Gene Wilder

I’m going to jump straight in.

Gene Wilder was a gentle genius. His name has been thrown around so many times over the last few days, to recount so many unforgettable standout performances – and rightly so. In the same spirit, here’s my chronological whistle-stop tour through some of his greatest films and memorable moments.

Wilder often portrayed tightly wound characters who were forever on the verge of being pushed over the edge. As Leo Bloom in The Producers (1967, his first film under director and friend Mel Brooks), Wilder played an anxious accountant who was just about as highly strung as is humanly possible. In my favourite scene, producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) makes Bloom feel decidedly uneasy. Bloom’s hysteria begins to escalate; his mop of curls bouncing around; his eyes blazing with frantic intensity, until you think Wilder can go no further with his performance and… he takes it even further. Finally, Bloom is laying on the floor with Max standing over him and he shrieks, “you’re gonna jump on me, I know you’re gonna jump on me – like Nero jumped on Poppaea… Up and down, up and down, until he squashed her like a bug. Please don’t jump on me!” In a moment of total and utter comic commitment, this gives way to screams and exclamations of hyperventilating panic. Also endearing and comic in equal turn is Bloom’s attachment to his blue blanket he had as a baby – “My blanket! My blue blanket! Give me my blue blanket!” making him neurotic and enchantingly vulnerable in equal measure.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) is probably the film that Wilder has become best known for, it’s certainly repeated on television often enough every school holiday! Wilder’s Wonka is often remembered as family friendly, charming and twinkling-eyed, but the character is more complex than that. Apparently, Wilder insisted on the inclusion of the ‘fall’ in the scene where Wonka is first introduced to the audience. He emerges from the chocolate factory looking infirm and unsure, holding tightly to his walking stick, then realises he has lost it and tumbles forward into a somersault. This is a perfect way to introduce such an enigmatic character, showcasing the dark, deceptive elements of his personality and a slightly sick sense of humour. Later, Wonka is shown to have no discernible remorse for what happens to any of the naughty children.

The other stand-out scene is where Wonka is riding on the chocolate river with the children and their adult entourage. As they go through the tunnel, things start to get a little weird, “Are the fires of hell a -glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing? Yes! The danger must be growing!” Soon the boat is hurtling out of control, Wilder’s face is illuminated by flashes of red light; his crazed eyes wide; clumps of hair escaping from the top hat of a truly terrifying Wonka. Take that, Johnny Depp.

Now I’ve seen The World’s Greatest Lover (1977) and it wasn’t all that. There’s a great little scene where Rudy (Wilder) and his wife Annie (Carol Kane) have ‘sex by numbers’, but aside from that, it doesn’t quite live up to its title. No, no – the film in which Wilder really does demonstrate himself to be the world’s greatest lover is, of course, Woody Allen’s Everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask (1972.)

The length and content of Wilder’s silent reaction when, as Doctor Ross, he is told by his patient, “I am in love with a sheep” is outstanding. When Doctor Ross meets Daisy the sheep for the first time he tries to resist her charms, but ends up giving her longer and more lingering looks, stroking her face, his voice softening, running his hands along her shapely sides – it’s as convincing a performance of love-at-first-sight as you would find anywhere. There follows a terrific montage where we are shown Doctor Ross tenderly caressing Daisy as they conduct an extra marital affair; Ross getting questioned by his wife for getting caught fondling his lamb’s wool sweater; Ross and Daisy meeting in a hotel room and Ross presenting Daisy with a necklace and tying it around her neck. It’s Wilder’s full committal to this concept that makes it funny.

Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks again) first introduces Wilder’s character as an unshaven drunken wash-up, Jim, once known as the Wako Kid. He recounts how, due to his reputation as the fastest gunman in the West, everyone wanted to challenge him to a quick draw. Jim explains that it all went wrong for him when a six year old challenged him, “I just threw my guns down and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass!” The wonderful comic turn between those two lines, the first half delivered with matter-of-fact resignation, the second half with outrage, is what makes it. Once Jim has sobered up, his becomes more of a ‘straight’ role, quietly smiling as the action unwinds, almost achieving cowboy coolness in his black shirt and Stetson.

Wilder then worked again with Brooks, only this time Young Frankenstein (1974) was Wilder’s story and Wilder’s screenplay. The stand-out scene is obviously the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” song and dance sequence. Doctor Frederick Frankenstein feels that he has tamed his monster and to prove his full mastery of the creature, he performs on stage with him in full top hat, white tie and tails. Wilder had to fight Mel Brooks to keep this scene and it certainly breaks the mood established throughout of an old-fashioned Universal horror picture, but it is this total incongruous stupidity which makes the sequence so beautifully perfect. The laugh out loud moment for me is when Frankenstein puts his hands on his monster’s shoulders and mouths “I love him” to his stunned audience, before giving him an affectionate knock on the jaw.

It’s another ‘reaction’ shot which gets my second favourite moment in Young Frankenstein. Over breakfast, Doctor Frankenstein explains the large proportions of his monster to his assistant Inga, (Terri Garr) and she remarks, “He would have an enormous schwanzstucker!” Wilder stops chewing, his eyes shift and his brows rise, before he calmly says, with his mouth full, “Well… that goes without saying.”

Another film for which Wilder wrote the screenplay was See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). He co-stars in this film which Richard Prior, in which they play an on-the-wrong-side-of-the-law odd-couple, something which they do several times together in other films. In See No Evil… Wilder plays Dave, a man who is deaf and Prior plays Wally, a man who is blind. Nothing encapsulates the working relationship between Wilder and Prior better than the scene in which Dave and Wally get into a barroom brawl and must co-operate with one another in order to participate in the fight. I also enjoy the dead pan delivery when Dave has incorrectly lip-read a frustrated police officer and reprimands himself, “Yeh, why would she say ‘ship, ship, ship, ship!’ It wouldn’t make any sense.”

Alice in Wonderland (1999) is an underrated TV movie version of the classic tale, in which Wilder plays the mock-turtle. This is one of Wilder’s last performances in a film. Throughout his scene, which contains two musical numbers, Wilder delivers his role with a soft smile and a shine in his eyes, as if the mock-turtle is unsure whether to laugh or cry.

The frame story of this version of the tale involves Alice running away from a party her parents are holding because she is scared to stand up and perform in front of them. This scene, featuring the mock-turtle and the griffin (a Jim Henson creation voiced by Donald Sinden) is crucial in helping Alice to overcome her stage fright. At first, they explain how to dance a Lobster Quadrille “They are waiting on the shingle, will you come and join the dance?” and Wilder engages in a little dance of his own. Then comes “Beautiful Soup” in which the mock-turtle encourages Alice to sing with him. The song is simple, but the delivery is haunting. Wilder performs both lovely songs with his usual dedication, only too pleased to look a little silly dressed in a turtle shell.

This will undoubtedly sound corny, but I can’t think of a better role to finish on. Wilder, a shy man who was nevertheless a fantastic performer, playing a mock-turtle, who comes out of his shell in order to encourage the younger generation to do the same. That’s a pretty good legacy.

Alan Rickman: Ten Ambivalent Roles

Looking to give a quick rundown of my ten most favoured Rickman roles (in chronological order), I realised how many of his characters are made more real by a central conflict. They are all fellows of tremendous ambivalence; figures at once likeable and unlikeable, who perhaps both like and dislike themselves. What also became clear was just how versatile Alan Rickman was as an actor, as well as how often he worked with the same actor/s more than once – always a sure sign of a beloved man.

Die Hard (1988) Hans Gruber

This was Alan Rickman’s feature film debut – and not a bad one at that – coming rather later than you would expect, in his forties. Playing the now iconic villain Hans Gruber, Rickman also demonstrated that he could do not only a passable German but also American accent. Gruber is portrayed as mercilessly professional in the execution of his criminal tasks, terrifying but also somehow charming.

Truly Madly Deeply (1990) Jamie

This film could only really be described as a ‘weepie’, yet Rickman’s matter of fact, ‘real’ and still very human portrayal of the ghost of Nina’s beloved boyfriend, makes his reappearance seem somehow believable. Jamie is shown to have loved his girlfriend dearly, to have adored her, but at the same time he eventually comes to realise that he has to leave her.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) Sheriff of Nottingham

As the Sheriff of Nottingham, Rickman threw himself into the glorious tradition of English actors portraying larger than life villains (surrounded by a bunch of Americans pretending to be the English good guys!) Here Rickman delivers some delightful tongue-in-cheek lines with enough spiteful gravitas that the film almost seems like a high-brow piece of drama. He prowls around his castle, pointing at lowly looking women, “You, my room, 10:30. You… 10:45. And bring a friend” is said with such careless conviction that I am only just now realising that the Sheriff probably didn’t have a timekeeping device that accurate. This was also the film in which Rickman gave us the slightly dubious sexual manoeuvre of forcefully leaping on top of your captive bride and athletically scissoring her legs open with your own. What a mover.

Dogma (1999) Metatron

The explanation of the Metatron is that he is the “herald of the Almighty”, the voice of God (Alanis Morissette) addressing humans on Earth. Rickman as the Metatron is introduced when he appears in our main protagonist’s bedroom. Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) is understandably startled and expresses concern that he has entered her home with the intention of doing something criminal to her. The Metatron’s response is straight-faced, if a little wistful, “I’m as anatomically impaired as a Ken doll.” Rickman’s performance in Dogma is genuinely funny because it is so dead-pan, even when his wings unfold gloriously around him. As the film progresses, he is also shown to be compassionate, faced with the challenges of having to explain the more difficult realities of God’s great plan to Bethany.

Galaxy Quest (1999) Alexander Dane

Alexander Dane is a British character actor. He has grown tired of only being remembered for his role as Dr. Lazarus, an alien member of the crew of the starship Protector. Alan Rickman’s turn as a long-suffering lovie, condemned forever to attend wearisome sci-fi conventions is genuinely funny. In this film, Rickman demonstrates not only a natural talent for comedy, but also for affectionate parody.

Love Actually (2003) Harry

The conflict here is between two women, Harry’s wife Karen (Emma Thompson, who also worked with Rickman in Sense and Sensibility eight years earlier), versus the flirtatious piece of crumpet from the office, Mia (Heike Makatsch). Perhaps the best known of Rickman’s scenes in this film is when the shop assistant (Rowan Atkinson) is trying to package a purchase for him. Harry’s rising irritation and simultaneous sense of impending dread at being caught out as he tries to swiftly purchase an expensive necklace is palpable. He creates a character who shows genuine love for his wife, but also lust for Mia. It is surely due to Rickman’s ability to portray Harry’s conflict, having committed reprehensible actions but also warm towards his wife and family, that the great wide female internet out there detests Mia and still gives old Harry the benefit of the doubt. That’s dedicated fan girls for you.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) Marvin

While only used for his vocal talents in this film, Rickman manages to elevate Marvin the Paranoid Android to new heights. Though I will admit that I prefer the BBC TV rendering of this classic series of books, Rickman’s dry yet somehow loveable voice work gives the audience new empathy for Marvin.

Snow Cake (2006) Alex

Here Rickman stars as Alex, a man who flitters between two women in very different ways. On the one hand, he is an attentive friend to a recently bereaved autistic woman, Linda (Sigourney Weaver) on the other he is paying naughty visits to town outcast Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) most evenings. Whatever secrets Alex reveals to Maggie at the end of the film, we forgive, so endearingly is he portrayed.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) Judge Turpin

Judge Turpin is a totally deplorable character and his actions lead to the downfall and deaths of most of the principal characters of Sweeny Todd. Despite this, it’s a real treat to hear him singing Stephen Sondheim classics, particularly in the duet ‘Pretty Women’ with Johnny Depp.

Alice in Wonderland (2010) Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar

Appearing in another Tim Burton/Johnny Depp extravaganza, Rickman plays Absolem as a contrary character to most you will meet in Alice in Wonderland. The blue caterpillar is a slow and commanding, tiny little creature, who through the voice of Rickman manages to ask the right questions at the right time and in just the right way. Absolem provides just the push Alice needs to finally accept who she is and, crucially, to remember her previous trip to ‘Wonderland’. In his final scene, the blue caterpillar is seen working himself into a cocoon, ready to transform in the way the audience hopes Alice is about to. In their exchanges, Absolem calls Alice, “stupid girl” and “dim-witted” but at the same time Rickman’s voice always sounds fond. “Perhaps I will see you in another life” he tells her. Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass (2016) will be Alan Rickman’s last film. From the trailer, we can see that Absolem is now a beautiful blue butterfly.

Remembering Wes Craven: The Scream Trilogy

I was a latecomer to horror films and the frequently disrespected ‘slasher’ flick. My first real introduction to any kind of horror was the Scream Trilogy and I couldn’t have asked for a better example of the genre to get myself started. When horror is done badly it provides only soul destroying ‘white tile’ gore, thoughtlessly made and easily forgotten. In the years following my introduction to the genre, I vacantly sat through many a meaningless example. Wasted hours! With a quality piece of horror, you feel real concern for the central characters; you should be able to identify with them rather than feel superior to them and secretly long for their death. You should also perhaps be given cause to think, even if only a little bit. The Scream trilogy (I discount the disappointing fourth instalment) are meaningful and characterful enough to provide a relatively safe and satisfying introduction to the genre. Plus, the films function well as a cohesive triple bill, regularly imitated but seldom bested.

As a set of films, Craven makes light of the fact that his characters are aware of the filmic conventions of teen horrors, whole also ironically participating in them. This makes the film smart, but also funny – an intelligent level of funny that pale comparison spoofs such as Scary Movie (2000) so embarrassingly lack.

The first Scream was released in 1996, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven. I found it interesting (perhaps showing my prejudices) that Craven directed Scream when he was fifty seven years old (Williamson was only just in his thirties). I had always imagined Craven as a hip, edgy figure akin to Quentin Tarantino, making comment on how violence in the media creates violence in society with a cool soundtrack and a fresh look.

What follows is my top ten countdown of my favourite aspects of the Scream Trilogy…

  1. The film nerd discussions. Particularly the light hearted classroom debate about sequels in Scream 2 (1997), name dropping classics such as Alien, The Terminator and The Godfather. This scene also allows the audience to spend more crucial time with the characters of Cici, Randy and Mickey.
  1. Cameos. By Scream 3 (2000) the self-referential, post-modern thing had been overdone. It’s without a doubt the weakest of the three, I suspect due to the fact that Williamson’s script was disregarded and numerous rewrites didn’t fully capture the characters we knew and loved. There’s also (due to her being in demand elsewhere) much less Neve Campbell. However, there are a few amusing cameos, including Jay and Silent Bob and Carrie Fisher as a woman who is sick and tired of always being mistaken for Carrie Fisher, “I was up for Princess Leia… who gets it? The one who sleeps with George Lucas.” I also enjoyed Henry Winkler’s cameo as the Principal in the first film, as well as Wes Craven himself as the Freddie Kruger costumed janitor. David Warner also adds a touch of class to Scream 2 as Sydney’s drama teacher.
  1. Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’m giving Gellar (who played Cici in Scream 2) her own slot as a guest actress. As a head-over-heels superfan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I can’t not. It is distressing and plain ‘wrong’ to see this actress playing the antithesis of her usual character. We feel added sympathy for Gellar here because she seems more vulnerable by contrast, more like our own vulnerable selves. Although she is stabbed, the choice to have Cici actually fall to her death makes her end even more poignant. In those last moments where she is falling from the balcony, the audience truly feels the tragedy of her pointless, unfair and horribly violent demise.
  1. GSOH. These films have an invaluable sense of humour. First off, with character names such as Gale Weathers, Deputy Dewey and Cotton Weary. I also enjoy the pantomime sense of unshakable delusion which the ‘killers’ take on, such as Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf) “What did you just say? Was that a negative, disparaging remark about my son? About my Billy?” People in life are naturally funny and I think that giving actors freedom to ad lib comedic moments helps to counterpoint the horror but also add a deeper sense of realism, particularly Matthew Lillard (Stu), “My mom and dad are going to be so mad at me!”
  1. Cassandra. It’s an oddly specific like, but there’s a great reference to classic Greek tragedy in Scream 2. This film is my favourite of the series and is also the longest. For me, it distils a more ‘epic’ feeling and this scene is particularly theatrical (the finale also takes place on the school stage). Here, Sydney is compared to a figure of Greek tragedy, Cassandra, who foresaw the fall of Troy. There are also some interesting moments where Craven plays visually with the performer’s masks.
  1. The on-again-off-again Gale and Dewey relationship. Famously, Courtney Cox and David Arquette met and fell in love on the set of Scream and it’s lovely to see them hook up in the fictional world of Woodsboro. It’s just a shame their real life relationship didn’t last as long.
  1. Back where it all began. The opening of Scream is so easily parodied (even in Scream 2 under the guise of Stab) because it is so well loved. In the end, what is remembered is Drew Barrymore walking around the house on her portable phone while preparing popcorn being asked, “What’s your favourite scary movie?” Magic.
  1. Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’. This track appears in some form in all three films and was my first taste of the Cave. The trilogy would not be the same without this atmospheric lump of moodiness and, likewise, I can’t hear the song out of the filmic context without feeling like I’m right back in Woodsboro.
  1. Ghostface. Although not technically one character but many (and usually played by a stuntman) the Munch-inspired ‘Ghostface’ mask is the stuff of horror movie legend and is still a Halloween fancy dress staple. Shout out to the equally memorable voice work by Roger Jackson.
  1. Sydney Prescott. She is a legendary lead character, embodying that same stubborn strength of spirit as Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley. Craven was always sure to create strong female leads in order to avoid the exploitative, misogynistic trap which so many ‘slasher’ style films, picking-off young girls, are apt to do. Sydney is a fully-rounded character, and it’s touching to see her still wearing Derek’s Greek letters around her neck in the third film, after his untimely death.

With Scream, Wes Craven’s contribution was not to the horror genre, but to movie making in general. If only people would pay attention. So few of the mass-made ‘slasher’ films which have followed the success of Scream have featured an ensemble cast of characters who I would feel fondly towards, or who indeed are treated with any kind of dignity by the filmmakers whatsoever. Far more attention needs to be paid to how writers and directors create a film with Scream’s special something, rather than dumbly imitating the masked killer guess-who format.

It has been noted recently that Wes Craven was reluctant to be labelled as a horror director specifically and that he became tired of the genre. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the Scream Trilogy have become beloved horror classics, and unfortunately for Wes, no one loves as hard or with such obsession as crazy horror fans. Anyone working in film who has success in a genre will often find themselves labelled, but what Scream does is to exceed the horror genre, by taking the best elements from other genres, aspects of; comedy, adventure, mystery and – yes – romance. I don’t think that’s a bad way to be remembered. Wes gave horror a heart.