MOVIES & TV
Gene Wilder’s Top 5 performances
Gene Wilder was just the best.
He was a one-of-a-kind, a true artist, original in everything he did, such a talent.
His body of work is a treasure. Here are my Top 5 favorites…
5. Silver Streak (1976)
A book editor is the only witness to a murder and finds himself inadvertently stepping into a hilarious series of adventures and events while riding on board the train, the Silver Streak.
This was the first film that paired Gene with Richard Pryor, another comedic genius. Gene plays “George,” who leads a fairly mundane life and manages to avoid trouble.
Perhaps not as iconic as his other roles, it introduces a range in his comedy, both physical and witty, along with that endearing personality. Today, the film itself is a great way to transport back into the 1970’s and experience the way people lived, dressed, interacted. In the lounge on the train, everyone walks on thick carpet, smokes cigarettes, etc.
An original comedy, a great time.
4. Blazing Saddles (1974)
To manupulate a small town so he can profit, a corrupt politician pardons a prisoner and appoints him as the new sheriff. The excited townspeople are ready to welcome the new sheriff with open arms until they discover he is black, and a whole lot of hilarious chaos ensues from there.
Director, Mel Brooks, pulls out all the stops in this hilarious over-the-top comedy. As outrageous and corny as it is, there are also some pretty poignant themes that surface.
Gene plays “Jim,” a washed up burned out cowboy, a drunk, with that familiar twinkle in his eye, who teams up with the lead, “Bart,” to overcome the bad guys and a whole lot of stereotypes.
3. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
A boy living in poverty wins a “Golden Ticket” that allows he and his grandfather to accompany a select few on a grand tour of Willy Wonka’s mysterious and wondrous chocolate factory.
It’s almost blasphemous to not place this film in the #1 slot. Indeed, this is Gene’s most popular, most iconic, most beloved role. He elevates might have otherwise been a mediocre movie. His performance as the eccentric Wonka is mesmerizing, hitting so many beats with remarkable precision. It’s not quite my #1 favorite, but it’s a classic to be sure.
2. Young Frankenstein (1974)
A scientist inherits an estate from his deceased grandfather, then picks up the work he left behind, namely, bringing the dead back from the grave.
Young Frankenstein is a remarkable achievement. It’s a Mel Brooks comedy through and through, loaded with hilarity, actors that ham it up, the works. There’s a laugh literally in every scene. And yet, there is a genuine heart at the core of this film. We feel such sympathy for the monster when he is resurrected, credit to another comedy legend, Peter Boyle.
If anything, this movie shouldn’t be as good as it actually is. Many filmmakers have attempted re-telling the story of Frankenstein, mostly with a serious tone, and yet, Young Frankenstein is the one that nails it.
This is one of Gene’s most layered performances. His transition from sensible to diabolical scientist then back again is remarkable. It’s a film that plays to every single one of his strengths and is truly one of his best.
1. The Frisco Kid (1979)
Set in the year 1850, a Polish Rabbi has to survive his journey through the Old West en route to San Francisco to run a synagogue and marry the woman he is arranged to.
The Frisco Kid is easily one of the most challenging roles in Gene’s entire body of work. Playing a Rabbi, he is called upon to deliver a performance that shows great respect and understanding of the Jewish religion, and its practices, from so long ago. He also needs to be funny, but without making a mockery of things.
That delicate balance produces just a delightful character. “Avram” is naive to the customs of the western world he travels through, and yet the advice he gives, the people he helps along the way, show a wise and thoughtful individual. He is clumsy and can never figure out how to properly ride a horse, but always finds himself getting out of scraps, conjuring a physicality from within when he needs to.
The other rare treat is seeing Gene perform opposite a young pre-Indiana Jones Harrison Ford. Ford plays “Tommy,” a wanted bank robber and cowboy who is always on the run. When their paths cross, the two become the most unlikely of partners, having to help each other out through a variety of obstacles and challenges along the way.
Ford’s performance is awesome. There’s a brooding aggression within him, something to prove in his acting. He has a strong presence here. And yet, Gene is so gentle and innocent in what he does. Seeing these two iconic actors on screen in the same film is truly a rare gift.
Most of Gene’s face is hidden behind a thick beard, but there is no denying that patented twinkle in his eyes, and a defining performance that is a pinnacle role in his career.
Gene Wilder will truly be missed. His gift to us is his incredible body of work we’re privileged to be able to revisit. In that sense, and in our hearts, he will live forever.
Thank you, Gene. Thank you.
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