Thursday, September 14, 2006

Wilder Than I Used To Be

Gene Wilder's autobiography came out a year and a half ago. Last week, I read it. If a Gene Wilder autobiography had come out in 1977, I would have killed actual other human beings in order to be first in line at a book signing. But a Gene Wilder autobiography in 1977 would have been a pretentious piece of crap.

A more down-to-earth Wilder is in charge of a breezy narrative here. It's like listening to stories from a cool older dude over a great meal, with wine. In fact, I'm going to borrow the CD next, so that I can hear him read it. Everything's here that I'd expected: The early gigs, the early marriages, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, his marriage to Gilda Radner, her battle with cancer, his battle with cancer.

What was most refreshing to read were a couple of experiences that confirmed what I'd always suspected: That under the misty-moisty exterior, Mr. Wilder is one tough sumbitch. The experiences both had to do with a pre-fame Wilder standing up to authority: To a scene-trampling Carol Channing in a regional theater production, and to acting guru Lee Strasberg who was directing Gene in a musical revue. The experiences read like a scene from a Gene Wilder movie: Not the kind of scene where he gets hysterical over a blue blanket, but the kind where he faces his opposition with the complete calm of the utterly insane.

The acting student I was in 1977 would have regarded standing up to a celebrity or an acting class guru as an act of insanity. It would have been like slapping God. And it would have been regarded as such by my peers. We wanted so badly to reach the status of the Gene Wilders, the Al Pacinos, the Meryl Streeps, that we would have junked all integrity over the side of the ship and accepted outright abuse to get there.

What we had to learn is something that nobody's autobiography could have told us: You have to risk slapping false gods, and being slapped back, to have anything worth having.

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