I'm not sure I have anything to say about Gene Wilder that’s remarkably different than the tributes that are already floating around out there. I’m inclined to post the same clips as everyone else, especially the “Abby Normal” scene, which feels, to me, like the best and purest distillation of his voice. But I would feel remiss if I didn’t say at least something, because Gene Wilder really meant a lot to me, and his loss left a palpable hole in my chest, the way only a few other celebrity deaths have.
The deaths of Wilder and Stanley Kubrick and David Foster Wallace and John Hughes and Philip Seymour Hoffman, to name the first few that come to mind, really made my shoulders slump, and took the wind out of me. They hurt.
This is not to say I wasn’t affected by the deaths of - again, picking at random - Robin Williams or Prince or David Bowie. Those sucked too. But I saw in the outpourings on Facebook re: Williams/Prince/Bowie the kind of deeply personal connections that I just didn’t have with those guys.
I did have it with Wilder. I really do feel like a part of me has moved on.
I can do a pretty decent Gene Wilder impression. My good friends Brian and Brad and I greet each other every summer with primal-Wilder screams - “MY GRANDFATHER'S WORK WAS DOO-DOO!" I love doing a Wilder impression not only because I think he’s so funny, but because I secretly think I do him kind of well.
[NOTE: pardon me while I drama-geek-out for a moment - you've been warned.]
In the Poetics, Aristotle talks about the importance of something called tekhne to the craft of playwriting. Tekhne means “imitation” - the ability of the writer to successfully imitate the voices of the characters he's writing. Aristotle says as a general matter the better the tekhne, the more enjoyable the play (although other variables also factor in).
Imitation gets kind of a bad rap in our culture. It's often seen as a lesser craft; the Rich Littles of the world are never trotted out at the Oscars. And actors like Jim Carrey are only “taken seriously” when they stop doing imitations, and start creating original characters.
But the truth is people LOVE imitations. Not just hearing a good one, but doing a good one. And on a deeper level, I think that when we’re really immersed in a movie/play/show, we’re imitating the characters we see onscreen. It’s all unconscious, but I think that’s the core process at work when we find a movie to be either “believable” or “unrealistic.” When we’re able to completely lose ourselves in a film, we’re unconsciously imitating the characters as they go - checking their voices against our own, making sure we're in sync. The best movies are able to keep us locked within their characters every step of the way. In spite of the obstacles they encounter, their characters and voices never throw us off the rails.
The core of Gene Wilder's genius was to see how far we could stretch ourselves while staying completely immersed within his characters. If you’ve been reading the Wilder tributes that have been popping up this week, you've seen that Wilder always considered himself an actor first - not a comedian. He never lost his empathy and understanding for the characters he was playing.
That’s when he uncorked his secret weapon: his hysteria. Wilder's hysteria isn't just the best hysteria ever captured on film - it's one of the greatest comic weapons ever deployed by anyone, ever. As Pauline Kael wrote, "As a hysteric, he’s funnier even than Peter Sellers. For Sellers, hysteria is just one more weapon in his comic arsenal—his hysteria mocks hysteria—but Wilder’s hysteria seems perfectly natural."
In other words, when Wilder went crazy, it was real. Anchoring us inside his characters - holding us captive, in a sense - his hysteria proceeded to take us on a roller-coaster ride, shaking us to the roots. It was the emotional equivalent of the Hulk swatting Loki like a rubber chicken in the first Avengers movie - one of the hardest laughs I’ve had in a movie theater in the past ten years.
Gene Wilder took you on those roller coaster rides a few times in every movie - though, for my money, never more perfectly than in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. His slow burn in EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX is amazing, and his bit in THE PRODUCERS made him a star, but YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was his apex. It represented the farthest he could take us, and the hardest he could shake us, without allowing us to let go.
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