Gene Wilder was the king of the pause.
A gifted comedic actor can do many things with a pause, and Wilder — who had a sensational knack for stretching a halt — did them all.
The standard Gene Wilder gag is one where he reacts to a straightforward line or event, but, thanks to the commanding pause before this reaction, we are steered into utter unpredictability. Promising, threatening, awkward. Those pauses could lead us anywhere, and, thanks to Wilder and the ineffable weirdness he wore so proudly, they often did.
Think back, if you will, to the groundbreaking Blazing Saddles, where Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart walks in to find Wilder’s Waco Kid hanging upside down in his prison cell. “Are we awake?”, the Sheriff asks, and Wilder looks at him. Here’s Wilder Pause #1, a slight pause as he takes in the sight of this black man in a sheriff’s badge. Can he answer a question straight? As it turns out, he can. Somewhat. “We’re not sure. Are we… black?” Here Wilder pauses twice, once after sure, once before black, as if prodding at the very idea of a black sheriff. “Yes, we are,” Little says — pointedly without any pause — and, just for a moment, we’re afraid of what Wilder might say to this. By this point in the film we’ve seen the way the film regresses into ugly racism to build its progressive satire, and we’re afraid of that delightful man rubbing us the wrong way as soon as we see him. We brace ourselves but, as is always the case with Wilder, the predictable is dismissed. “Then we’re awake,” he says, before literally hauling himself the right way up.
Stillness is a tremendously potent weapon in an actor’s arsenal, and Wilder was so miraculously good at switching the signature of comic timing itself — shifting from the straightforward 4/4 of back and forth witticism to, say, a sudden 12/8 where the punchline is swallowed up by sheer character exasperation — that watching him work remains a marvel. There is also, I believe, something nearly fourth-wall-breaking with those majestic pauses, insinuating that he always knows more than the others watching him, on and off screen.
He always knew more than us. When approached by director Mel Stuart to play Roald Dahl’s fanciful title character in an adaptation of Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Wilder held the film to ransom, pegging his decision on one condition. “When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”
It is a theatrical flourish, a gorgeous bit of graceful misdirection. Wilder’s reason for this moment, though, is deeper and more incisive. “From that time on,” he told Stewart, “no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
To some extent, we never did. Like a bipolar baseball hitter, Wilder swung for the fences and gave us high-energy home runs as well as introspective, whimpery punts. He created characters that, for all their comic lunacy, held a strange pathos, a brittle vulnerability. Any memorable Wilder character, perhaps because of the care with which the actor conceived and constructed them, feels delicate.
Even his shrill fits of agitation, of near-apoplectic red-faced hysterics, contain the pauses. When Zero Mostel is standing over a loudly unravelling Wilder in The Producers, he halts his own high-pitched rambling to make a historical reference to Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina, and later, when Mostel throws a glass of water in his face after Wilder redundantly keeps labelling his own fit as hysterics, there is the slightest but most acute Wilder pause. “I’m wet,” he exclaims, taking stock of his situation and turning the moment immortal. “I’m hysterical and I’m wet.”
The pauses weren’t always strictly silent. Sometimes they meant Wilder, bemused or thunderstruck or plain incredulous, echoing something another character had just said. “Abby Normal?” he asked Morty Feldman’s Igor in Young Frankenstein, finger poised by his upper lip, mouth curling nearly into a smile before exploding into rightful and unforgettable outrage for having been given an abnormal brain.
Over the last week, as Gene left us at the age of 83 — an Alzheimer’s patient who kept his condition a secret in order to not depress young Wonka-fans, thus always knowing more than the rest of us — the internet has forsaken its usual cynicism and, instead, opened itself to celebrate the joys of Gene Wilder and to bask in the genius of his exquisitely odd legacy. He, in short, made us stop and laugh.
Back in Blazing Saddles, Sheriff Jim asks the Waco Kid to prove that he is indeed the fastest draw in the West. “In the world,” Wilder corrects, stubbled and slovenly and not looking very fast at all. He then asks the Sheriff to flank a chess-piece with his hands and then to grab the piece “first” when Wilder says go. He delivers the instructions slowly and carefully, and has all of us paying attention, you, me and the Sheriff. The scene is an obvious send-up of exaggeratedly far-fetched moments in cowboy films, and Wilder plays it slow till he says go. The tension is excruciating and lovely. Of course Wilder ends up with the chess-piece, but nothing at all has happened. No, that isn’t entirely accurate. Gene happened. The magic is the pause, not the payoff.
Thank you, Gene Wilder, for giving us pause.