Saturday, September 10, 2016

Wishing a Final Farewell to the Waco Kid

Immortalized by perhaps his most iconic role as Willy Wonka in the 1971 classic Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder was known and beloved by generations of movie-goers, whether they knew his name or not. He was a singular comedic talent, and his death on August 29, 2016, was a particularly poignant loss. I must admit here (somewhat sheepishly) that a few years back I assumed that since I hadn't seen him in anything for a while that he was already dead, but it turns out he had consciously taken a step back from the Hollywood scene, and then in recent years he was out of the public eye most likely due to his battle with Alzheimer's.

Myself, I was never a real fan of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. It was wacky, and Gene Wilder owned the shit out of that role and was the single reason the character of Willy Wonka became so iconic in the first place, but it never sat right with me. It was filled with terrible characters doing terrible things to each other wrapped up in a terrible message, which wouldn't be so bad if Willy Wonka wasn't specifically trying to impart a moral to its intended young audiences, as children's movies tend to do, much to the detriment of society at large. 

The character of Willy Wonka himself, despite the charm that Gened Wilder brought to the role, was something of a sociopath, with no regard for the children that were terribly maimed / disfigured / traumatized in his hellish slave enclave of a factory. Willy Wonka's obvious mental health issues are perhaps best exemplified in the what I assume to be infamous boat tunnel scene, where Wonka takes his guests, half of which are young children, on a sort of collective acid trip of a ride and ends up literally raving like a madman about hell and the grim reaper. While even as an adult, this scene is still the stuff of nightmares and will to this day force me to have to turn on all the lights in order to make it upstairs to bed if I watch it at night, it's also the most memorable part of the movie for me. And there's one very good if somewhat strange reason for that.

I love to hear Gene Wilder yell.

It's perhaps one of my favourite cinematic experiences. To me, no one can fucking yell like Gene Wilder. Whenever he yelled, he was like a man possessed. There was a reservoir of manic energy that he could draw from and channel in a way that was uniquely his. Al Pacino can yell with the best of them, but as entertaining as he is, it's also scary as shit. There was an urgency to the way Gene Wilder yelled, but there was never anything threatening about it. There were no sharp edges. There was always a warmth to it. Whether it's his screaming about somebody else touching his blue baby blanket or begging someone to open the door so he could escape from the grasp of horrific monster, there will always be something infinitely entertaining to me about Gene Wilder's crazed voice reaching out through the TV and not letting go of my attention for a second.

Perhaps it's also strange that despite my proclivity for his slightly derranged howling, my favourite role of Wilder's is Jim AKA the Waco Kid in Mel Brooks' seminal comedy Blazing Saddles, which features virtually no yelling on his part at all. I didn't realize this until I caught word about Wilder's death while sitting around a campfire a few weekends ago courtesy of a strong wi-fi connection and a friend who somehow still couldn't overcome the allure of a strong Internet connection even with the allure of perhaps the strongest connection to nature most Modern Men will ever know (a draw to which I completely sympathize). I'd always liked his turn in the Mel Brooks classic library, including the greats Young Frankenstein and The Producers. In fact, I mightn't have come to discover The Producers until much later--if at all-- were it not for the allure of Gene Wilder.

But when really forced to think about it, I think that his turn in Blazing Saddles will always be my favourite outing with Gene Wilder. I think not only because of his nuanced performance, which was evident in all of his work (yes, he even managed to give some depth to the maniac, Willy Wonka), but also because of the sort of quiet strength he had on display. As a straight man (in the comedic sense) in Blazing Saddles, Wilder imbued the Waco Kid with somber sense of world weariness and a mental toughness based on the fact that "Yes son, I have seen some shit." Coupled with that was a sort of winking playfulness that could endear him to the most hardened of hearts. There was a sweetness and an earnestness about Gene Wilder that couldn't help but shine through, even through his wildest onscreen displays of hysterics.

Gene Wilder was a man of singular talent, and I will forever cherish those films he left us that created an indelible mark on my psyche from a young age, and will continue to entertain me I'm sure until the end of my own days. And for that, I will always be grateful. Thanks for the memories, Gene. You'll be missed.


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