Farewell, Mr. Wilder: The Candy Man Who Launched a Thousand Memes

5 Sep
Screen shot 2016-08-29 at 9.33.05 PM

“Come with me And you’ll be In a world of pure imagination Take a look And you’ll see Into your imagination.” Actor-writer-director Gene Wilder passed last week (Monday, August 29,2016) at the age of 83.

Who can take a sunrise (who can take a sunrise)
Sprinkle it with dew (sprinkle it with dew)
Cover it with choc’late and a miracle or two
The Candy Man (the Candy Man)
Oh, the Candy Man can (the Candy Man can)
The Candy Man can
‘Cause he mixes it with love
And makes the world taste good
(Makes the world taste good)
          I saw Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
at the Ridgewood theatre in Garland back when it was first released during the summer of 1971. I was 11 at the time, so, naturally, I loved the movie. I even loved the Ridgewood theatre. I loved Wonka’s visual effects and amazing art direction, such as the entry hall that changed dimensions and especially that lavish chocolate room with all the candied treats and chocolate river. Being 11, I didn’t know exactly what “art direction” entailed, exactly, but I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen since Dorothy’s turn in Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz. My love for Wonka didn’t end with its visual appeal. I also enjoyed the songs (obviously, the two I have quoted on this page), and, last, but certainly not least, I loved the the funny looking man at the center of it all. He was funny yet creepy and altogether enthralling. He first appears limping along with a cane and then launches into a somersault, a move which Wilder later relayed was his own idea and essential to his characterization in that, after that introduction, audiences would never know if Wonka was to be trusted. His face seemed perfectly innocent one minute, then smug; silly the next, and sinister the moment after that. Simply, I felt enchanted.
          Several months later, there I sat late one night at the foot of my mother and stepfather’s bed, watching the Academy awards all the way through for the first time ever. The big winner, of course, was  The French Connection. Never heard of it. Or Gene Hackman. Jane Fonda snagged Best Actress for Klute and didn’t make a politically embarrassing speech though everyone seemed to be afraid she would from what I understood, which was not much, actually. She barely looked like Jane Fonda to me, that is, the gorgeous pin-up from the likes of Barefoot in the Park. Instead, she had dark hair in a shag. In the Best Supporting Actress category, I was torn even though I had not seen any of the nominees’ films. On one hand, another one of my faves, Ann-Margret, whom I’d seen umpteen times in Made in Paris and Bye, Bye Birdie, was nominated for Carnal Knowledge (no, I didn’t know what that meant) against no less than Cloris Leachman, whom I’d grown to admire thanks to her role as Mary Tyler Moore’s kooky neighbor, Phyllis Lindstrom. Leachman won, looking nothing like Phyllis,  and gave a delightful speech. (Google it.) There was a lot I did not understand about the Oscars that year. What, after all, was A Clockwork Orange? Who were Nicholas and Alexandra?  Yes, I asked, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? What the heck is Isaac Hayes doing up there in a vest made of chains, and who is Shaft? I knew who Charlie Chaplin was because his Little Tramp figure was so widely portrayed, but I didn’t understand why people were making such a big deal about him though I thought he delivered a sweetheart of a speech. Of course, to me, he looked as old as Methuselah.
          One thing I did know, irrefutably, was Willy Wonka. I sat up at the recognition of one of my favorite movies, and probably the only movie I’d seen in a theatre that year. Part of a babysitting gig with a neighbor across the street, but I digress.  Wonka was nominated for Best Song Score, per the team of Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, and Walter Scharf. Of course, I didn’t know what a score was, let alone a score adaptation. To this day, I really cannot figure how a movie can reap an award for its song score without likewise meriting at least one Best Song nod? No “Candy Man”? No “Pure Imagination”? Really? The winner went to John Williams for Fiddler on the Roof. Eleven year old me asks, “What does it mean, this fiddler on the roof?”  Surprisingly, if not bewilderingly (so to speak), no Oscar nods for Wonka’s sets, per Harper Goff–still a hard one to figure–nor for Mr. Wonka himself, Gene Wilder.
          Not too many years later, I would learn something almost unconscionable: despite being one of the two or three most amazing movies ever made, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was deemed a box office disappointment, at least at the time of its release. Of course, despite an underwhelming start, and a mostly unappreciative Academy, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory endures as a classic. Just like the Wizard of Oz, repeated TV viewings helped it build its audience as one generation shared it with the next. Rinse–with chocolate–and repeat. I was ecstatic to see it on the big screen several years later, probably ’84, in San Francisco, no less. Today, not only do viewers recognize Willy Wonka as a classic, so does the Library of Congress, per the National Film Registry, class of 2014.
          Around the time I learned about Willy Wonka not being, you know, a hit, I learned  (again, after the fact) that Wilder had actually snagged a Golden Globe nomination for his incredible performance. Amazing! Good for him.
          But, of course, Wilder was much, much more than Willy Wonka. And, now, alas, he has passed away. Before he made his big screen debut, playing a hostage in Bonnie and Clyde, Wilder had eked out a career in theatre, appearing in the original short-lived Broadway run of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the same tragic role that eventually netted a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Brad Dourif in the 1975 film adaptation. Additionally, during his years on the boards, Wilder also appeared in Mother Courage, the very play in which Anne Bancroft was starring in early 1963 and, as a result, missed accepting her Best Actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker (the result of which provided an infamous photo-op for Joan Crawford, thereby rubbing salt in a fresh wound suffered by Crawford’s co-star Bette Davis, competing against Crawford for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but I digress). We can all breathe a healthy, hearty sigh of relief knowing that Bancroft facilitated Wilder’s introduction to her then beau and later husband Mel Brooks. From there, Wilder and Brooks thrived, starting with 1968’s The Producers for which Wilder earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for playing hapless accountant Leo Bloom, one half of a scheming duo trying to  bilk the system by orchestrating a guaranteed flop Broadway show, notoriously known as Springtime for Hitler. Besides Wilder’s Best Supporting Actor nomination (though, obviously, his is a leading role) [1],  Brooks snagged an Oscar for his screenplay.
          Over the next few years, Wilder worked steadily if not spectacularly though the highlights include(d) Wonka, of course, and Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex…, a parody of Dr. David Reuben’s landmark non-fiction “how-to” book of the same name. In his vignette, Wilder plays a doctor who falls in love with, well, no need for a spoiler or even a spoiler alert here. Really, it has to be seen to be believed, but Wilder is very convincing in a role that might have destroyed a lesser actor.  Again, it’s that face: sparkling blue eyes, wispy lashes, nice teeth, and an impish smile.  No, he’s not conventionally good looking like some of the bigger stars of the era: Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, or Ryan O’Neal, but he has kind features that can turn instantly…crazed.
          Wilder reunited with Mel Brooks not once but twice in 1974, firmly establishing himself as one of the best and brightest stars of the era. First came the bawdy western parody Blazing Saddles, pairing Wilder with Cleavon Little and featuring an Oscar nominated supporting turn by the late, great Madeline Kahn. The film soared to the top of year’s biggest box office hits and later placed as high as #6 on the American Film Institute’s 2000 salute to the 100 funniest films ever made. Even better, per our household, is/was the comic masterpiece, Young Frankenstein, a stunning black and white homage to all those classic Universal horror films from the 1930s. Wilder and Brooks netted Oscar nods for their screenplay, a highlight of which includes the former as Dr. Frankenstein (that’s Frankensteen) doing a righteously elegant “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with Peter Boyle in the role of the doctor’s monstrous creation. Classic.  Also along for the ride are Mary Feldman, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn (of course), Teri Garr, and Cloris Leachman. This one also cracked the roster of 1974’s top 10 box office hits and is also recognized as an American classic by the Library of Congress and also appears, coming in at 13, on the AFI’s list of great American comedies. For those keeping score, Wilder appears in no less than 5  National Film Registry titles: Bonnie and Clyde, The Producers, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. That’s quite a legacy.

          In 1976, Wilder teamed up with Richard Pryor for the comedy-thriller Silver Streak–featuring star-in-the-making Jill Clayburgh as Wilder’s romantic interest. Scripted by Harold and Maude‘s beloved Colin Higgins, Silver Streak proved popular with audiences and critics, netting Wilder another Golden Globe nod and setting the stage for future Wilder-Pryor pairings, most notably Stir Crazy. The 1980 prison themed comedy was directed by no less than Sidney Poitier and sold over 100 million dollars worth of movie tickets, the year’s third biggest box office attraction–just behind The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5.  In so doing, Poitier broke new ground as the first director of African descent to stake a claim in the then relatively exclusive 100 million dollar club. Poitier later directed Wilder in Hanky Panky, a North by Northwest style  yarn, like Silver Streak, that mixes comedy and intrigue. Hanky Panky was the film that brought Wilder together with Gilda Radner whom he later married [2], but I’m getting ahead of myself. Backing up a bit, Wilder and Pryor reunited for 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil (directed by Silver Streak‘s Arthur Hiller). Hardly a blockbuster, the film nonetheless held the number one spot at the top of the box office charts for two weeks running. The final Wilder-Pryor outing, Another You was far less successful. Oh, and if you’re still keeping score, Silver Streak weighs in at 95 on the AFI’s list of 100 funniest movies, making that entry number four for Wilder. Again, that’s quite a legacy.
          Fresh from his back-to-back Brooks blockbusters, Wilder turned to directing with 1975’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, featuring Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn (natch); it’s one of Michael’s faves. Of all his directorial efforts, though,  one stands out to me for multiple reasons. In 1984, Wilder, working with producer Victor Drai, released an Americanized version of the French comedy Pardon Mon Affaire, retitled The Woman in Red. Wilder portrays a mild-mannered family man who becomes infatuated–to the point of obsession–with a leggy, voluptuously lipped model that, of course, he scarcely knows. Released by Orion Pictures in August of 1984 with the newly minted PG-13 rating, The Woman in Red was not projected to necessarily be big office, and that pretty much ended up being the case. Except at the theatre where I worked at the time, the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5.  Almost no movie in my 16 years at that venue serves as a better example of the old maxim: location, location, location. No, The Woman in Red really wasn’t a big hit, but it was a perfect fit for that particular theatre, selling out on Friday and Saturday evenings for weeks on end,  a must see for yuppie couples on date nights, and pulling respectable numbers among the ladies who lunch on the weekdays.  (I must have seen it at least a half-dozen times during its run.) This was our kind of picture, a sophisticated romantic comedy, a movie clearly designed for adult audiences, that performed well for us and maybe only so-so elsewhere. Of course, what seemed smart and sparkly during the 1980s doesn’t play so well this many years, no, decades, later. Much of the humor seems sniggery and sexist, and the plot is barely more than an excuse for Wilder to build comic set pieces, but Wilder, pushing 50 at the time, has an almost boyish charm, a naivete,  that helps sell the material.
          Do you want to know what else helps make The Woman in Red so memorable? A stunning passel of songs written and performed by Stevie Wonder, with guest vocalist Dionne Warwick.  No, The Woman in Red is not a musical, but Wonder’s smooth tunes provide an elegant counterpoint to the onscreen action. Of all the featured songs, of course, none became more successful than the lively “I  Just Called to Say I Love You,” which not only flourished as a damn near inescapable radio smash but also captured that year’s Oscar–and Golden Globe–for  Best Song. Not bad given that the competition included two hits from the Footloose soundtrack, a Phil Collins power ballad (“Take a Look at Me Now” from Against All Odds) and the theme to the wildly popular Ghostbusters. (Meanwhile, Best Song Score went  not to Wonder, who wasn’t even nominated, but to Prince for the iconic Purple Rain soundtrack, but, again, I digress.)
          The Woman in Red also launched Kelly LeBrock, as Wilder’s intended, on her path to stardom, however short lived. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was the producer’s wife and all (at least at the time), but, still, what a knock-out; likewise, on her way to winning her second Tony award, Judith Ivey enjoyed one of her first significant film roles as Wilder’s trusting wife. Her character bounces all over the place, and Ivey clearly has fun with some of her line readings. Of course, she is almost 20 years younger than Wilder, so the costume and makeup people do their best to make her look a bit more matronly and/or age appropriate. Dig her 1980s overalls. (She was in her early 30s at the time.) The Woman in Red also features a scarily peculiar supporting turn by Gilda Radner as one of Wilder’s co-workers, a borderline pathetic take on the archetypal Miss Lonelyhearts figure. She’s so scary she could have been the model for Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Wilder’s treatment of this pitifully timid woman, pushed to the brink, seems cruel, and the role almost seems beneath the skill set of a performer with Radner’s immense talent, but the payoffs come soon enough. Finally, Wilder shows great generosity with supporting players Joseph Bologna and Charles Grodin, both of whom shine as members of Wilder’s gang of overgrown boys with roving eyes. Grodin, in particular, fares exceptionally well in a role that encompasses everything from comic hijinks to uncomfortable silences.  I remember reading a report from the time that Grodin, buoyed by many favorable notices, actually paid for his own campaign to snag a Best Supporting Actor nod, a move not unheard of when studios want to hedge their bets during awards season, preferring to sink money only into the sure things. In this case, Orion chose to lavishly promote Amadeus, which ultimately dominated that year’s Oscars, and invested less in campaigns for The Woman in Red and Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose [3]. Grodin spent all his own cash to little avail. The performance, for what it is, works–but it worked better in 1984 than it does today because our perception of men like the one Grodin portrays has changed. Oh, and don’t forget all that gorgeous location footage of romantic San Francisco.
          Why am I writing so much about this all-but-forgotten 1984 Gene Wilder film, even with an Oscar? Simple. It was one of my mother’s all-time favorites. Seriously. Seeeeerrrriiiiioooouuusssllllyyy. She saw it on Labor Day weekend back in the day and almost never got over it. For years and years, she could barely mention it without doubling over in laughter. It gave her such tremendous joy watching Wilder try to squirm out of one awkward situation after another.  Of course, she also bought Wonder’s top selling record to enjoy anytime she wanted.
          So that’s where this tribute begins and ends. Wilder’s appeal extended, or extends, across generations. I loved him when I was a child while my mother didn’t come to love him until she was in her 50s. In the summer of 2005, when my niece was all of 11 (the same age I was when I first saw Willy Wonka), I loaded her up in the car with one or two of her friends, and off we went to see Johnny Depp play Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. Why not? After all, it was Johnny Depp. On the way out of the theatre, my niece sighed and said that she couldn’t wait to get back home and watch the real Willy Wonka. That’s a nifty trick, yes, even for Willy Wonka.  Wilder’s well-earned stardom endures in some of America’s favorite movies, and how many times a day does his delightful face pop up in a meme reminding us of how silly we can sometimes be? And is it just me, or do you also hear his soothing voice, softly dripping with sarcasm,  as you read those barbs? What a legacy.
Thanks, Gene.
[1] – Coincidentally, Wilder lost in his category to Jack Albertson (The Subject was Roses) who would co-star in Willy Wonka as little Charlie’s grandpa.
[2] – Wilder and Radner collaborated on three movies, the last of which was 1986’s ill-fated Haunted Honeymoon. The actress died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Wilder then dedicated much of his life to spreading cancer awareness, including promoting Gilda’s Club for cancer patients and their families. Wilder remarried some years after Radner’s passing and was still married at the time of his death.
[3] – Allen’s black and white offering about showbiz wannabes and gangsters netted nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay; meanwhile, Grodin’s self-financed campaign proved unsuccessful, coming as it did in a season dominated by such heavyweights as Khmer Rouge survivor Dr. Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields, Adolph Caesar in A Soldier’s Story (that’s two Best Picture candidates), and the late Ralph Richardson, in Greystoke, his final screen appearance, not to mention newcomer John Malcovich in Places of the Heart (another Best Picture contender), and Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita in the crowd pleasing The Karate Kid.  By comparison, The Woman in Red wasn’t a significant enough achievement even as good as Grodin was in it. I would have applauded his nomination, but the deck was stacked against him.
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2 Responses to “Farewell, Mr. Wilder: The Candy Man Who Launched a Thousand Memes”

  1. Dale 05 September 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    I have a VHS of Quackster Fortune that I still Haven’t Looked At !!
    Another nice tribute. If Harry Knowles can have a movie gadfly enthusiast following/website, why can’t Melanie ?? You can at least write !!

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