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​The Rowers Keep on Rowing: In Memory of Gene Wilder

The "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" star passed away today, aged 83.

There were certain films that always seemed to be on Australian TV in the 1990s—that popped up like recurring dreams. Forrest Gump, Heart and Souls, Kindergarten Cop, Twins, True Lies. A lot of Arnie, I guess. But the one movie that came on every six months or so, and would have me running down the hall and plopping in front of the TV, was the 1971 musical-comedy Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.


There was something about that film—it was unlike anything else—it's gaudy sets and fat little children spoke to me on an atavistic level. And at the centre of it all was this phantasm: Willy Wonka himself, literally rolling onto screen, played by this impish jitter of a man who was suitably named Gene Wilder.

Wilder's electric weirdness struck a deep chord within my child self. His sing-song hyper-rapid talking; his candy-floss hair, a bolt from the blue: this guy was so weird, but so magnetic, so intoxicating—this guy was making freakdom cool.

And so began a lifelong obsession.

How do you pin Wilder? He always seemed like a man adjacent to time. He was simultaneously a vaudeville throwback, and a startlingly post-modern anomaly. He was a rare cinematic performer, in that in whatever you were watching him in it seemed as though you were witnessing him live—that he'd brought you in on a coy secret. When he turned to the camera to wink, you felt as though it was for you and you alone.

That is a rare kind of magic.

Gene Wilder inYoung Frankenstein, via YouTube

Every one of Wilder's major performances was richly empathic. I can't think of a comic actor who could match his deft touch. I remember renting Young Frankenstein from Jumbo Video, watching it for the first time, and thinking: You can do this? This is a thing that can be done!?

It changed everything for me, as a comic and as a weirdo.

Wilder's characters were neurotics who remained deeply likeable. His little flashes of minstrelsy and Marx brothers ticks took what would have otherwise been two dimensional comic foils, and elevated them to this high plane of enduring beatitude.


Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles, via YouTube

The Jewish gunslinger in Blazing Saddles would have been a one note pastiche in the hands of any other actor but Wilder made something entirely new—comic relief as implantable avatar, the dour clown as a projection of insecurities, doubts, and grievances. All that while also being hysterically, gut-bustingly funny.

As a kid, dreaming of comic glory, I would study Wilder for hours on end. A great comedian is a magician who can hide the strings, and Wilder's were all but invisible. Have you ever really sat and thought about the devilish minutia in his performances?

Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, via YouTube

Think of that nanosecond where Wonka takes the kids into the chocolate room, and just half a beat after he begins his whimsical song he whips his cane back over them, threateningly, and then he seamlessly glides back into this glittering elevated tone of wonder and awe. Wilder makes those dips and slides with such startling confluence, such malleability. It's no wonder he pulls off Wonka so well, like the candy baron he seems beyond human, something else, distilled wonder.

I think the reason Wilder gets overlooked in the great critical narrative of cinema is because there's really no one like him—there's no one who can land a lightning strike with such a soft touch.

Think of the bizarre dynamism of his films with Richard Pryor. Two very different comic sensibilities, Pryor's comedy coming from deep personal hurt, Wilder's coming from innate kindness. The subversive genius of buddy films like Stir Crazy are driven by this compacted chemistry—these slapstick yin and yang that meet in a deep belly laugh. It's high mysticism—I wonder how mad it was to have two disparate spirits joined by their genius juggling a relationship that will probably never be seen on film again.


In his bit "penitentiary" Pryor recalls he and Wilder visiting a maximum security prison as research for their film, and their wildly different reaction: Pryor basically being scared shitless, and Gene Wilder yucking it up with rapists and multiple-murderers, boyishly asking Pryor, "Gee Rich, what do you think they'd do if we were in here?" To which Pryor responds dryly, "FUCK US."

That was the magic of Wilder. That sparkling otherness that he carried through all of his films that made you feel like you were flying up in a glass elevator – it was part of the man, he could bring it to the chocolate factory or Arizona state penitentiary. Pure imagination.

His characters were weirdos, outsiders, eccentrics, malcontents, shit-stirrers, con-artists, and charmers. He imbued "otherness" with what I can only doggedly keep calling "magic."

I remember the feeling so well: I remember watching Willy Wonka once a year and that same wave of acceptance that washed over me as he glided down those stairs weaving ever so slightly to those bizarre chimes. When he declared the snozzberries tasted like snozzberries, your tongue tingled with the made-up flavour.

Gene Wilder was the weird kids' champion. Even if you stole fizzy lifting drink, even if you were a fuck-up, if you ballsed up and owned it, the entire Chocolate Factory could be yours.

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