Kiss Me Like a Stranger

by Alan Rapp on November 14, 2005

in Uncategorized

Gene Wilder has supplied many of film’s best comic performances, but who is he and how was his life and career shaped?  Wilder provides some answers as well as ask some questions of his own in his autobiography which examines his career, his friendships, his relationships, and the loves of his life.

Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search For Love and Art
4 Stars

Gene Wilder is a complex man who has battled unhappiness and uncertainty while giving pleasure to millions with his brilliant comic performances.  Kiss Me Like a Stranger is a narrative look at pivotal moments in Wilder’s life that through fate or coincidence made him who he is today.

The biography is broken up into different sections of Wilder’s life.  The first examines his childhood, the second his early career, the third his working with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, and the last his life with Gilda Radner.

There is quite a bit of information I found fascinating.  Although I grew up with Wilder’s films, I didn’t know much about his private life which included two failed marriages, years of psychiatric help, and his private demon which haunted him for so long.  Wilder opens up his life and shares the good and the bad and gives the same generosity in telling his story as he so often showed on stage and screen.

There are frank and shocking moments in his early years and his experiences with women, but this is not a “tell all.”  Instead Wilder has focused on specific moments, choices, and relationships that have molded his life and shaped his career.

In terms of his career we get many nice tidbits such as the process of how Young Frankenstein came into existence, his friendship with Mel Brooks, and the wonderful, if sometimes strained, working relationship he had with Richard Pryor including their first meeting and the easy nature they fell into on screen from the very first shots on Silver Streak

Many stories stand out for me but I’ll share two.  The first anecdote is Wilder’s plane ride to New York with Stanley Doen as the watch the in flight movie and he gives Wilder some directing tips.  They watch the film without sound looking at how the film is lit, staged, etc.  The second involves a chance meeting with Cary Grant and a discussion about “normal men like the two of them.”

One thing Wilder himself finds fascinating is how much of his own career and life is do to chance meetings or a series of seemingly unrelated events.  He often muses on these topics at the end of a particular chapter showing how easily his life might have turned in a different direction.

In the earlier sections of the book he examines his relationships with his ex-wives and his adopted child.  In the last quarter of the book Wilder examines his life with, and after, Gilda Radner.  Very touching moments here as Wilder understands the good and the bad of each relationship and is willing to share it all.

What’s amazing about Gene Wilder is many of his best films were commercial failures (both The Producers and Willy Wonka were box office disappointments).  Yet Wilder continued to strive to make good movies and deal while dealing with personal problems which haunted him well into his adulthood.  This man gave me some of my favorite memories in cinema, whether telling Teri Garr to “put the candle back!”, singing about the world of imagination, or fighting killers on a moving train his performances have always shown the generous and tender human being beneath them.  The book does well in capturing snapshots of his life and letting us delve a little into his past and his hindsight.  An insightful, sometimes sad but often humorous tale that is a must read for fans of Gene Wilder’s career.

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