Category Archives: In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Gene Wilder

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There’s nothing like the death of a funny person to make us all sad. Looking at social media today, the world is taking the death of Gene Wilder at 83 very hard, and that’s even considering he hadn’t acted for more than twenty years, and the greatness of his career was really only confined to about fifteen years. But what a fifteen years.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wilder (he took his last name from playwright Thornton Wilder) made a memorable debut in small part in Bonnie and Clyde. He is a rich kid kidnapped by the bank robbers, and his performance as a highly excitable person sort of established his persona as a man who thought he was in control, but was often in the grip of terrible anxiety.

Like many of my age, I grew up on Wilder. First was The Producers, for which he garnered his only Oscar nomination for acting. Leo Bloom was his most nebbish-y role, a man who memorably screamed, “I’m in pain, I’m wet, and I’m hysterical!” The film united him with Mel Brooks, and the two would make a memorable partnership. leading to Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which incredibly were released in the same calendar year.

The Producers is a comic classic that starts out big, as the long scene between Wilder and Zero Mostel in the opening of the film is comedy gold. From Wilder’s security blanket to his falling on his keys to the hatching of the plot, this self-contained scene is so good that it’s almost criminal, and while Mostel blusters, Wilder parries with skill, not shying away from Mostel’s cured ham.

Before the double-event with Brooks, Wilder made what his perhaps his most famous film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I saw it when I was twelve, pretty much a perfect age for it, and was enchanted. I liked the Tim Burton version a lot, too, so I can’t authoritatively say that one is better than the other, but Wilder makes for a much different Wonka. While Depp played a man-child, Wilder is definitely an adult, but an adult who seems to take some delight in the demise of ill-behaved children (unlike the Burton version, we assume the malefactors in Willy Wonka have gone to their doom).

The story about Blazing Saddles is that Wilder agreed to the role as the Waco Kid, which was subdued for a Wilder role, in order to get Brooks to direct Young Frankenstein, and not act in it. Young Frankenstein was Wilder’s idea, and he wrote most of the script (he and Brooks were credited and won an Oscar nomination). I’ve written about the film before, and it’s just about a perfect comedy. All over Facebook today people were quoting the lines, from “Sed-a-give?” to “Put the candle back.” But what I appreciated about Wilder in the film is that he held nothing back. It was an homage to the Universal horror films, and Wilder acted in that style–his “Life! I’ve created life!” almost puts Colin Clive to shame.

Unfortunately, Wilder was not a great director. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother delighted me when I was 15–I saw it twice, but while it has moments that hold up it’s a little too silly. The World’s Greatest Lover and The Frisco Kid were also misfires. But, fortunately, during this time, he forge a partnership with Richard Pryor. Silver Streak (ironically, it’s director Arthur Hiller just passed) is an under-rated gem. I haven’t seen it in years but I still remember, every time Wilder was thrown from the train, his anguished “Son of a bitch!”

He made two more films with Pryor, the popular Stir Crazy, and then one of the last films for both men, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, which very few people saw. He had a romance with Gilda Radner that produced a few films that I didn’t see and didn’t get good marks–Hanky Panky, Haunted Honeymoon, and The Women in Red, The latter is mostly known for the Stevie Wonder song, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

Radner died in 1989 and Wilder worked very little after that, devoting his time to cancer-related charities. I remember him being visible when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out, asked to compare himself to Johnny Depp. But Wilder wouldn’t take the bait–he was a kind man (there are numerous anecdotes about his kindness to fans) and then that’s about the last I ever saw him. He was passed over many times for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Wilder never really acted a dramatic part, but he was an actor. Though he may have often looked the part of the clown, he was not a buffoon on film, but instead a man who simply played the truth. Many have offered their favorite moment of his acting, but to me, if you want to see great acting, watch the scene in Young Frankenstein when he’s locked in the room with the Monster and tells his friends not to let him out, “no matter how cruelly I beg.” Of course he immediately goes back on that, and ends up screaming “Mommy!” But then, in an additional turn, he realizes he has to stay in there and manages to charm the Monster. “You’re a mother’s angel,” he tells the crying creature. That’s some range of acting in one short scene.

Gene Wilder was one of our greatest comic actors, perhaps the best of the post-War era. The only actor I can think of that rivals him is Bill Murray, who is an entirely different kind of actor. Wilder was one of a kind.

In Memoriam: Mike Nichols

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When I heard the news that Mike Nichols had died, I thought to myself that I had seen a lot of his work. I was stunned to see, upon checking out his filmography, that I have seen all of his feature films, save one–What Planet Are You From?–and I’m sorry that I’m opening this tribute with that film, which may well be his worst.

But I’ve seen 17 of his 18 films, and one of his two TV adaptations, Angels in America (I haven’t seen Wit). Nichols was an important film director, but he had even better credentials on Broadway, where he won nine Tonys. I saw five of his productions: The Real Thing, Hurlyburly, Waiting for Godot, The Seagull, and Spamalot. Just in those five we can see the range of his talents. Oh, and I also once saw him drop off Christine Baranski at the Port Authority.

Nichols was born a Russian Jew in Berlin, and escaped the Nazis to America in early childhood. He came of age in the Chicago improv comedy scene, and with Elaine May created a night of sketches that wowed ’em on Broadway and also earned a Grammy for the record album (Nichols was one of the few EGOT winners–Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). Many of the sketches are available on YouTube; you’d do yourself a favor to check them out.

He then went on to have the kind of Broadway directing career that someone could fantasize about: he started with Neil Simon’s early works, such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, His Broadway career would stretch for over fifty years, encompassing not only those plays and the ones I mentioned, but the smash-hit musical Annie and his last, Death of a Salesman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

His foray into movies was just as audacious. The famous story about him is that he plucked Dustin Hoffman from obscurity to play Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate,  but Nichols specialized in stars. Big stars. His first film, after all, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the two biggest stars on the planet–Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He would go on to work with most of the major American stars–Nicholson, Beatty, Streep, Roberts, Hanks, Ford, Williams, Travolta, Pacino. He directed Jack Nicholson four times, and if those films are not among Nicholson’s (or Nichols’) best, they do show off Nicholson’s star power. Nichols’ production of lThe Seagull, which I saw in Central Park in 2001, had six past or future Oscar winners: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Christopher Walken, and Marcia Gay Harden. Nichols didn’t stint when it came to cast wattage.

But he knew how to use stars. The aberration of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (he turned down Robert Redford for the part because he thought Redford couldn’t play a loser) is kind of moot by this point, because Hoffman became a star instantly.

Nichols’ career certainly had ups and downs. After perhaps the best one-two punch debut in film history, with Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, Nichols tried the impossible in adapting Catch-22, which failed. The ’70s were pretty much a lost decade, with high profile misses including The Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune. The ’80s were a bit better, with Silkwood, Biloxi Blues, and Working Girl (his last Oscar nomination) and the ’90s were okay, with Postcards From the Edge, The Birdcage, and Primary Colors. Mixed in there were a few more big duds (Nichols never did do small, indie fare) like Wolf and Regarding Henry.

His last few films included the TV stuff, and Angels in America was brilliant, perhaps his best work aside from The Graduate. I liked his last two films, Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War, which again showed how well he could handle stars, whether established like Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts, or up and comers, like Portman and Clive Owen.

His films and stage productions were all over the map–comedy, dramedy, drama, farce. Will we really see someone who can, with elan, direct Uncle Vanya and Spamalot, and no one will even bat an eye? To me, though, his signature work was The Graduate. It is one of my top five films of all time and, in the revolutionary year of 1967, was one of those films that changed the history of cinema. This film appealed to young people, and while older critics sniffed at it, lines formed around the block. It was fresh, it was new, and it still is, 47 years later.

Mike Nichols lived a hell of a creative life. Anyone would be happy to have lived a tenth of it.

In Memoriam: Peter O’Toole

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As I thought about Peter O’Toole and his films last night, in the wake of his death yesterday at 81, I realized that, push comes to shove, he’s my favorite actor. I don’t make any claim that he’s the greatest actor ever, but I have gotten more pleasure from watching him act than any other man, I think. I suppose the closest competition would be Humphrey Bogart, but Bogie could never have played someone who thought he was Jesus.

I haven’t seen all of O’Toole’s films, the most notable exceptions being Lord Jim and Goodbye, Mr Chips (the latter being the only one of his eight Oscar nominations I haven’t seen), but I’ve seen all of the other big ones and been delighted by all of them. I suppose he first came to my attention in Lion in Winter, one of the favorite films of all time, which I saw first when I was in my early to mid teens. Then, when I was in college, I saw The Stunt Man, which was something of a comeback for him after a quiet decade or so (perhaps the low point being his turn as Tiberius in the pornographic Caligula). Both of these performances, as Henry II and megalomaniacal director Eli Cross, were larger than life, with more than a serving of ham.

Then, for me, came My Favorite Year, a thoroughly entertaining film that sees O’Toole as the Errol Flynn-like movie star Allan Swann. O’Toole was a movie star, but unlike Flynn he was trained on the stage, and never lost the knack for projecting to the back row, even on celluloid. Swann says, in the key line of the film, “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” but O’Toole was also an actor (once Laurence Olivier chided him, asking him if he wanted to be a household name or an ac-tor, but O’Toole was both).

In the years since I caught up with the rest of his filmography. I think I first saw Lawrence of Arabia sometime in the mid-eighties (at least on screen–I’m sure I saw it carved up and served in five sections on the 4:30 Movie) and agree with those, such as Entertainment Weekly did about ten years ago, that it’s one of the greatest performances in movie history (they had him at number 1; I still have to go with Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront). O’Toole, in his first major film role, is far more restrained than he would be in later years, but managed to convey the brilliance of his character. It’s hard to act smarter than you are, but O’Toole does it with aplomb. A lot of his lines from that film live in my head, none so much more than what he says to the officer who tells him he’s in for a rough time in Arabia. “No, it’s going to be fun.”

I haven’t seen Becket in years, but I remember it and Lion in Winter for his complete command of playing a king. As Shakespeare wrote, his Henry II was “every inch a king.” He’s one of a few actors to earn two Oscar nominations for playing the same character, and the only one that was in two films that were not connected to each other as sequels. What a daunting task to play opposite Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitane, but he more than holds his own. She had most of the good lines in that one, but I can still hear him, when she implores of him what he wants, when he says, “I want a new wife.”

There have been more roles to enjoy since those. Another Oscar nomination came in The Ruling Class, in which he plays a member of nobility who thinks he’s Jesus. O’Toole really lets it fly there, and it’s the acting equivalent of a Keith Moon drum solo. It may be scenery chewing, but no one did it better. In his golden years he acted all the time, in many films that were otherwise forgettable, such as his last Oscar nomination, Venus (how I remember the crestfallen look on his face when it was revealed he did not win the Oscar; surely he knew it was his last chance). In his last years he specialized in playing ancient men of prestige, such as the the Pope Paul III in The Tudors, the Emperor of Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels, or King Priam in Troy (that last one was one of the few he did that annoyed me–I hated the way he pronounced “gods” as if it were “gawds.”

In looking over his filmography, I had forgotten his wonderful voice performance as the restaurant critic in Ratatouille, his touching Arthur Conan Doyle in FairyTale, and the sybaritic lead of What’s New, Pussycat, Woody Allen’s first film and a role that was initially created for Warren Beatty.

I even managed to see O’Toole on stage, on Broadway in Pygmalion. As one might expect, it was all about him–I have no recollection who played Eliza Doolittle. He was a renowned actor before he turned to film–his Hamlet and Uncle Vanya were acclaimed. But I remember that while I was in college he had one of the most disastrous performance ever to blight the West End. His MacBeth was apparently so bad that it was discussed the entire theater world over.

So what about O’Toole’s acting impresses me? I think it’s a multitude of things. I like the languorous way he holds the camera–he moves like I imagine I do. And how he wraps his mouth around words, as if they were candies. He hated naturalistic acting–no Method for him–and there’s a theatrical quality to him that’s hard to resist. I remember auditioning for the part of Mercutio and doing the Queen Mab speech as I imagined he would have done it. That was pretty dumb of me–an actor should be himself, and besides, I’m sure no one but me would have recognized any O’Toole in my performance.

As good an actor as O’Toole was, he was also a great character. He was a marvelous raconteur on talk shows–I remember him telling David Letterman a story about how he and Richard Harris rode white horses in Ireland while completely smashed. Of course he was a drinker–he was Irish, after all, but he did outlive Harris and his fellow great Richard Burton. These three were the epitome of British acting through the sixties and seventies, and none of them ever won an Oscar.

O’Toole did eventually win an a lifetime achievement Oscar, the “sorry we didn’t give you one before this” award. He initially refused it, stubbornly thinking he could win one in competition. He relented, and when receiving the award, he let bygones be bygones and said, “Always a bride, never a bridesmaid–my foot.”