Wednesday Remembers Prince MyshkinPosted: August 31, 2016
There is a scene in the film The Producers (1968), where the character Leo Bloom…played marvelously by Gene Wilder, has a “nervous attack” when Broadway Producer Max Bialystock, the one and only Zero Mostel, touches his “blue blanket”…click the link below to see the video of the scene at TCM:
Nervous accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) and desperate producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) discuss financial chicanery and psychological nuances in an early scene from Mel Brooks’The Producers, 1967.
The line in particular I want to point out is this one…
After Leo has his hysterical fit in Max’s office and he calms down, Max says to him soothingly, “Yes, Prince Myshkin.” It’s an oblique insult, since Prince Myshkin is the title character of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
It was an obscure comment that many would have missed, had they not known who Prince Myshkin was…but if I could use it as an example of the subtle nature of Gene Wilder’s way of portraying his neurotic characters as crazy yes…but with that bit of humanity underneath.
Y’all know what I am talking about right? Maybe it is in the way he stared with those eyes, adding the sadness behind some of Hollywood’s most outrageous and hysterical characters.
There was no mistaking Mr. Wilder, even when it seemed like putting him in certain roles was a mistake. That’s why they put him there. Mopey gunslinger in “Blazing Saddles” or mad scientist in “Young Frankenstein” (both from 1974)? A 1977 parody of Rudolph Valentino’s silent-movie erotics in “The World’s Greatest Lover” (which he wrote and directed)? All miscast, all the funnier for it. All thestranger.
Mr. Wilder’s eyes were famous. They glimmered even when — in, say, “The Producers” (1968), “Blazing Saddles” or “The Woman in Red” (1984) — he looked sad, even in the black and white of “Young Frankenstein.” (Although, acting next to Marty Feldman or Zero Mostel he didn’t seem to have eyes at all.) But when he spoofed Valentino, he telegraphed the gag by enhancing the diameter of his eyes so that he looked more lunatic than lusty. And his Willy Wonka spent that chocolate factory tour quietly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. For one thing, he never seemed to blink.
Mr. Wilder also had amazing diction. It was as crisp as a potato chip, as precise as some professors and as neat as the curls in his hair were a mess. It all came together when his characters fell apart. His performance in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) was a master class of gradually shattering aplomb. Toward the end of the movie, when Wonka’s obsessive-compulsiveness overtakes him and he erupts at Charlie and his grandpa, who’ve inquired about why Charlie doesn’t win a lifetime of candy after all, Mr. Wilder’s rage struck a very young me the way “The Rite of Spring” shocked those Parisian ballet-goers in 1913. What kind of monster does this to people?
Some of that shock came from Mr. Wilder’s punching every word in Wonka’s tirade. “Wrong, sir! Wrong!” he shouts, and continues, “You stole Fizzy-Lifting Drinks! You bumped into the ceiling, which now has to be washed and sterilized, so you get … nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!”
Then, just like that, he changes his mind. Mr. Hyde goes back to being Dr. Jekyll. And Charlie wins. Mr. Wilder made the character as unstable as he could make the protagonist of a supposed kiddie movie. But that was him in a nutshell: funny at both extremes. In “Young Frankenstein,” Mr. Wilder lies atop the monster his character has created, peeved that the creature beneath him has been aroused, not subdued as he requested. “Sedagive?” he barks, referring both to an earlier joke about a sedative and the current situation, and turning each syllable into a note of aggravated disbelief.
There are many great comic movie actors, and all of them have that thing called timing, but while many of them make it look easy, few of them make it look as natural as Wilder did. True, his characters were often outsized and manic, but they were grounded maniacs — you always knew each of them had a very good reason for his fits. When Leo Bloom in The Producers does that weird gibberish over the loss of his blue blanky — “ungh nuhngnuhngnuhng, ungh nuhngnuhngnuhng” — it’s not just crazy nutso shtick; you really feel the loss of that blue blanky and want him to get it back. (How awful Max Bialystock would have seemed if he didn’t give it back!) I love Jack Lemmon, but great as he is I think he wouldn’t have elicited the same feeling in that role; Lemmon, when manic, was clearly operating somewhere above the normal spectrum of human behavior (“Security!“). Wilder, on the other hand, made even his most outre behavior look perfectly normal. He was perfect for the post-psychedelic era; he made you comfortable with psychological wreckage.
Yet he could also surprise you with the unexpectedness of his readings. I’m not just talking about oddities like “Stop, don’t, come back,” but his offbeat way of realizing classic comic builds. Look at the “do not open that door” scene, rendered below: the payoff would probably be funny no matter what, but the absurdly inappropriate mildness of “let me out, let me out of here, get me the hell out of here” just kills me every time. He constantly gave you something fresh, yet after the initial shock it usually made perfect sense. For a performer, that’s not too bad a definition of genius.
The sad news that Gene Wilder passed a few days ago from complications from Alzheimer disease was very upsetting to me, his films and performances have peppered happy moments of my life.
Wilder’s work with Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen and more made him one of the comedy titans of his generation.
Gene Wilder was the Mad Hatter of American screen comedy. He could make you laugh without even moving, his beatific half-smile always shading into a sinister smirk, his soft-spoken manner a flimsy mask for the whirling maelstrom of mischief beneath. With his radiant blue eyes, explosion of frizzy hair and otherworldly demeanor, Wilder was an unsettling clown and an unlikely leading man. But his offbeat energy helped create some of the greatest screen comedies, and biggest box-office hits, of his generation.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee in 1933 to a Russian-Jewish immigrant father and a sickly mother who sometimes mistreated him, the young Wilder was bullied for being Jewish by other kids. As a young man, he did two years of military service in the psychiatry department of a U.S. army hospital, later spending many years in analysis working on his deep-seated feelings of guilt, shame and sexual repression. For a Jewish-American comedian, of course, there is no finer apprenticeship; Wilder certainly always laced his finest comic performances with an undercurrent of anguish. Tellingly, he cited Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights as a key inspiration because “it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time.”
Initially making his mark on Broadway, Wilder first registered on Hollywood’s radar with his small but scene-stealing appearance in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), all nervy intensity and deadpan mirth. His big break came a year later when Mel Brooks cast him in The Producers (1968) as Leo Bloom, the seethingly neurotic accountant recruited by Irenas bookkeeping services employed by Zero Mostel’s crooked Broadway operator Max Bialystock for a money-making scam reliant on the surefire failure of a tasteless stage musical about Hitler. Where Mostel is a wrecking ball of crazed energy on screen, Wilder balances him with Zen-like minimalism, despite the mounting panic in his eyes. The film earned him his first Academy Award nomination and cemented his star status.
Wilder’s fruitful creative partnership with Brooks led to two further collaborations. In the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles (1972), he provides the zany plot’s calm emotional center as The Waco Kid, a legendary gunslinger with a surprisingly philosophical manner: “I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille,” he sighs ruefully. Two years later, in the affectionate monochrome vintage-horror pastiche Young Frankenstein (1974), Wilder stars as a hapless descendant of cinema’s most infamous mad scientist, wittily blending vaudevillian shtick with stylized Expressionist mannerisms. It was conceived by Wilder, and Young Frankenstein earned him a second Oscar nod, this time as co-writer with Brooks.
Wilder and Brooks brought out the best in each other, and each of their filmographies would be unthinkable without the other. But the eccentric star’s most memorable screen incarnation was in a non-Brooks project as the eponymous confectionery tycoon in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Director Mel Stuart’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s deliciously nasty children’s book was a box-office flop, but it is now firmly established as a beloved cult classic.
Wilder’s multilayered performance as Wonka — by turns menacing and playful, stern and tender, creepy and compassionate — is a master class in darkly surreal humor that set a new bar for generations of Batman and James Bond villains. Even today, it continues to resonate through remakes, musical tributes and an ever-evolving social-media meme featuring Wilder grinning manically in full mad-hatter mode.
The obituary continues, talking about his roles with Richard Pryor, and his wife Gilda Radner…
After undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the turn of the millennium, Wilder mostly stayed away from acting in his autumn years. With his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, he preferred to busy himself with charity work, painting and writing comic novels. More recently, as he succumbed to the Alzheimer’s that would eventually hasten his death, he preferred to keep his illness hidden from the public. This was because, as his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman explains, “he simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
As the news of his death spreads, everyone will think of his or her favorite insane-slow-burn Gene Wilder moment. The late Pauline Kael mentioned a quintessential one, the bit in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970) in which Wilder (as a haughty aristocrat) is informed that the noble bird on his shoulder is, in fact, dead. Wilder fixes the upstart with his laser-blue stare and says, with that eerie calm-that’s-being-slowly-strangled-to-death-by-escalating rage, “Repeat that.”
My own favorite is in Young Frankenstein (1974), which Wilder conceived and co-wrote with Mel Brooks. Here, with elaborate patience, Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein poses the question to Marty Feldman’s Igor: What brain did the hunchback steal for the inexplicably brutal creature? “You won’t be mad?” asks Igor. “I. Will. Not. Be Mad.” By the time we hear, “Abby someone,” and the gentle but quivering, “Abby — who?” we are ready — eager — for the murderous explosion to come. No one built as exquisitely as Wilder from the genial, the gentle, the hopeful, to violent, no-holds-barred hysteria. At those moments, Wilder was unique — a genius.
From whence did this persona come? Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee in 1933, Wilder spent much of his childhood as the object of anti-Semitic bullying, which was likely how he learned to keep his feelings under wraps while nursing an imagination of disaster. Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio compelled (coerced, bullied) him to tap into his dark side, but — unlike many Studio grads — Wilder used that newfound ability carefully, almost warily. In repose, he could be mistaken for a mild, Stan Laurel sidekick — and he was just that, in outline, opposite Zero Mostel’s Oliver Hardy in Brooks’s The Producers (1968). But there was always something seething underneath. As Willy Wonka in the clunky but fondly remembered Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wilder made Roald Dahl’s sadism more family-friendly. But he still suggested — in the immortal phrase of “J.J. Hunsecker” — “a cookie full of arsenic.”
With his sympathy for the freaky outcast (nurtured by psychoanalysis), Wilder created Young Frankenstein, the rare parody that was also an act of celebration — of both the work being parodied and the originalFrankenstein myth. It was the apex of Wilder’s and Brooks’s series of collaborations, a succession of highs with almost no lows. When the two parted ways, both lost something. Wilder had a sentimental streak and a longing to be a “straight” romantic lead that led to vehicles like the weirdly flat The World’s Greatest Lover and the dire The Woman in Red. (Poor directing did in his attempt to do a Brooks-like parody with Feldman inThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother.) Brooks, who liked to cut the foreplay and jump right to hysteria, needed Wilder’s discipline and the grounding in psychological reality that came from Wilder’s Method training.
Wilder’s financial windfall came from his screen partnership with Richard Pryor, beginning with the blockbuster Silver Streak (1976), in which he was a passable romantic lead and, for a few moments, had something wonderfully jazzy going with Pryor. As a stereotypical ungainly white man, Wilder was a great foil for his edgy, African-American co-star. But in subsequent vehicles, Pryor lost that edge, and cocaine abuse addled his timing. And then there was Gilda Radner, Wilder’s third wife and the second woman in his life (the other was his mother) to die of ovarian cancer at a tragically young age. It was a love story offscreen, but onscreen with Radner he was perhaps too gentle. The madness had receded.
Rather than fight a business he no longer enjoyed, Wilder left the field — another tragedy, since he might have shifted into character parts the way other clowns with acting chops (Robin Williams, Albert Brooks) did. But he never abased himself, never betrayed his gifts, never sold his profession short. From his home in Connecticut, where he lived with his fourth wife, he wrote an upbeat memoir and several novels before Alzheimer’s took him.
His death will have the effect of sending us back to his work. You can savor his brief turn in Bonnie and Clyde, in which his high-strung conviviality exists astride a grave, and he freaks out Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker. His scenes with Mostel in The Producers are classics, although the two didn’t rekindle the magic in the little-remembered American Film Theater production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. (It’s still worth a look to see Mostel transform into a rhinoceros in one of the roles that made him, onstage, a legend.) Blazing Saddles looms large, although as good as Cleavon Little is, the movie would have taken off into the stratosphere if Brooks had succeeded in casting Pryor in his prime. (The studio was too frightened of Pryor back then.)
Above all, re-watch Young Frankenstein, and learn. Watch Wilder be convulsively funny while serving as the straight man. Watch him lovingly yield the spotlight to the boisterous Feldman, the soulful Peter Boyle, the exquisitely tremulous Teri Garr, and the incomparably insouciant Madeline Kahn, among many others. With its emphasis on self-plumbing, the Method could produce actors too much in their own heads, but Wilder could go deep into himself and still be the greatest audience imaginable for his fellow clowns. That’s what lingers today. To be able to court madness in oneself while giving others a safe space to let their own creative spirits rip — that’s akin in comedy to saintliness.
There are many links I have for you that you may like to read about Gene Wilder:
Hullabaloo – Surely, he’s joking: R.I.P. Gene Wilder By Dennis Hartley
I guess I must have been in shock.
When I received a text from Digby asking if I’d heard about Gene Wilder, I steeled myself and immediately queried Mr. Google. There it was. But I refused to believe it. This just couldn’t be. That’s when I began a one-sided argument with my, erm…laptop:
“Wait a minute. Gene Wilder is no longer with us? Are you saying, he is no longer with us? Is that what you’re telling me, that Gene Wilder…is no longer here? No longer here. He was here, but now, he is not? IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO TELL ME?!”
Sorry, but people that talented, that funny, are simply not allowed to just up and leave us.
No, they do not just up and leave us, Wilder has left us a treasure trove of film to remember him…Where You Can Watch Gene Wilder Movies on Demand — Vulture
While discussing the sad news of Gene Wilder’s passing today it became abundantly clear that everyone has their own treasured connection to the legendary comedic actor, so we asked some of our writers to share what it is about Wilder’s roles that stood out for them.
Leachman remembers how he kept cracking up during one scene in the iconic film in which she played Frau Blücher. Wilder said Young Frankenstein was his favorite film, and you can see from the blooper reel below how much fun they all had on set. Brooks has said in the past that Blücher translates to a horse going to a factory and being turned to glue, hence the horses neighing loudly every time her character’s name was mentioned.
“I remember when we were shooting Young Frankenstein there was a scene where I had to get the group up the stairs immediately. I had to say, ‘Shtay close to zee candles’ and turn toward him. As I turned around I could see his face was in two pieces. We had to do our scene 14 times over because he’d be laughing so hard. Alas, alas. So dear Gene, I vill say, ‘Goodnight.’”
Comedy legend Mel Brooks paid tribute to the late Gene Wilder Tuesday on The Tonight Show. “He was sick, and I knew it,” Brooks said. “And he was such a dear friend. I expected that he would go, but when it happens, it’s still tremendous. It’s a big shock. I’m still reeling from … no more Gene. I can’t call him. He was such a wonderful part of my life.”
“I met him when my late wife Anne Bancroft was doingMother Courage, a Bertolt Brecht play, and Gene was in it,” he said. “He was the chaplain. He came backstage, and I got to know him a little bit. The chaplain is a great part – it’s sad and funny. It’s touching, and it can be amusing. So he said, ‘Why are they always laughing at me?’ I said, ‘Look in the mirror – blame it on God.’
“We became very good friends, and I told him about Leo Bloom in the thing I was writing called The Producers,” he continued. “And I said, ‘Look, I’m promising you: When we get the money, you are gonna be Leo Bloom.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, when you get the money. You’re doing a play about two Jews who are producing a flop instead of a hit, knowing they can make more money with a flop. And the big number in it is ‘Springtime for Hitler.’ Yeah, you’re gonna get the money!”
Brooks said, after securing the funding, he surprised Wilder backstage after another play and told the emotional actor the news. “He was taking off his make-up in his dressing room,” he said. “I took the script, and I said, ‘Gene, we got the money. We’re gonna make the movie. You are Leo Bloom.’ And I threw it on his make-up table. And he burst into tears and held his face and cried. And then I hugged him. It was a wonderful moment.”
Be sure to click on those photo galleries…
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