Couldn’t have been Wilder
Right now, I’m sick in bed and I usually spend this time just trying to plan out my week and what I’ll do when I’m better. It’s a hopeful, if ambitious, way to past the time between filling tissues, taking meds and annoying my girlfriend.
This sick day started a bit more obtuse than usual. My girlfriend woke up before I did and informed me Gene Wilder was dead. It was literally the worst thing to wake up to this morning, outside of hearing a close friend or family member passing away.
Blazing Saddles is on in the background right now as I write this. I often write with media on in the background. It helps me keep focused. It’s not my favourite Gene Wilder film, but it’s one of the greatest comedies ever made. It’s honest, it’s brutal, it’d ridiculous and it’s a product of it’s time. Reflective of racial prejudice in modern America (both 1974 and the Old West) and Brooks does not waste a second for a joke.
The way Wilder is introduced, nearly 30 minutes into the film, upside down, drunk and asking if the new sheriff is Black, is genius. Wilder is the archetypical retired old gun, but still progressive. The whole film is progressive as hell and I’ve heard so many times that there is no way it’d get made today, even though some people have tried.
I’m prattling on more about Blazing Saddles than Wilder, because I don’t want to believe he’s gone. He was an icon to me. I used to have a Christmas routine of watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory every Christmas morning to waste time before my family got up. It was a perfect movie for Christmas. It’s about waiting and want and expectations and honesty and the beauty of it all. It’s what Christmas is all about to me. It’s that perfect day of the year where I can be as excited and happy as I truly want to be.
When I was younger I said I wanted to be an actor because of Gene Wilder. A man who flipped from chaos to calming perfection at the drop of the hat. He was great as a second banana and a leading man. He was as neurotic as Woody Allen but with a calmer wit. He was a man who could deliver a line with such poise and honesty that you for get it’s an act. You get sucked into his character so easily because you believe he is that person. You believe he is as human as the words he speaks.
When I grew older and learnt that Wilder was a writer and was nominated for his work, I wanted to become a screenwriter AND an actor. So I started to write, every single day in primary school and high school. I filled a crummy blue work book. I filled it with characters and backstories and scripts and even drew the map of a city for a rip-off Pulp Fiction I was working on.
I ended up giving up acting when I realised I wasn’t learning anything new and that I didn’t have the skills above learning lines and shouting dialogue. I was literally the worst actor. I would corpse on stage when a line was too funny and I would get upset when others would forget their lines. It was awful. I apologise to anyone who has ever seen me act. I truly am sorry. I wasted your time. The other people in the play were good though.
I still kept pursuing writing though. I wrote a series of plays at University, a short film and now I write scripts in my spare time and try and do stand up when I can. I thought of Wilder when things got tough, I would revisit his scripts and his films and his autobiography. The way he presented comedy as the every man in his writing and his acting always made me feel at ease. I struggled a lot with talking with people my whole life, whether through anxiety or miscommunication or just being frustrated with everyday life.
It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve started to get over it and try to connect with people. It’s confronting and overwhelming but it’s made me a better person just talking with more and more people.
We all struggle with communication. Every single day. A lot of his films embrace this disconnection and how we make the best of a bad situation. Blazing Saddles (race relations), Silver Streak (misidentifying), Stir Crazy (wrongly convicted), Another You (lying), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (missing senses) Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (uhhh) and even his short-lived sitcom, Something Wilder (being honest with your neighbours), all showed how funny that miscommunication can be and how we always try and fix it, even if we make it worse for ourselves.
He showed, it’s okay to be passionate and that it needs to come through how we speak with people. It’s a part of being honest. But everyone takes it differently; sometime great, sometimes not what we were expecting. It’s how we connect and it’s amazing and it’s how we learn.
Now at 25, I say I just want to be me, because of Wilder. He dealt with so much tragedy and still remained happy and creative. First his mother, then Gilda and now we deal with his tragedy in the way he did. We let go. We have to. We believe that genius sometimes gets tossed around in the wash of life, but it doesn’t fade. It doesn’t run. It gets molded. It gets changed over time, sure, but someone like Wilder will be watched by generations as Willy Wonka or as the Waco Kid or one of my favourite characters, George Caldwell from the Silver Streak. He is going to be the hardest to let go though, for me, at least.
But I do hope when we let go, we still remember him as the funny, kind, blue-eyed soul he was. If you find a copy of Kiss Me Like a Stranger, I highly recommend reading it.
I would also highly suggest reading Ben Pobjie’s post about Gene, who is a better and faster writer. I started writing this in the time he wrote, edited and finished his. Read it here: https://medium.com/@benpobjie/gene-1c567fd11e73#.446ubmfwe
Sleep well, Jerome. You were one of the funniest people who ever worked this earth and we will miss you.