A Milder Wilder: Gene Wilder, Writer

Cleveland Park Library

A Milder Wilder: Gene Wilder, Writer

Gene Wilder as Willy WonkaComic actors are an underrated lot. Being a good comedian requires a mastery of timing and emotion, transcendence of physical setting, empathy and the ability to manipulate each in real-time. A brilliant comic actor knows how to overdo it because he/she already knows how to do it.  Consider:

     • Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind
     • Jamie Fox in Ray
     • Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, The Night Listener, Dead Poets Society’, Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, The Fisher King, etc.

If you need more proof that comedy is not only a legitimate art form, but a true art, let’s not forget one of the most important comic artists of history: William Shakespeare.  Who do you suppose played in Shakespeare’s famous comic roles?  These weren’t beer-hall entertainers. They were the same actors who play Hamlet and Richard III!

It should not be surprising that many artists with the comedy bug have tried their hands at the written word. I’d like to focus on one actor who succeeds in extending his reach into the realm of literature: Mr. Gene Wilder.

When we think of Gene Wilder, we tend to remember characters like Willy Wonka or Leo Bloom. But Mr. Wilder has done much more -- several books' worth, in fact. A library patron who recommended him as an author told me to expect a nice light read, much in the style of the man’s acting. I was more than surprised and pleased when I picked up his novel, The Woman Who Wouldn’t, from my local library.

Knowing of Wilder’s relationship with actress Gilda Radner and her eventual death from cancer, the first few pages of The Woman Who Wouldn’t told me I was in for a heavy tale of pain and death. I chose at that point to stop, and instead read Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, Wilder’s quirky autobiography. The agility of the author’s descriptions, the gentleness and effortlessness of his dealing with the heaviest of subjects, drew me in. This avid reader felt like he hadn’t read a book in years! A reader will find a powerful voice in Wilder’s writing, combined with an ease of language that is rare in our modern wealth of storytellers.

Kiss Me Like a Stranger was marvelously simple, yet contained the secret struggles of a pained artist as well as his numerous awards and achievements. Wilder’s life with Gilda Radner and his witness to her illness and death make his kindhearted narrative voice all the more inspiring to read.

After that, I was ready for some fiction.

The Woman Who Wouldn’t turned out to be one of the rare reads that I completed in one sitting (technically I was sitting for a while, and finished it lying down.) This rarely happens to me. Wilder’s writing keeps up at such a clip that pausing or stopping never seemed like an option. For a few hours I found myself in Switzerland, in a grassy meadow watching the picnicking lovebirds.

There is something about the combination of humor and death that, when mingled successfully, carves a deeper image than either element on its own. There is nothing funny about dying, but there is a welcome place for humor in the grieving process. Gene Wilder, the actor and author, is my best example of the colloquialism “still waters run deep."  The waters might be dark at times, but Wilder assures us they will always be warm and welcoming.

After reading Kiss Me Like a Stranger and The Woman Who Wouldn’t, I got my hands on Wilder’s first novel, My French Whore.  I haven’t started it yet — I’m waiting for an empty block of time long enough to consume the thing in one sitting.

Something tells me I’ll need it.

-- Casey Danielson