“What good is a character who’s always winking at the audience to let them in on the secret?” –Gene Wilder

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It’s his birthday today.

Where does the humor lie? Can this moment be broken down to discover its secret? Is it the eye pan to the right? Is it the delayed eyebrow raise? Is it what’s happening with his mouth? Is it that it’s one of his specialties – the comedic pause?

Trying to describe in words why this moment is so funny is like trying to describe in words how a complicated calculus equation works. At a certain point, you just have to be good enough at calculus to even understand the lingo. Same here. All is really left is to sit back and be awed at someone who is this good at what he does.

Humphrey Bogart said that good acting was “6 feet back” in the eyes. Gene Wilder went that deep. Like … where WAS he? When he was at his most lunatic – he – whoever he was – was gone. All that remained was a devotion to the maniacal moment.

For example this:

Actors watch a moment like that and have the same reaction a young violinist probably has to seeing Ihtzak Perlman. You are in the same field as the genius, but in watching you realize it is in name only. You’re not even in the same hemisphere, really. A moment like Wilder’s turns the actors I know into Salieris. That’s the breaks. Just be grateful there are such artists who come down among us for a short while and grace us with their presence, their generosity, their gifts. We can learn from them and be inspired to be better.

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This is a famous story, but worth repeating:

In Gene Wilder’s book Kiss Me Like a Stranger, he describes his first meeting with the director Mel Stuart, before he had decided to do Willy Wonka. Wilder had reservations about the script as is. He had an idea. Listen to him, and learn. This is how specific he was as an actor. This is how much he understood story and character and AUDIENCE, too, let’s not forget. Those who think actors just do what the director tells them … well, they haven’t ever ever been involved in a creative process. Ever.

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!”

Imagine Willy Wonka without that tumble.

Best of all: Mel Stuart filmed it exactly as Gene Wilder told him to. Shot for shot.

Wilder was RIGHT.

He was also right about Willy Wonka’s costume. Mel Stuart sent Wilder some sketches. Wilder looked them over, and wrote Stuart a note back with his thoughts.

Don’t miss Wilder’s letter. “The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special.”

Gene Wilder came and spoke at my grad school. He would say something, or pause to think a bit before saying something, and the moment wasn’t even funny but his TONE and his TIMING had us roaring. He would stop when he heard us laugh, and say, “Y’know, that happens to me all the time.” He wasn’t annoyed. He calmly accepted that when he spoke in a serious way large groups of people began to laugh.

His timing was otherworldly.

My favorite Gene Wilder story (it’s in his book, but he told it to us when he visited my school) was about his first day on Bonnie & Clyde, his debut in film. He had done tons of theatre, but no movies.

He’s in the back of the car for the scene where the criminals take him hostage, and director Arthur Penn yells, “ACTION” and Wilder immediately started the scene. Penn stopped Wilder and said, “Just because I say Action doesn’t mean you have to start. It means that we are ready for when you are ready.” In other words, Penn felt Wilder’s nerves, and wanted him to chill. “Just take your time, and start when you’re ready.” Wilder was grateful. He took a moment after Penn called “Action”, got himself together, and then played the scene brilliantly. Afterwards, someone on the crew said to him, “Don’t get used to that.”

Wilder told that story in praise of Arthur Penn as a director (who was present in the room, this was an Actors Studio event), but also to illustrate that it’s an actor’s job to get himself together, however he has to, in the middle of the chaos of a set, so that you’re ready to go when everyone else is ready. That’s the job. Be ready when the director calls “Action.” And Penn gave him the space to learn that lesson on his first day on a movie set, without being yelled at/shamed/scorned.

He also told the story of seeing Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus when he was a kid, and having an “A-ha” moment in re: comedy. There’s the bit with the little boy and the hotdog.

Wilder watched it, agog, his analytical mind trying to break down WHY it was so hilarious. There was the timing of the bit with the hot dog, and Chaplin making goo-goo faces at the baby and then eating the hot dog, etc. Finally, Wilder realized that why the scene was so funny was that nobody in it – including Chaplin – was “acting funny.” The situation was funny. Chaplin played it for the reality of it. Wilder said that that one moment in The Circus inspired his whole career and he would come back to it if he got stuck. It was a roadmap of what to do, how to solve any given problem. Create a situation that is so funny that nobody needs to “act funny.”

Which brings me back to him saying something serious and all of us bursting into laughter.

His genius was untouchable. It’s like musical genius or a genius for math.

You can get more proficient in those things. But you cannot learn to do what the geniuses do. You’ll never EVER catch up.

 
 
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7 Responses to “What good is a character who’s always winking at the audience to let them in on the secret?” –Gene Wilder

  1. Jason us says:

    Great article

  2. Bill Wolfe says:

    A wonderful analysis and appreciation. I love this scene from Start the Revolution Without Me:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3svB0cl3gGs

    Although not too well-known, I enjoyed the two mysteries he made for A & E in 1999, in which he played a detective. Unlike his comic roles, but well-acted.

    • sheila says:

      Oh my God, that scene in Start the Revolution!! hahahaha

      I don’t think I’ve seen the A&E shows you mention – interesting!

  3. Lyrie says:

    //For example this//
    I think about that moment or “It’s pronounced Frankensteen” about once a month.

    //All that remained was a devotion to the maniacal moment.//
    Life goal, really

  4. Mike Molloy says:

    Frankenstein was the monster. Frunkensteen was the doctor.

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