's not my favorite Brooks movie, but Wilder's performance as "The Waco Kid" convinced me that if he'd ever been given the opportunity, he could have put in an amazing performance as a Pecos Bill-type western hero--like a softer, gentler John Wayne.
Don't believe me?
Wilder has some serious shades of Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday in this performance. When Bart says, "Well that's no contest. You a mile away," Jim is, like, two seconds away from, "I'm your Huckleberry. You're a daisy if you do."
Wilder was an incredible talent. Not just as a comedian, but as an actor. Full stop. The world is a sadder place without him. But, thankfully, he left us behind some amazing mementos to remember him buy. Go watch one of his movies if you haven't in awhile and revel in just how great this man was.