The Books: “Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art” (Gene Wilder)

115327__kissmelikeastranger_l.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:

Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, by Gene Wilder

There’s a magic about Gene Wilder. It is hard to describe or pin down, and maybe that’s the biggest part of the magic: it can’t really be expressed. He came and talked at my school and the man is truly riveting in person, but it’s odd the impression he has: he gets laughs where you can’t believe there’s a laugh. Or he would say something serious, deeply serious, in such an amusing way that we would all burst into laughter – and he said at one point, “This always happens to me. I wasn’t trying to be funny right there!” He’s funniest when he is most serious. If you think about his best parts – it’s not a manic funny energy that he has – it is a desperately serious energy, and when he’s in a movie that is worthy of him, like The Producers or Young Frankenstein or all the movies he did with Richard Pryor … it’s pretty near genius. Because not once do you think that what this guy is going through is not serious and real to him. It is so so funny, and yet – the character may as well be in King Lear, that’s how high the stakes are.

His book has a little bit too much therapy in it for my taste – and you can tell from the title the sort of book it will be … but in terms of the choice anecdotes, the moments that make up a good career – he has no equal. For instance, my favorite, when he was basically accosted by Cary Grant:

Silver Streak was a big hit and was chosen as the Royal Performance for the queen of England and the royal family. I couldn’t go to London because I was filming The World’s Greatest Love at the time, but a month later, when Prince Charles came to visit 20th-Century Fox, I was invited to attend a luncheon in his honor, to be held in the Fox commissary.

As I was walking along the small street that leads from the office buildings to the commissary, a taxi pulled up and I heard someone shouting, “Oh, Mr. Wilder! … Mr. Wilder!” I turned and saw Cary Grant stepping out of the taxi. My heart started pounding a little faster, but I didn’t throw up this time, as I did when I met Simone Signoret. Cary Grant walked up to me, and after we shook hands, he said, “I was sailing on the QEII to England with my daughter, and on the second day out she said, ‘Dad-dy, I want to see the Silver Streak — they’re showing it in the Entertainment Room.’ And I said, ‘No, darling, I don’t go to movies in public.’ And she said, ‘Dad-dy, Dad-dy, please – I want to see the Silver Streak.’ So I took her to see your film. And then we saw it again the next day, and the next. Tell me something, will you?”

“Of course.”

“Was your film in any way inspired by North by Northwest?”

“Absolutely! Collin Higgins, who wrote the film, loved North by Northwest. It was one of his favorites. I think he was trying to do his version of it.”

“I thought so,” Mr. Grant said. “It never fails! You take an ordinary chap like you or me … (An ordinary chap like you or me? Didn’t he ever see a Cary Grant movie?) … put him in trouble way over his head, and then watch him try to squirm out of it. Never fails!”

That makes me LAUGH. Cary Grant comparing himself to Gene Wilder – as though they would ever be cast in the same roles. An ordinary chap!! Beautiful!

I think, too, that there is a deep and lonely sadness about Gene Wilder, which sets him apart from most other mainly comic actors. And again, when he is allowed to tap into that in his roles – even if it comes out in a funny way – it’s marvelous. He’s one of my all-time favorites. I basically just love him.

He was dominated by his mother as a child, and he never felt he could express anger. Ever. (Like I mentioned: lots of therapy in the book.) But what he could do was make his mother laugh. It became his entire reason for living. Interestingly enough, he started out in New York studying at the Actors Studio, with so many others … and he started to get bit parts in shows, where he always made some kind of impression. I mean, honestly, is there any one like Gene Wilder? I guess you could say he is a “type” but the personality beneath the type is 100% original. He got noticed.

Arthur Penn, a bigwig at the Actors Studio, was filming Bonnie and Clyde and he asked Wilder to do the small (but my God memorable) part of the undertaker who is kidnapped by Bonnie and Clyde, et al. To me, that scene still packs a punch. Isn’t he awesome? It was his first movie.

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Wilder talks about his experience on Bonnie and Clyde in the book. One of the things I really love about the book is how he lingers on what I would call his “A-ha Moments”, when he started to understand the craft, and how to do it … and it all started mixing together in a big pot in his subconscious. Here is him on Bonnie and Clyde:

My first scene began with Evan and me sitting in the back of her car, supposedly chasing the Barrow Gang. I waited for Arthur Penn to call “Action”. Arthur was sitting alongside the camera – out of frame, of course – but not more than five or six feet away from me. As soon as I heard him say, “Action,” I started to act. Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? But Arthur immediately called out to the camera operator, “Keep rolling,” and then he gave me my first revelation of what it means to be an “actor’s director”. While the camera was rolling, he said, “Gene, just because I say ‘Action’, doesn’t mean you have to start acting – it just means that we’re ready. I could see you had something cooking inside, but you weren’t ready to act yet. Film is cheap. Keep working on whatever you’re working on and start acting when you’re ready.”

The scene went very well.

When we took a break, the assistant director came up to me and said, “Don’t get used to what just happened – you’re not going to find many directors who work like Arthur.”

Oh, and speaking of “A-ha Moments” – when Gene Wilder spoke at my school he told the following story about his response to seeing Charlie Chaplin in The Circus. You could almost say that Gene Wilder got the revelation for his entire career from watching what Chaplin did in that part:

I saw Charlie Chaplin in The Circus at a Chaplin film festival in New York.

Charlie has just gotten out of prison (one assumes) and is starving. He wanders onto the circus grounds and sees a father carrying his baby over one shoulder. The baby is holding a huge hot dog. The father – whose back is to Charlie – is talking to the man selling the hot dogs. The father looks back at Charlie once or twice.

Charlie makes the sweetest faces at the little boy, and – just when the father isn’t looking – he takes a big bite out of the baby’s hot dog. The father turns quickly to Charlie, who immediately stops chewing and makes sweet faces at the baby. When the father turns back to the hot dog salesman, Charlie takes another bite of the hot dog. The father turns around again, suspecting something fishy. Charlie stops chewing and makes wonderful googley faces at the baby.

The acting lesson from this film seems so simple, yet it inspired me for the rest of my career. If the thing you’re doing is really funny, you don’t need to “act funny” while doing it.

Wonderful stuff. Gene Wilder followed up Bonnie and Clyde with a project he had been working on for a long time with his insane friend Mel Brooks. Originally it was called Springtime for Hitler which, of course, became The Producers.

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The Producers put Gene Wilder (and pretty much everyone involved) on the map. Wilder was nominated for an Oscar. It was an insane year for him. He became a giant and important star, and from then on was pretty much a huge playah. You list out some of his movies and you just shake your head, thankfully, that there were people around who knew how to utilize this talent. Thank God. If it were now, would it have happened? The material for wacko people like Wilder is just not as good. Who knows. Mel Brooks obviously was a big part of the whole story, and it’s a collaboration that really stands alone. Look at what they did together!

But Wilder was not dependent on just one director after The Producers. He was a commodity. Everyone wanted him. Woody Allen cast him (hilariously) as the dude who falls in love (for realz, yo) with a sheep in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex … and Wilder, in the book, is so funny about how he made that real for himself. He used his Actors Studio training, and would sit with the sheep, off-camera, staring into her (actually, I think the real sheep was a he) eyes – and finding the beauty there. It’s hysterical. He goes into great detail in his book about the look of that sheep’s eyelashes, and how – once he really started studying her (him), he saw that those eyes were actually sexy. I am laughing out loud as I type this. But see, that’s what sets Wilder apart. He works on these ridiculously comedic parts with a seriousness that serves him. Yes, the result is so so funny … but for him the “way in” was always through the reality of the moment.

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I mean, think about his total FREAK OUT in that first scene of The Producers when he’s running around Zero Mostel’s office jibbering like a lunatic. That is REAL. That is not just a guy being all antic and high-energy … It is highly specific. He is not giving us a lot of bluster and sound and fury trying to INDICATE panic … he really IS panicked. Funniest scene ever.

His collaboration with Brooks gave us some of his most memorable parts – but in the 70s he hooked up with an unlikely partner, Richard Pryer, to make a movie called Silver Streak (which I love so much I can’t even tell you). And a new partnership was born. Who would have thought that those two would have such chemistry? It’s amazing to watch. I’ve seen all their movies – I think they made four of them altogether – and it’s a friendship captured onscreen, it’s like you’re watching something real – like watching To Have and Have Not and knowing that Bogie and Bacall were falling in love during the filming of that movie. Watching Silver Streak is to see the birth of that friendship. One of the best movie friendships captured in history.

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You just LOVE to see them together. Partly because it’s so bizarre and you wouldn’t expect it. Pryor seems like such a solitary guy, and Wilder seems so almost surreal … but together? Manic hilarity. Pryor was so quick, too – he needed a co-star who could keep up. Wilder could MORE than keep up. Most of those films were improvised, and seriously – I still watch some of them now and tears of laughter stream down my face. LOVE THEM.

Gene Wilder’s book is rather touchy-feely, but if you can wade through that and get to his series of “A ha moments” about acting, it is well worth it. He’s really an original. His career is unlike most other people’s and although he seems to have pretty much retired from movies, he is still very active in the theatre, directing, adapting, etc.

I think one of the things that I get about Gene Wilder that a lot of movie stars don’t have is that people really love him. Perhaps it’s just because he was a widower so young and that generated sympathy for him but I don’t think that’s it. I think there is something about him in The Producers, and Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and all the rest that people just flat-out love. Big romantic leading men are awesome, too, but sometimes they have a short shelf-life. Gene Wilder’s shelf-life is long, long, long, and it’s because of that warmth that he brings up in people. You can see it when you bring his name up.

The excerpt I wanted to choose today is kind of famous. Gene Wilder has told it often, and other people who were there have also told the story. I post it here because it’s a great story.

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It illuminates, for me, what I think of as Gene Wilder’s genius. Not everyone is a genius, and I’ve said it before – I think there are very few genius actors. I think there are a lot of actors with great skill and talent … but geniuses don’t come along that often. I think Gene Wilder is a genius. Not just because of what he is able to do while acting onscreen, although that is a part of it – but because of how he approaches things, how he looks at things, and how he sees things.

He was offered the role of Willy Wonka, and he thought about it, and came up with an idea, a thought, an image … he didn’t go any further than that, but he certainly knew where he wanted to start. It’s not in the book. It came from Wilder’s own imagination and it’s brilliant. It MAKES the movie, in my opinion, and for exactly the reasons Wilder describes. Notice, too, how the director filmed – shot for shot – what Wilder said.


EXCERPT FROM Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, by Gene Wilder

Although I liked Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play Willy Wonka. The script was good, but there was something that was bothering me. Mel Stuart, the man who was going to direct the movie, came to my home to talk about it.

“What’s bothering you?”

“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk towards the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees that Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk towards them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself … but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

” … Why do you want to do that?”

“Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

Mel Stuart looked a little puzzled. I knew he wanted to please me, but he wasn’t quite sure about this change.

“You mean – if you can’t do what you just said, you won’t do the part?”

“That’s right,” I answered.

Mel mumbled to himself, ” … comes out of the door, has a cane, cane gets stuck in a cobblestone, falls forward, does a somersault, and bounces back up …” He shrugged his shoulders. “Okay!”

When I got to Munich – where the filming had already begun – Mr. Stuart showed me the entranceway to “Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.” I had practiced my forward somersault on a gym mat for three weeks before coming to Munich. The Scenic Department had made three Styrofoam bricks that looked just like cobblestones, which they laid into my entrance walk. That way I wouldn’t have to hit the exact same brick with my pointed cane every time we did the scene. On the day they filmed my entrance, I did the scene four times, in just the way that we had planned. Then Mr. Stuart asked me to do just one without the cane. I took a deep breath, swallowed my better instincts, and did the scene without the cane. The next day, David Wolper – the head of the studio – watched the rushes of my entrance. As I was coming out of the commissary after finishing my lunch, Mel Stuart ran up to me.

“He loved it! David loved it!”

“What if he hadn’t loved it?” I asked.

“Well, I would have used that take without the cane.”

It’s not that David Wolper doesn’t have good artistic judgment – he does, and he loved what he saw. But if it had been Joe Levine who was bankrolling the film, I think he probably would have said, “What the hell’s that guy doing with a cane? Where the fuck does it say that Willy What’s-His-Name is a cripple?” I understood better why artistic control is so important to directors.

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8 Responses to The Books: “Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art” (Gene Wilder)

  1. For me, the most unforgettable image of Wilder in “Everything You wanted to know about Sex”, was of the forlorn man, on the street, drinking from a bottle of Woolite.

  2. red says:

    Oh God, yes, I had forgotten about that!

  3. Marti says:

    So… Gene Wilder lives in my town, Stamford, CT. It’s not so far from Jersey. OUr local awesome theater is doing a night with Gene in December (as in he’ll be there hanging out and talking and probably doing a bit of Q&A). Look up the Avon Theater in Stamford. They should have details.
    When I worked at Borders he would come in every so often but I never was able to actually help him, even though they TOTALLY should have gotten me. Apparently one of my coworkers spend twenty minutes trying to find a play for him, that he was in, but couldn’t remember the title to. She started telling me what his part was (a priest) and what it was about (a war from a long time ago) and within 5 seconds I had her answer. Mother Courage. Of course. Alas, he had already gone by then. A few more times I saw him he was just chillin’ in the cafe. One time I almost got to be his cashier except the other woman working got him. What did she ask him? “Are you Willy Wonka?” *headpalm*

  4. Marilyn says:

    The Woolite bit is the ONLY thing I remember from that film!

    It might be a nice companion piece to read “It’s Always Something,” Gilda’s side of the Wilder romance and more. I thought it was terrific.

  5. red says:

    Marilyn – I read that book years and years ago (I was a huge Gilda fan) but sadly I don’t have a copy of it in my library. I should really rectify that!

  6. Paul says:

    What a terrific piece about a truly underrated actor. If you haven’t seen the exceptionally bizarre, but quite wonderful, Stanley Donen film of The Little Prince, you absolutely need to – Wilder’s part is unforgettable. You also get to see Bob Fosse invent the moonwalk during his segment, which is quite a bonus.

  7. sheila says:

    Paul – I remember we had to watch The Little Prince in French class in high school. It’s been YEARS though since I’ve seen it. Wilde mentions that on the day they filmed his scene he got word that his mother died. Gives a real emotional context to what he must have been going through as he filmed it. Rather extraordinary, huh?

  8. Paul says:

    Wow. I will re-watch it with that knowledge. It’s a very odd film to screen for kids, given the extremely dark subject matter….

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