Gene Wilder – Editorial
Sometimes I think calling an actor a comedian is almost an injustice to his or her acting ability and talent. Though there are many actors that are well versed in comedy, and there are comedians that can take a dramatic role admirably, the label of “comedian” does not adequately cover the artistry or skill with which some ply their craft. Nowhere else can one see this idea better than in the life and career of Gene Wilder.
His early film career can be used as an acting clinic. Starting with The Producers and through Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka and Young Frankenstein every one of his characters are nuanced, fleshed out and most importantly – separate and unique not only to Wilder, but to each other. So often a funny actor playing a character can be equated with the actor playing the role as himself (see Andrew “Dice” Clay or more recently Larry the Cable Guy). This is not the case with Gene Wilder. When Charlie comes to Willy Wonka’s factory he is both in awe and terrified by Wonka. The western town of Rock Ridge houses the Waco Kid, an enigmatic gunslinger who portrays much of his emotions through nods, winks and shrugs, and Frederick Frankenstein struggles with the madness of his family legacy in almost every scene. Every character has their own motivations, personalities and quirks that make them interesting in themselves – they aren’t simply a vehicle for laughs, Wilder makes them into believable examples of real people no matter how ridiculous a situation they’re in.
We, as an audience relate to his roles through the human-ness that he pours into them. That he was able to work so much comedy through these characters and not in spite of them shows Wilders’ acting chops. The scalpel scene towards the beginning of Young Frankenstein illustrates this well. Frederick gets so worked up when one of his students brings up his pedigree that he stabs himself in the leg with a scalpel while yelling about his stance against his grandfather’s ideals. We see his pain as he attempts to cover it up while he dismisses his class. The actions aren’t overly emphasized by the camera work, the action is done in one twenty-second shot with the stabbing motion and Wilder scanning the students and a five second close-up of his face for the dismissal. In this period Wilder, through his body language and eyes, runs through anger, pain, and embarrassment as though it was on a theater stage. The comedy comes only from his portrayal and character with no help from camera movement or fast cuts telling the audience what they should place their attention.
Gene Wilder’s film career is filled with memorable moments like this. To be fair, he didn’t write the entire script or all of the jokes, but his ability to play such complete parts and hit the perfect timing not only in order to make the audience laugh, but to remember a scene for years after shows what a performer he was, not only as a funny-man, but as a very talented and well-rounded actor that played so many roles so well.