I’m not a very visual person, and there are few faces that I can recall when I close my eyes, famous or otherwise. But Gene Wilder’s is so striking and distinctive that I can’t help seeing him when I hear his name. For one, it’s the perfect name for a man with such wild curls of hair, such bushy and expressive eyebrows, and such a slender and intense face. But above all else, I can see those eyes.
It’s always the eyes. The bluest I’ve ever seen. Some actors command screens with hands, a gentle tilt of their heads, a sag or lift of the shoulders. Gene Wilder could do all of this, and did, but above there were those eyes.
His eyes were wet, sensitive, kind, understanding one second, and with a millimeter widening, became manic. This could happen in the same movie, in the same scene, it often happened in the same moment. It’s curious, watching him in films now, to see how small they are. In my youth, they looked like planets.
Gene Wilder died a few days ago. He was 83 (and 83 is rather old), and he was sick. I’m telling myself over and over that this isn’t unexpected, but I’m having trouble not feeling that it was. There’s so much of his work I haven’t seen; there’s so much about him that I didn’t fully appreciate. I felt this way about Prince, and Bowie, and Phife Dawg, and Muhammad Ali. Artists I didn’t think much about in life, and find myself thinking about constantly in their absence. But there’s something almost impersonal about that mourning. I feel like a cog in a machine when I think about them.
It’s different with Gene Wilder. I was raised on “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” on his kind, maniacal face, on his complicated goodness. Revisiting the film, a lot of it is haphazard, and the production design has lost some luster, but he still shines. He was the film and still is. When I watch him, I feel like a kid, in terror and in awe at the world.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the boating scene, a fever-dream that remains terrifying even when, as I get older, it looks more and more like a film set. But you hear less about what I believe is the films coup-de-grace, the emotional whiplash of Charlie Bucket, making it to the end of the factory tour, only to be shouted at by Wonka. The way that Wilder hunches over his desk, his office full of half-finished desks and clocks and wallpaper, is deeply bitter and tragic. He is another adult in a world where adults fail. Then an instant, his look becomes soft, gentle. His eyes far away from the camera he whispers.
“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
A film like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is designed for children, but it’s not a kids’ movie. It’s alive with the tragedy of adulthood, the sadness, the unfairness, and the exhaustion. In that brief moment before exploding with joy, Wonka, and by association, Wilder, is all of us, looking for wonder and coming up short.
I love Willy Wonka, but there’s another Wilder film that has gotten under my skin. It’s not a very good one, fittingly racist, forgotten, and every time I mention it, I am met with skepticism and shock, but I love it all the same.
In “The Frisco Kid,” Wilder plays Avram, a polish Rabbi traveling across the California territory with an outlaw played by Harrison Ford. My father grew up with the film; he loves it and quotes it constantly, and through that it has gotten under my skin. Wilder’s Rabbi, silly, sweet, clumsy, kind, wild, has become a part of me. He’s a marvel in the film, expressing wit and wisdom on friendship and the Jewish faith in one moment, falling and flailing and rolling around in pajamas in the next. He outacts the highest-grossing actor of all time.
All I knew of him was these two performances, but I didn’t mention his bleary brilliance as Jim in “Blazing Saddles” (the delivery of “My name is Jim, but they used to call me Jim” alone), his two incredible appearances on “Will and Grace,” and his tireless fight to tell the story of his late wife, Gilda Radner, and her struggle with ovarian cancer. He lived a long life, and gifted the world a great deal.
These movies, that life and what it gave the world, is all still here. But Gene Wilder isn’t. I’m not sure how to reckon with that. But I reserve the opportunity to watch them next week, and feel bad. He was important enough to my life to merit that.