When Gene Wilder passed away earlier this week, like others around me that had become enamored with his brilliant acting and knack for near perfect comedic timing, I couldn't stop thinking about his roles that impacted me.
I thought about the strange and exuberant Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. I thought about the charming and charismatic Jim in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. And of course, I thought about the whimsical, dashing and mad chocolatier Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. These were films that I watched with my parents, at school and discovered on my own that all, in some way or another, helped develop my taste in comedy and broadened my knowledge of cinema.
The death of Gene Wilder wasn’t just the acceptance of another loss of someone that I didn’t know but who was profoundly important to me, but became a reason to revisit some of Wilder’s work with friends and family. Instead of sitting down to watch another rerun of whatever was playing on TV that night, we threw on Blazing Saddles and commented on just how much of a talent Wilder was.
It’s this thinking that led to me texting my 17-year-old cousin about sitting down to watch a film I thought she would have seen for sure, Willy Wonka. It was a film that I was introduced to in elementary school and I had just assumed that she had the same experience when she was younger. When I asked her if she wanted to watch it, she texted back a simple, "I don’t know what that is."
It wasn’t that I couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it, but I couldn’t believe that she didn’t know who Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka was. At the age of 17, my cousin grew up not knowing anything other than the internet. She was born into it, raised by it. Her interests, her friends and the way she introduced herself to the world was defined by her presence online and the world she was a citizen of.
The only appropriate response I could think of was to send her a photo I knew she would instantly recognize: the memeification of Wilder’s Willy Wonka character that had become the go to for expressing a sentiment of sarcastic disbelief. Within moments she responded, "Oh yeaaaaah! I love that guy. He’s so funny! He died? So sad."
Gene Wilder is simply timeless
She didn’t end up watching the movie with me, instead choosing to go and hang out with some friends during her last few days of summer vacation, but as I sat at home revisiting a movie that I hadn’t seen in years and reflecting upon Wilder as an actor, I thought about his legacy. For most of us, Wilder will always be the actor and comedian that we knew from his work. For an entirely new generation, however, Wilder wouldn’t be the acclaimed actor, but instead a JPEG sent without a second thought to a friend when they wanted to say something that words just couldn’t quite capture.
Much like the early Spider-Man memes that popped up on Reddit and 4chan, Wilder’s role in Willy Wonka — or to go even further, one of Wilder’s facial expressions in one scene in one particular movie — pushed memes into something that was used among the few to major corporations and brands using them to sell their products. For those that grew up spending less time in movie theaters or watching reruns of classics on television late at night and more time hanging out online, browsing Tumblr for the perfect reaction gif, Wilder was still very important but for a whole other reason.
I’ve been thinking about this transition quite a bit since Wilder died and while at first I was a little disappointed that the actor would always be "that meme guy" to my cousin, I realized that Wilder had become a part of internet history in a way that others have tried to replicate and have failed at.
Gene Wilder isn’t just a timeless actor or personality anymore. Gene Wilder is simply timeless.
Wilder was the type of man who wasn’t beholden to any specific decade, which is why I and tons of other twentysomethings grew up watching him in Willy Wonka or Young Frankenstein. And now, thanks to the internet’s desire to find something funny and explore the comedy within, Wilder isn’t beholden to a specific medium.
Wilder will always be more than a meme, without question, but the fact that generations to come will recognize Wilder’s facial expression and laugh means something. All Wilder ever wanted to do was make people laugh and, while I’m sure he never thought it would be a still from a movie that got 13 and 14-year-olds to do it, there’s something reassuring about knowing that Wilder will never disappear from conversations about pop culture.