Gene Wilder offered a choice between two types of interviews: the "ha ha ha ha" kind or something more serious. Now is that fair? Wilder was about to say that he aims for an inseparable mix of comedy and sentiment in his movies - why not in his interviews? Wilder was also about to say "I can't stand 'should' or 'have to.'" So why should we have to choose between Wilder the funny man and Wilder the serious writer/director/star of "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" and, now, "The World's Greatest Lover"? We want it all.
Wilder has been giving his all to us in his movies for quite a while. His comedy perked up such films as "Start the Revolution Without me," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx" and "The Little Prince." Yet it was his more sober sense of sentiment, his tentative romantic appeal, that helped keep such movies as "The Producers," "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex," "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein" and "Silver Streak" from roaring completely out of control.
Now that Wilder is making his own films, this balance between the raucous and the romantic is his primary professional goal. "It took Chaplin 17 one-reelers and two features to learn not to separate the comedy from the sentiment," said Wilder. "It's the most difficult thing in movies - to make you lose control of your body from laughing yet to touch you by two people who are in love," all in the same scene. That's what Gene Wilder wants to do.
Wilder was interrupted for a rehearsal for "The World's Greatest Lover" - shooting was about to begin. He entered a studio that was all dressed up like a cantina, and soon he was slinking across the dance floor, first with a female partner and then with a man whom Wilder's character imagines to be Garbo. He evoked early morning laughter from everyone on the set, and he accented the comedy. When "Garbo" breathed lasciviously into his ear, he wanted more: "Right now it's so subtle I'm afraid it won't register," he told his actor. "It's about a 2.8 on the laugh meter. Think of making dirty phone calls."
Yet even in this scene his pose was a little more than mock-romantic. His character is a Milwaukee man who flees to Hollywood in the '20s to enter a studio search for "the world's greatest lover" - the winner, promises the studio, will be another Valentino. Naturally it's not as easy as it looks, but to a '70s audience, Wilder in this role might very well be more romantic than Valentino himself. Ideas of romance have changed. For example, who would have imagined, that Jerry Silberman, also of Milwaukee, would grow up to be Gene Wilder, movie star?
Lily Veidt, Wilder's agent from the days when he was a stage actor in New York, appeared on the set for a brief visit with Wilder. When she first saw him, she recalled, he was fresh from London stage training and "reeking of talent." What made her client so special? She couldn't say. "He was a wonderful face," she reflected, "but it's not just the face. It's star quality, and there's no explanation."
Wilder and Veidt went to lunch in the Fox commissary, and there was Mel Brooks holding court. Brooks greeted them and asked Veidt, "What do you want from me? I taught him all I know." Before anyone replied, Brooks continued: "Did you know 'Silver Streak" was as good as it could have been, shook his head as Brooks added: "It's a magic movie."
After lunch and more rehearsal, Wilder finally settled down in a dressing room chair for a permanent on his hair and some serious interviewing. There have been rumors of a rift between Wilder and Brooks, who did indeed lift Wilder out of off-Broadway and into the movies and later, by all accounts, taught him how to direct. Wilder, on the other hand, was obviously useful in toning down the more hoisterous Brooks movies and co-wrote "Young Frankenstein" with Brooks. But they haven't worked together since then.
Wilder denied all talk of a rift and reported that Brooks "wants us to write a script together for me to direct and him to act in." But Wilder believes that "what we do with him directing would be more exciting. He can get me to do things that no one else can. And he doesn't think of himself as an actor as I do. He's a performer. Also, I couldn't write something without a love story, and he's not interested in romance." Still, "if it's the only way I can get to work with him, I'll do it. I never enjoy my job as much as when I'm working with him."
That may be true, but it's also clear that Wilder has an intense desire to be his own boss. He regards his films as his children, he said, and "it's very difficult when someone with the best of intentions makes a suggestion about how your child should look, dress, talk, play, learn, be disciplined." When he signed a three-picture deal with 20th Century-Fox, the chairman of the board told him to "Make Fox your home," and he has done that, serving as producer as well as director/writer/star on all the big decisions.
"I realize there's a danger in insulating myself from good advice," said Wilder, "but I listen to anyone, even the stagehands. They don't cry if I don't take their opinion. I like someone who comes up every five minutes with an idea, rather than the people who think of an idea and offer it on a nice satin pillow and then I reject it and the tears flow. I say, 'Use it in your own movie.'"
This craving for making all the decisions on his movies explains why he shies away from contemporary stories. "I have no desire to burden myself with naturalistic details," he said. "All the things I hate in modern life would worm their way in between the lines so I felt stifled. But in Transylvania (where "Young Frankenstein" was set), no one can tell me what I have to do."
Wilder said he wasn't a rebellious child, so that may be why he's rebellious now. His screen heroes were Tyron Power, Errol Flynn and Chaplin, and "sometimes I've felt I was born in the wrong time. I want to go on working on problems that were set 40 years ago."
Nevertheless, Wilder recognizes that his following is full of young people: "My main audience is between 18 and 35, and a close second is 9 to 40. There are 'Willy Wonkites' who'll come along for the ride now on any film I make. A lot of girls and a few women sense a vulnerability in me, a sadness they think they could cure. Some of them feel strongly I'm the lover who would be understanding. They write love letters. What the boys and men like is they know they're in for a good time. I do childish things that are close to their youth, and now they're supposed to be adults. I'm one whose bravado always goes wrong. I might not be such a fantastic lover in conventional terms, but I'm a desirable one in the real world, and people say 'I don't have to be Clark Gable, I can be Gene Wilder.'"
His screen personality has eclipsed memories of his stage acting, but Wilder doesn't mind. He likes movies. "When you make a movie, you're using one of the original Stanislavsky techniques - breaking things down into units." You finish a unit and then you move on. "I wouldn't want to do eight performances (onstage) a week," said Wilder. "The matinees used to kill me."
Wilder doesn't think screen comedy is properly honored, notably by the Oscars, which hardly ever go to comic directors or actors. In a non-comedy, he said, "if you're got a very good director and script, you can give a rotten performance and be nominated for an Academy Award. We equate bizarre, decadent, emotional highs and lows with acting - whatever happens in a crisis. Or you're allowed to go for 90 second without anything happening." But in a comedy, you've gotta keep 'em laughing.
"When they send you a script and say 'it's an Academy Award part,' that's an insult," said Wilder. "There should be no part written which will receive a nomination no matter what you do. What do you need an actor for?"
Wilder's already curtly hair was about to ignite under the careful ministrations of the studio beautician. One more question: Could such an ardent devotee of comic acting have selected the name "Wilder" out of tribute to the celebrated comedy director Billy Wilder?
No, replied Gene Wilder. "Actually I was thinking of Thornton."