Friday, 23 December 2016

2016 Memoriam: Gene Wilder and Dame Margaret Anstee

 Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder was an actor of supreme comic timing, who became known to millions of children first and foremost as Willy Wonka. That his Wonka was not the one in the head of the writer is well known, but then, contrary to many expectations, I'm not sure Johnny Depp was either. And anyhow, in this case of Roald Dahl vs the viewing public, Wilder appears to have the overwhelming support of a few billion to one.

Wilder was bitten by the acting bug early on, watching his sister perform in school plays, but his road to stardom was a winding one. Surviving a horrendous time at military academy, he taught fencing and drove cars in his early twenties before acceptance to the Actors Studio, and a number of theatre roles.

It was the lead in a play, Mother Courage and her Children, which was to change the rest of Wilder's life. He was acting alongside a woman who was to become one of his dearest friends, Anne Bancroft, and one night she introduced him to her husband, Mel Brooks. Of course, we in the future know how momentous a meeting this was for film history, but back in 1963 they knew no more of  their future than a gnat knows the London Underground. To say they hit it off well would be to say 2016 had a few celebrity deaths.

It was at an early meeting, Gene Wilder later said, that Brooks excitedly asked Wilder if he'd read the first sixteen pages of a script Brooks had been working on. Brooks had Wilder in mind for one of the lead roles. Wilder read those sixteen pages of Springtime for Hitler, and, as he later told Charlie Rose, he was "sold immediately".

He then had to wait three years for Brooks to finish the script and get the funding.

Actually, Brooks momentarily forgot about the Wilder agreement in those three years and later asked Peter Sellers to play the role! Still, there's many a slip and twist along the way. Zero Mostel, the co-star, had been recently injured by a bus, and disliked the script, only taking the role because his wife insisted it was a great one.

And when it was finished, the studio didn't want to release it. It was in bad taste, they said. The film's about a producer who can make the insurance money on a musical that flops, so deliberately goes to make the least tasteful one in history, about Hitler. Only his plan backfires. There is a lot of bad taste in it, but it's deliberate and manages to sneak in a lot of questions about how people and society work by slipping it in among the absurdity. Luckily, Peter Sellers, who wasn't the star, went to bat publicly for the film, ensuring it's release.

"Gene Wilder was a new face in 1968, introduced to audiences with a key supporting role in "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), also as a character consumed by nervousness. His performance in "The Producers" is a shade shy of a panic attack. On the floor with Mostel looming over him, he screams, "Don't jump! Don't jump!" Mostel starts to hop in a frenzy, and Wilder escapes to a corner, hides behind a chair, and screams, "I'm hysterical! I'm hysterical!" Mostel pours a glass of water and throws it in his face. Wilder delivers another classic line: "I'm wet! I'm hysterical, and I'm wet! I'm in pain, and I'm wet, and I'm still hysterical!"
Roger Ebert, The Producers, 23 July 2000 (reproduced on Roger

"Gene Wilder, who plays the young bookkeeper who inspires Mostel to oversubscribe with backers a show that will close after a single night (leaving Mostel and Wilder with the amount that has been oversubscribed), is wonderful. Last seen as the young man who was stolen—along with his car and his fiancĂ©e—by Bonnie and Clyde, he plays his present part as though he were Dustin Hoffman being played by Danny Kaye. Going through long, infinitely variegated riffs and arpeggios of neuroticism, he blushes and gasps, "I'm hysterical," and grins shyly and fondles his security blanket. He is forced to be as loud and as fast as Mostel (and as the crude and incredibly amateurish cutting). But he's fine."
Renata Adler, The Producers Movie Review, The New York Times  19 March 1968

The Producers was a qualified success over time - it was a big smash hit in Sweden, it eventually recouped twice its budget on the rental market,  it became a cult classic and is now considered a comedy masterpiece. Despite the controversy, Wilder was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but lost out to Jack Albertson.

If you're reading this as a fan of Wilder, you know who Jack Albertson is, even if you don't recognise the name...

In 1971, Gene Wilder was cast as Willy Wonka in the adaptation of Roald Dahl's book. Legend has it that, at his audition, he said one line and was immediately cast. He beat all six members of the Monty Python team to the job, as well as a number of other leading contenders.

“Fred Astaire and Joel Grey were recommended for the role of Willy Wonka in the film, based on the book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," by Roald Dahl. But Stuart knew he had the man as soon as Wilder read for the part. "He had been in 'The Producers,' but he wasn't a superstar," says Stuart. "I looked at him and I knew in my heart there could only be one person who could play Willy Wonka. He walked to the elevator after he read and I ran after him and I said, 'As far as I'm concerned, you've got it.' "”
David Segal, Gene Wilder: It Hurt to Laugh, Washington Post 28 March 2005

"Actually, Joel Grey was the first choice for the role of Willy Wonka but was dismissed as unimposing, then the role was offered to Ron Moody who declined. Roald Dahl‘s original choice to play Willy Wonka was Spike Milligan, and Jon Pertwee had to turn down the role because he was in the tight schedule of Doctor Who at the time. All six members of Monty Python’s Flying CircusGraham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin – had all expressed great interest in playing the role, but they were deemed not big enough names for an international audience. Cleese, Idle and Palin were seriously considered for the same role in Tim Burton’s remake."
Nigel Honeybone, Film Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Horror News 25 April 2012

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl wanted Peter Sellers or his Goon Show cohort Spike Milligan to play eccentric candyman Willy Wonka in the big-screen adaptation of the story, according to the Dahl biography Storyteller. Sellers had called Dahl personally to beg the part and Milligan shaved off his beard to audition, but the producers went with Gene Wilder instead."
Bradford Evans, The Lost Roles of Peter Sellers, Splitsider 31 January 2013

Makes you begin to think Wilder was making a career out of beating Peter Sellers to roles.  Made on a budget of $3m, it made $4m at the box office, and continued a growing Wilder tradition of films rehabilitated by later audiences, on TV and in rentals and so on. Roald Dahl hated it, and thought Wilder miscast. And yet, when the Tim Burton film came out in 2005, so many people, myself included at the time thought, "this is what Dahl wanted". But now I disagree.

The Willy Wonka of the books is a confident, charming individual who believes in his own genius, and time after time he makes statements which almost seem like they might be compliments, but come from a man who has been separated from human contact so long that the tact and timing is gone. Johnny Depp, as fine an actor as he is, essentially plays Edward Scissorhands the chocolate factory owner. There is a middle ground between the two, but on deeper reflection, Gene Wilder's is closer to the character than Depps.

And if we take Death of the Author into account, then, regardless of how close it is to the book or not, we can only judge what is on screen. On screen, Wilder's Wonka is a wonderful creation, slightly unhinged but with a veneer of charm (or is it slightly charming with a veneer of unhinged, he never lets us know, even at the end), and effortlessly steals every scene he's in.

Jack Albertson, by the way, is Grandpa Joe.

Wilder went on to star in Young Frankenstein (another Mel Brooks film), Stir Crazy (one of a number of films he made in a fruitful partnership with Richard Pryor) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother. He married the comedian Gilda Radner, who predeceased him in 1989, and continued to star in films which drew a cult following, often decades after the original release. It's quite easy to appear in audience friendly work. Wilder made a career of appearing in films that made the audiences think, or question, and so whilst his own acting genius was never in question, the greatness of the films is something which has come to the fore with the benefit of hindsight. And, to be fair, sharing a quality with early Bette Davis is never a bad thing!

He had been public about an earlier battle with cancer which he won, but kept the news of his Alzheimers a secret - he didn't, he told friends, want kids to see Willy Wonka as an old confused man. The magic lies on the screen. And the screen only makes Gene Wilder's reputation stronger by the year.

Dame Margaret Anstee

(By Lonnie D. Tague, Civilian, USA (U.S. DefenseLINK Multimedia Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret Anstee, who died in August, was one of the first British female diplomats. In 1993, armed with one gun and a few volunteers, she was left to defend a village and hospital in Angola against local rebels, as the first woman to ever lead a UN peacekeeping force.

She was in charge of the disaster relief for a number of major disasters, including Chernobyl, and her work in trying to help the economic issues of Bolivia led to their government offering her honorary citizenship in 1990.

"She had a whole string of firsts to her name, of which the most often cited perhaps does her least justice, because it is the most bureaucratic: she was the first female staff member to reach the rank of undersecretary general, which she did in 1987 when she became head of the UN’s “third headquarters”, its office in Vienna. She is still remembered in that city with great affection, but her most spectacular exploits occurred in far more dangerous and exotic places. First hired as a local staff member in Manila in 1952, she went on to serve in several countries in Latin America, and also in Ethiopia, Morocco and finally Angola – where, as head of an understaffed and underfunded UN peacekeeping mission, she oversaw the 1992 elections and tried desperately, but in the end unsuccessfully, to prevent the country sliding back into civil war. In between, she held important posts in Geneva and New York, as well as Vienna, struggling to introduce greater coherence and rationality into the UN’s rambling technical assistance machinery, but always happier when working in the field to help the world’s poorest peoples and those experiencing the greatest suffering. Her competence and calmness under fire (both literal and metaphorical), her willingness to live, work and travel in the most uncomfortable circumstances and her ability to make friends wherever she went were grudgingly but increasingly recognised by her superiors. Successive UN secretaries general turned to her for the most arduous troubleshooting missions."
Edward Mortimer, Guardian obit 1 September 2016

"In 2003 she wrote from retirement: “Last winter the only road from La Paz to my house was blocked by rebel guerrillas; I ended up riding home in a convoy, disguised as a Bolivian soldier.” In Guatemala 51 politicians she dealt with were murdered. Yet one coup shook her: General Pinochet’s bloody takeover in 1973. Margaret Anstee reckoned this “a turning point in my life. I’d been through three revolutions and thought: 'This could never happen in England’, but having seen what happened in Chile, the most civilised country in the continent, I realise you can never know what human beings are capable of doing to one another.”
Telegraph obit

“But if the present conflagration has revived Anstee's nightmares of 12 years ago, the memories of her lonely struggle to hold together the futile Angolan peace process between 1992-93 never leave her. ''I cannot free myself from Angola, and that is the one place where I did feel excruciatingly alone, without the right mandate or the right resources, yet burdened by the massive realisation that any decision I took would affect people's lives.'' How did she get through the ordeal? ''Well, I used to rise at 5.30am, do some exercises, and swim a kilometre in the pool, and that really was all the time I had for working out what I was going to do each day.''”
Anne Simpson, A Real Woman of the world Margaret Anstee joined the highest ranks of the once male-dominated UN, The Sunday Herald 1 April 2003

After a lifetime of smashing barriers for women, risking life and limb for the vulnerable, and  trying to make the world a better place, Anstee died at the age of 90.

And if you think I've added her obit here to get it more eyes, then, guilty as charged.