A-List: Top Five Gene Wilder Movies
By J. Don Birnam
August 30, 2016
The year 2016, that cruel vixen, has claimed the life of yet another acclaimed figure. Comedian Gene Wilder has died, and today we pay tribute to a career that brought joy to millions over many decades by looking back at some of his best films. It’s never fun to write these - and we’ve had to do a few - but at least the celebration of someone’s life oeuvre reminds us that it was a life well-lived.
You really can’t go wrong with his movies, and many were left off the list, including three iconic collaborations with Richard Pryor - Stir Crazy,See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Silver Streak. This duo loved the crime comedy movie, and there is certainly nothing wrong with woodpecker bank robbers, though arguably the three movies blend with each other in terms of themes.
I’m also partial to Wilder’s somewhat wacky portrayal of Sigerson Holmes, alongside Madeline Kahn, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, another one of his iconic comedic performances that are both spoof and reinvention at the same time. But here are the five that I think are even better.
5. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
His screen time is but a few minutes, sitting in the back of Bonnie and Clyde’s car, trapped with his fiancée. So, yes, this isn’t really a Wilder movie per se, but the strength of the film in my mind buoys the standing of it overall.
It showed, at the very least, that Wilder had talent beyond only comedy. In the sequence, a pivotal part of the movie that really tests your sympathy for the main characters, Wilder’s character and his girlfriend are kidnapped by the criminals after they find them on the road. The question of fear that the audience perceives in part due to Wilder’s expression is whether Bonnie and Clyde are going to kill them in cold blood.
From a movie that gave you acting greats like Gene Hackman, it’s easy to forget a more supporting performance. But in only his second screen credit ever, Wilder showed quickly he could hang with the big boys.
4. The Producers (1968)
But it was his next movie the following year that marked Wilder for permanent fame as a comedian. In Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Wilder plays the sneaky accountant who is in on a plot to bilk investors from their money after he and a Broadway director purposefully stage a bad play - that is, until the play turns out to be a smash hit and all their plans go away.
The movie has been remade many times over, on Broadway itself, and with spectacular flops in Hollywood. But not this one. In this original, Wilder netted an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Leo, a corrupt accountant to Zero Mostel’s corrupt producer. Yes, the movie is over the top, and, yes, there is a needless sentimentality that infects it at times.
But Wilder carries himself with enough wit to make the spoof worthy. The point is to spoof our tastes and our tolerance for misbehavior. It’s the original Chicago, if you will. Since then, Springtime for Hitler and other songs from the musical have become timeless classics, and the characters themselves have been spoofed the world over.
Yet find me someone who played Leo the Accountant with the dexterity and hilarity of Wilder - I doubt you’d be able to.