Gene Wilder’s genius was in portraying the deluded straight man

The pleasure in watching Wilder comes from seeing the crazed fool emerge from the confines of his characters’ self-repressed neurotic conformism.

While perhaps best-known for his twinkly-eyed portrayal of Willy Wonka in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder’s most notable contributions to screen comedy were the madcap eccentrics he played in Mel Brooks’ films The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – and later as a foil to Richard Pryor’s antics in a series of buddy comedies, starting with Silver Streak.

In all these films, his characters’ initial straightness and apparent sanity give way to manic eccentricity under the influence of the wild figures they collide with. The pleasure in watching Wilder comes from seeing the crazed fool gradually emerge from the confines of his characters’ self-repressed neurotic conformism.

Wilder, who has died aged 83, was never a comedian so much as a deluded straight man. Deluded because his screen characters were never as straight as they thought they were, or as they thought they ought to be. In this sense, his characters enjoyed the same kind of playful release from conventional modes of thought and behaviour that we can see operating in classic screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Wilder’s best performances are where he treads the delicate line between the crazed and the sane, never over-signalling his manic intent but suggesting a rebellious desire for liberation through the twinkle in his eyes.

Gene Wilder’s best moments on film.

This kind of restrained comic performance is illustrated especially well in Woody Allen’s 1972 sketch film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex … But Were Afraid to Ask, in which Wilder plays a doctor who falls in love with Daisy, the sheep with whom his Armenian patient is romantically obsessed. As professional detachment gives way to bestial amour fou, Wilder plays the besotted Dr Ross with restrained integrity, never over-telegraphing the situation’s comic absurdity with smirking self-awareness – which, of course, makes the segment even more hilarious.

‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex … But Were Afraid to Ask’.

Born in Wisconsin to first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants, Gene Wilder (né Jerome Silberman) began his show business career as a performer in the New York theatre, garnering positive reviews for his roles in Broadway productions One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963, with Kirk Douglas) and Jerome Robbins’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, with Anne Bancroft in the title role. More significantly for Wilder was that his role got him noticed by Bancroft’s husband, Mel Brooks.

Gene Wilder in 2007.  Caroline Bonarde Ucci, CC BY
Gene Wilder in 2007. Caroline Bonarde Ucci, CC BY

A few years later, Wilder’s career would begin flourishing when Brooks cast him alongside vaudevillian dynamo Zero Mostel in his broad and stagey bad-taste comedy, The Producers: a feature-length hyper-Jewish in-joke featuring camp, dancing Nazis that earned Wilder the first of his two Academy Award nominations (the other for co-writing Young Frankenstein with Brooks).

‘The Producers’.

Wilder managed to inject a note of endearing sweetness into the films he made with Brooks, providing some kind of refuge from the outlandish parody and old-style comedy swirling around him. But this sweetness was in itself illusory, as Wilder’s own wild side would ultimately find expression through such zany turns as his “Puttin’ on the Ritz” dance number with Peter Boyle’s Monster in Young Frankenstein, or riffing off Dean Martin’s drunken gunslinger from Rio Bravo in Blazing Saddles.

As well as collaborating with even wilder comic dynamo Richard Pryor, Wilder diversified his talents by directing as well as writing and starring in several films, including The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Younger Brother (1975). The latter, which reunited him with Young Frankenstein co-stars Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, was in the same vein as the Mel Brooks movies. In a 1975 New York Times interview, however, Wilder took pains to distinguish his style from that of Brooks:

Mel will take a shotgun with 50 pellets in it. Fifteen miss the target and another 15 hit the outside rim. Ten more hit nearer to the centre and 10 are right on the bull’s-eye. I take a high-powered rifle, a steady aim and try to hit the centre.

As he admitted to interviewer Richard Eder: “I am not a comedian … More than anything, I am an actor.” It was precisely by applying his actorly training to comedy that Wilder was able to shape his distinctive style as a performer, creating the sense that here was a funny man – a man who was funny, despite himself.

Despite trying to distance himself from Brooks, Wilder did try to establish himself as a classic Hollywood comedian – along the lines of, say, Danny Kaye of the 1940-50s era, but with a more modern sensibility – with fish-out-of-water comedies such as The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), which cast him as a meek baker with delusions of becoming a great sex symbol, and The Frisco Kid (1979), in which he played a Polish rabbi transplanted to the Wild West. Some of these solo films were successful at the time, but they have not really lasted.

As a family film, however, endlessly replayed on television and growing in stature by comparison with a less than magical Tim Burton remake, Wilder continues to captivate and find new audiences with the intrigue and eccentricity with which he imbues Willy Wonka – with just enough of the Roald Dahl darkness to haunt the imagination.

Frank Krutnik, Head of Film Studies, University of Sussex.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Advice from an ex-robber on how to keep your home safe

Tips on a more hands-on approach of keeping your house secure.

Home, a space that is entirely ours, holds together our entire world. Where our children grow-up, parents grow old and we collect a lifetime of memories, home is a feeling as much as it’s a place. So, what do you do when your home is eyed by miscreants who prowl the neighbourhood night and day, plotting to break in? Here are a few pre-emptive measures you can take to make your home safe from burglars:

1. Get inside the mind of a burglar

Before I break the lock of a home, first I bolt the doors of the neighbouring homes. So that, even if someone hears some noise, they can’t come to help.

— Som Pashar, committed nearly 100 robberies.

Burglars study the neighbourhood to keep a check on the ins and outs of residents and target homes that can be easily accessed. Understanding how the mind of a burglar works might give insights that can be used to ward off such danger. For instance, burglars judge a house by its front doors. A house with a sturdy door, secured by an alarm system or an intimidating lock, doesn’t end up on the burglar’s target list. Upgrade the locks on your doors to the latest technology to leave a strong impression.

Here are the videos of 3 reformed robbers talking about their modus operandi and what discouraged them from robbing a house, to give you some ideas on reinforcing your home.


2. Survey your house from inside out to scout out weaknesses

Whether it’s a dodgy back door, a misaligned window in your parent’s room or the easily accessible balcony of your kid’s room, identify signs of weakness in your home and fix them. Any sign of neglect can give burglars the idea that the house can be easily robbed because of lax internal security.

3. Think like Kevin McCallister from Home Alone

You don’t need to plant intricate booby traps like the ones in the Home Alone movies, but try to stay one step ahead of thieves. Keep your car keys on your bed-stand in the night so that you can activate the car alarm in case of unwanted visitors. When out on a vacation, convince the burglars that the house is not empty by using smart light bulbs that can be remotely controlled and switched on at night. Make sure that your newspapers don’t pile up in front of the main-door (a clear indication that the house is empty).

4. Protect your home from the outside

Collaborate with your neighbours to increase the lighting around your house and on the street – a well-lit neighbourhood makes it difficult for burglars to get-away, deterring them from targeting the area. Make sure that the police verification of your hired help is done and that he/she is trustworthy.

While many of us take home security for granted, it’s important to be proactive to eliminate even the slight chance of a robbery. As the above videos show, robbers come up with ingenious ways to break in to homes. So, take their advice and invest in a good set of locks to protect your doors. Godrej Locks offer a range of innovative locks that are un-pickable and un-duplicable. To secure your house, see here.

The article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Godrej Locks and not by the Scroll editorial team.