Spotlights: Gene Wilder
~ Spotlights is a new series from the Hofstra Critics dedicated to highlighting some of the finest work of some of the world's finest artists. ~
While comedic actor Gene Wilder is probably best known for his leading titular role in the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, his recent passing has brought many of his other spectacular roles back into the public light. Here are a few of his most bizarre, outrageous, and incomparably funny film performances from throughout his career:
The Producers (1968)
Wilder’s first smash hit film role was as the anxious embezzling accountant Leopold Bloom in Mel Brook’s seminal classic The Producers. The movie, which nabbed Wilder a Supporting Actor nod at the Oscars, was the vehicle that launched the actor onto the national stage. He portrayed Leo Bloom, the jittery sidekick to Zero Mostel’s bombastic Max Bialystock, as a character with earnest dreams, genuine fears, and a fervent desire to better his station in life (even at the cost of producing he most overtly offensive musical of all time). It was in the role of Leo that we not only first saw Wilder’s stunning comedic talent, but also the genuine heart that he would go on to lend to all of his roles, both comedic and dramatic.
Standout Scene: “My blue blanket!”
(Note: This link is pretty bad, but it’s the best one available online. Just watch the movie if you can!)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Gene Wilder returned to the Mel Brooks cinematic universe to slide into yet another sidekick role in Brooks’ Western parody Blazing Saddles. Wilder played second fiddle to leading man Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart, acting in a largely comedic role as the overtly mysterious “Waco Kid”. He treated the role with a necessary silliness, backing away from the poignancy he had exhibited in The Producers and Willy Wonka (which had been released three years prior). The role of the Kid was played as laid-back to the point of absurdity, a clear parody of the too-cool, quick-fire outlaw that had become so common in Spaghetti Westerns. The part of the Waco Kid was almost entirely comedic, but the onscreen chemistry between Wilder and Little was undeniable, bringing warmth to the otherwise over-the-top comedy.
Standout Scene: “I used to be called… the Waco Kid.”
Young Frankenstein (1974)
The third collaboration between Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein was originally conceived by Wilder himself, who brought Brooks the original screenplay to direct. Wilder gave, arguably, the performance of his life as the esteemed professor Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of the famous monster manufacturer. Again, Wilder refused to shy away from the emotional vulnerability of the role despite its comedic nature, honestly depicting Frankenstein’s frustration at being frequently associated with his madman grandfather and his temptation to create a monster of his own. Wilder’s best comedic moments came later in the film, most notably in his scenes with Madeline Kahn, who played Frankenstein’s fiancée, and Peter Boyle, who served as Wilder’s perfect comedic foil in his role as Frankenstein’s Monster.
Standout Scene: “Puttin’ on the ritz!”
Stir Crazy (1980)
Gene Wilder’s later career was characterized by his frequent collaborations with the late, great comedian Richard Pryor, with whom he starred in multiple hit comedies. Perhaps the best of these comedies was Stir Crazy, a jailhouse romp directed by Sidney Poitier. Wilder and Pryor co-starred as two friends from New York that accidentally land themselves 125-year sentences in a brutal Southwestern prison. Naturally, antics ensue as the two lightweights struggle to survive, and eventually escape, their unjust imprisonment. The banter between Wilder and Pryor elicits major laughs, and their comedic rapport is among the best in buddy-comedy history. Wilder’s movies with Pryor were among his most light-hearted, but as a result they contained some of the actor’s most unabashedly ridiculous – and wonderful – scenes.
Standout Scene: “We bad.”
One of the consummate performers of New Hollywood comedy, Gene Wilder gave audiences some of the most genuine and funny moments in cinematic history. His body of work continues to earn endless accolades, but perhaps more importantly, it still earns laughs, too.