photo & text by nacrowe
i grew up on GENE WILDER films.
his MEL BROOKS collaborations on iconic films like THE PRODUCERS (EMBASSY, 1967), BLAZING SADDLES (WARNER BROS, 1974) and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (20TH CENTURY FOX, 1974) have transcended entertainment and have become touchstone moments of family lore that my brother and i share with our father. when i think of the cultural impact of WILDER (not only in relation to BROOKS but also his buddy films with RICHARD PRYOR and, of course, his seminal role as WILLY WONKA) i think of an idea of a MASCULINITY defined by EMPATHY and COMPASSION. even when his characters are in manic or morally corruptible mind-states, there is still that sense that this is a character acting out of LOVE.
KISS ME LIKE A STRANGER: MY SEARCH FOR LOVE AND ART (ST. MARTIN'S GRIFFIN, 2005) was a tender memoir that WILDER wrote about his life journey late into his career around the time he stopped making films. it cleverly utilizes his counseling session dialogue with his long therapist as a means of structuring his life into various vignettes showcasing key moments in his personal life and professional career. you learn about his need to please his mother and his compulsion towards over-thinking situations and meaning of his relationships with classmates, family and potential romantic interests. this compulsion leads him to acting as a means of expression, as well as recognition, and he is taken by theatre from an early age that he shares with his older sister CORINNE.
the memoir gets into the technical aspects of METHOD ACTING per the teachings of KONSTANTIN STANISLAVSKI which he studied in NEW YORK CITY at the HB STUDIO under HERBERT BERGHOF and UTA HAGEN, and later the pretigious ACTORS STUDIO under LEE STRASBERG. METHOD ACTING utilizes SENSE MEMORY to enhance ones performance by looking to one's one experiences for analogue touchstone moments to relive and bring and emotional depth to a performance. its interesting to know this background given WILDER's legendary penchant for comedic roles, but there is a sense of real PATHOS in his characters. a real drive and emotional core that makes them so endearing as they feel like genuine people making absurd decisions.
the memoir also touches on each of his four marriages, including his time with legendary comedian GILDA RADNER, who sadly passed from OVARIAN CANCER in 1989. there is a real INTIMACY in how he speaks of their relationship, with him often beckoning her to treat him with the same respect she does complete strangers. from her perspective, that neediness and selfishness she displays towards him is a form of INTIMACY, as he is the only one she can treat in that manner. she doesnt have to put her guard up with him. its a totally neurotic yet deeply touching dynamic and just shows how complicated and IDIOSYNCRATIC human relationships really are.
again, i am such a admirer of GENE WILDER (since childhood) that i would have loved anything written by him even if it wasnt cleverly constructed, heartfelt and genuinely bittersweet concerning a life well-lived and well-loved. that it was a touching story that really shows the depth of his love and appreciation for past collaborators and relationships only makes me want to go back and rewatch his catalogue again. KISS ME LIKE A STRANGER is well worth seeking out and reading and if you havent seen his work in THE PRODUCERS, BLAZING SADDLES or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, then stop what you are doing this weekend just take it all in.
and youre welcome.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
i always find it interesting how as a child you are able to identify quality in the art you are taken by without regard for things like context. as a pre-teen having just arrived in NIGERIA, i saw NICHOLAS RAY's iconic REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (WARNER BROS, 1955) and, like everyone else for several generations, was immediately hooked on JAMES DEAN and his emotional performance as a troubled young person attempting to find his way in a hostile new environment.
it felt like my situation. in the world of REBEL the locale was SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA hooliganism with knives, fast cars and macho posturing. for me it was living on a remote compound surrounded by the racist redneck offspring of TEXAS and LOUISIANA oilmen where the weapons were words and micro-aggressions against our AFRICAN hosts. it was hard to deal with.
after watching REBEL i quickly sought out ELIA KAZAN's cinemascope epic retelling of JOHN STEINBECK's CAIN and ABEL-inspired EAST OF EDEN (WARNER BROS, 1955) which similarly found DEAN's character a trouble miscreant in search of identity. the film finds his character seeking out his mother, the owner of a gambling-and-lord-knows-what-else establishment on the wrong side of town, who is the polar opposite of his preaching, holier-than-thou father, only to be rejected.
what i found compelling about the work of DEAN, then and now was his ability to capture the emotional integrity of a scene. in true METHOD ACTING fashion his acting was more about being, it was more about reacting. i appreciate tons of other actors that have followed his lead over the years including JOHNNY DEPP, DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, SEAN PENN, EDWARD NORTON, JOAQUIN PHEONIX and DENNIS HOPPER as well as his peers like MARLON BRANDO and MONTGOMERY CLIFT. what separates those two perfect touchstone performances was his intensity.
because of that he has been my favorite actor since childhood.