Song Of The Day 8/30/2016: Gene Wilder – “Pure Imagination”

Who was the first movie star you were a fan of by name? When I was very young I knew a few actors by name because I managed to absorb them through others' conversations -- everyone knew who John Wayne, Robert Redford and Elizabeth Taylor were because they were present in the national conversation by themselves. But I didn't see any of their movies as a kid, I just knew who they were. But who was the first actor I'd actually seen in action who stuck with me enough that I became a fan of?

Now that I think of it, there may have been two for me, and they eventually crossed paths. One was Madeline Kahn who I first saw in What's Up Doc? The other was Gene Wilder.

Like you (probably) the first time I saw Wilder was in the title role of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The role didn't fit what came to be his comic persona. Wonka was, as many entrepreneurs might think they have to be, a little bonkers, with a darkness as pitch-black as Charlie Bucket's underneath the free-wheeling overlay.

But Wonka was not completely off his nut. He had a moral code, one he enforced in questionable ways, but not one you could really argue against. Wonka built a palace celebrating innocence knowing full well it was a lot harder to hold onto than it used to be. He extracted all the worst impulses humanity had to offer and brushed them aside as matters of mere custodial procedure. Wonka had no time for the nouveau greed, self-worship or technocracy. He was all set up to maintain his disappointment until the end, when the one boy with any sense of honor left  (albeit with one Fizzy-Lifting infraction) failed to let him down. At the end, for the first time, he relates to just one other person on a wholly human level. For the first nine-tenths of the film Wilder had to act removed and a little aloof, building up his untouchability until the very end, when at last he'd found a simpatico being. And then the glass elevator shot through the roof.

There was another role that didn't fit in with Wilder's mainstay comic identity: The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. The role wasn't intended for him; Mel Brooks wrote it for John Wayne (who famously, graciously declined). The movie began filming with Gig Young in the part, but alcohol withdrawals eventually led to his early dismissal. Despite Blazing Saddles being the most anarchic film he was ever in (aside from maybe Start the Revolution Without Me), The Waco Kid was probably the most mentally healthy part Wilder ever played -- not factoring in The Kid's alcoholism, which he implicitly overcomes. The Waco Kid was confident, even in his failure. He knew that after a small boy shot him in the ass, it was time to hang it up and crawl inside a bottle. Nothing less than helping to correct grievous social injustice helped him get back on track, resulting in this, my favorite extended (and partially improvised) line from any comedy movie, ever:

Wilder didn't ape any mannerisms to play The Waco Kid. He didn't change a thing about his speech patterns or dialect. He didn't sound like he was from Waco. More or less he just played himself in a gunslinger costume. That's not how Wayne or Young were likely to play it, but it's all Wilder could do on short notice. But even though his The Waco Kid was not a reliable stock character, not a second of Wilder's performance is inauthentic. The burden of sanity is on him and Cleavon Little. Except for a couple of instances where Little has to mock the inanity of the town, he and Wilder ultimately defeat the narrow-mindedness of Rock Ridge by being rational counterpoints.

That comic persona of Wilder's that I mentioned, which those two movies didn't quite reflect, was that of a person depending on pleasantries and form to get by until something sets off his neuroses -- at which point he properly detonates. That was Leo Bloom in The Producers, the doctor in Young Frankenstein, George Caldwell in Silver Streak and Skip Donahue in Stir Crazy. Wilder played that part without winking. He was categorically controlled and became categorically manic, and the larger goal of each character was to restore himself as closely as possible to the elusive compromise in the middle. You could make some point about how that lunatic range fit mainstream society in the '60s and '70s, but it's hard to imagine Wilder making that his raison d'etre. Largely because, from almost all accounts, he was very adept at keeping sane and genuine in real life.

That's ultimately why I kept watching Gene Wilder -- why there are four films, his three Brooks movies and Wonka, that I will basically watch over and over until I kick off -- because in all the crazy situations he found himself in (or, as Wonka, created), underneath there was a guy you wanted to meet. He had a gentle humanity that ran in opposition to the trappings of Hollywood, of which he was no fan. Wilder worked with characters and source feelings, not mannerisms or schtick. Those are fun too, and Wilder worked alongside many who used comic devices. But he worked the entire character arc, who sought to eke out of the other side intact. He showed a great deal of love for that confused, bewildered, threatened, Walter Mitty-esque protagonist and was just trying to get him back to safety. Eventually, he brought the audience back too, and they left in a much better mood than when they came in.

Not bad for a kid's first screen hero. So long, Gene.

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