Gene Wilder's Secret

Good comedians hide secrets in their eyes, and the secret in Gene Wilder's eyes was that he loved you very much. Even if he wanted to kill you. Even if he wanted to strangle you for cooking the books, demanding more candy or stealing an abnormal brain.

Gene Wilder was unafraid of love.

That's not to say he was a romantic. There was nothing sentimental (in the sense of treacly, unearned emotion) about Wilder's discomfortingly open-hearted performances.

There was--there's no other way to say it--a spiritual quality to the way Wilder's eyes seemed to recognize the humanity in other people--even people he was in the midst of throttling.

It was a quality possessed by none of the mother-in-law-skewering performers who were famous when he became a star, with his asthmatic tour de force in Mel Brooks' The Producers.
Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, even Wilder's costar in The Producers, the great Zero Mostel, were purveyors of antic meanness--often at their own expense--but meanness nonetheless. Audiences laughed at them out of a feeling of superiority. Wilder invited audiences to laugh not at him, or any person, but at the difficulty of being a person, at the ridiculous nobility of yearning for love in the face of indifference, safety in the face of danger, and life in the face of death.

The moment for his brand of humane comedy was brief, but Wilder's best films: The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and his two underrated collaborations with Richard Pryor, Stir Crazy and Silver Streak, hold up in a way that other comedies of the era just don't. As funny as the performances are in, say, Ghostbusters or Stripes, no one would ever accuse them of being moving in the unsettling manner Wilder's could be.

While other comics mined laughs from the wary distance they opened between themselves and mortals for whom things matter, Wilder closed that gap with the urgency of someone whose knowledge of his own mortality made other people, and the banal interactions of every day life, matter more to him, not less.

Comedians who keep their characters at arm's length have a way of pleading for an audience's affections, but Wilder had eyes only for Wonka, or Frankenstein, or the Waco Kid. He had no interest in wether you liked his sometimes monstrous characters or not, but he insisted that you love them, in something close to the religious sense of the word. Wilder's movies may not have afforded the vicarious comic thrills of an Animal House or Beverly Hills Cop, but they provided an experience that was both darker and more joyful.

Audiences didn't watch Gene Wilder movies to imagine themselves pranking the Dean Wormers of the world, they mocked the world that warped them. (You can even imagine Wilder playing Dean Wormer, in an inverted Animal House universe where the eccentricities of a bitter academic are the result of a thwarted desire to, I don't know--build an enormous, tweed-jacket museum or something.)

Where Bill Murray smirked at the notion of caring, Wilder made delirious fanaticism funny. Where Belushi upset apple carts, Wilder lamented the evanescence of apples, admired them to the point of obsession, haggled over them to the point of death threats, then invited the apple seller over for tea.

Gene Wilder took his comedy seriously.

As the dissolute Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, Wilder tells Cleavon Little's Sheriff Bart the story of how he came to quit the gunslinging business, with all the genuine emotion Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper would have given to the scene in a dramatic film. He processes the memory--of yet another challenger shouting "reach for it, mister"--as he recounts it, tearing up at the story's climax, the moment when he "found (him)self face to face with an eight year old kid." With a sigh of excruciating recognition at what he's become, he tells Bart that he simply dropped his guns, turned on his heels, and walked away. Then after a brief, painful pause, he delivers the kicker: "Little bastard shot me in the ass!"

I can't imagine any other actor pulling that moment off.

Wilder doesn't just make it funny, he does so without deflecting the emotional truth of the scene in any way. He sends the moment up by playing it completely straight. He brings the funny by bringing the feeling. He doesn't mug, he doesn't wink at the audience, he doesn't give us the dead-eyed, ironic detachment so many other comics would bring to the scene. He gives tenderness. He gives us a lifetime of pain. He gives us urgency, immediacy and truth. He gives us love.