Who is Gene Wilder, really? Is he the lovable, brilliant, neurotic and hilarious comedic actor that you remember fondly from such films as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Do yourself a genuine favor and kindly ponder Once Upon A Time… to the life of Jerry Silberman, a young Jewish boy growing up in post WWII New York. Rather than focusing on the pretentious long-drawn life stories on which so many autobiographies / memoirs rely, Wilder focuses on the key events, places, and persons associated with his long and successful career. Painting such vivid portraits of contemporaries such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, Wilder sucks you in right from the beginning with his breezy, no-bullshit style of prose. He gives you the facts and spares no one any favors, especially himself.
In Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art [St. Martin’s Press] Gene Wilder takes you through the turmoil of his three marriages, his addictions, his years associated with psychoanalysis, his failures, his life, his loss, and more importantly- his love. This is not the Gene Wilder you grew up with. Maybe you remember him from his brief bit in Bonnie and Clyde or his starring role in films like Stir Crazy and Young Frankenstein. No, this is Gene Wilder, the adulterer, the sufferer, the comedic legend, the sinner.
He is indeed far from a saint, but that doesn’t exactly pull out his credentials and potentiality of being a great, vital human being. His accounts of his years with Gilda Radner were particularly disturbing, moving, grotesque, selfish, selfless, and helpless. How could he already have feelings for another woman and run rampant with her during Gilda’s final weeks? Indeed, Wilder reminds us that we humans all have desires, faults, and longings. He knows that we are only seeking love, many of us coming from broken homes where love was never placed upon a pedestal, never a top priority. Where selfishness ran adrift, where we cried, where we longed, where we often contemplated if anyone would ever provide us with the love we so desperately needed but were always denied, because God forbid, we couldn’t do it ourselves. With this in mind, Gene Wilder pulls plenty of punches and yet sheds little light on how he really feels. But he gives us laughter, love, and insightful commentary on the light-hearted hideousness of the human condition. And to that I have to say, thank you, Gene, for the laughter, the memories, and the brutal truth.