I cannot begin to express how saddened I was to hear of Gene Wilder’s passing today at the age of 83. Gene Wilder was a huge part of my cinematic upbringing. I remember being little and watching VHS tapes (yes, VHS tapes) of films like Young Frankenstein (Franken-Steen) See No Evil, Hear No Evil (“Fuzzy Wuzzy was a Woman?!” might be the best line ever written), The World’s Greatest Lover, and Haunted Honeymoon. Gene Wilder was hysterical.
But what made him truly wonderful was the beautiful whimsy he brought to storybook characters.
So today we are going to cover my three favorite Gene Wilder performances.
Alice in Wonderland (1999)
Back in the late 1990s, Hallmark Entertainment made a bunch of great fantasy films including an all-star musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. This film included Ben Kingsley, Peter Ustinov, Elizabeth Spriggs, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short, and Tina Marjorino.
This film is the closest adaptation of Alice in Wonderland I have ever seen, grant it there are some creative liberties taken, but it is pretty spot-on.
In the film Gene Wilder plays “The Mock Turtle,” in the story the Mock Turtle weeps profusely, and while this can get irritating in the hands of a lesser performer, Wilder skillfully adds the right amount of beautiful melancholy to make this performance perfection.
Here he is singing “Beautiful Soup,” a largely nonsensical song, about mock turtle soup.
Wilder is not a great singer, but he brings so much emotion and heart to his performance, it is hard not feel a little sad.
The Little Prince (1974)
The 1974 film The Little Prince is a musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s existential masterpiece. The adaptation was written by Lerner and Lowe (best known for My Fair Lady, Camelot), directed by Stanley Donen, and features fantastic performances by Richard Kiley and Bob Fosse.
The Little Prince tells the story of an aviator (Kiley) stranded in the Sahara desert, while However, he encounters a child, this child has journeyed to Earth from his home planet asteroid B-612. He shares his adventures with the Aviator; The Little Prince encounters many people; these encounters show the many follies of humanity.
By far one of the most sentimental characters in the story is The Fox, played by Gene Wilder. The filmmakers cast humans to play the animals in this film and did not bother to make them look like animals, which is somewhat jarring. However, Wilder perfectly embodies “The Fox” in the novel, that we soon don’t mind that it is merely a man in a suit.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
A musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, “Willy Wonka” an eccentric factory owner holds a contest granting five children nearly unlimited access to his factory.
Wilder plays Wonka in multiple layers, there is adult Wonka which is clearly having a ball winking and nodding at the adults, and there is something slightly deranged, and something charming and lovable.
Gene Wilder understood that delicate balance between charm and danger that made Roald Dahl’s character so fascinating.
He was a perfect actor to play characters in children’s novels because his performances contained a deep sensitivity that very few other actors could ever embody. There is a sense of loss and mourning in all of these roles, marveling at the ephemeral nature of childhood and its necessary transient state.
Ciao for now, dearies!