Gene's Sheepish Sister Carrie
In his whimsical 2005 autobiography Kiss Me like a Stranger, the beloved comic actor Gene Wilder (1933-2016), who would have turned 84 today, recalled a phone call he got from Woody Allen. “‘I want you to do a remake of Sister Carrie,’ he said. ‘I’m thinking either you or Laurence Olivier in the man’s part, but instead of a woman in Jennifer Jones’s part, I want to use a sheep.’” Believe it or not, after Wilder’s movie debut in the landmark Bonnie and Clyde (1967), none of the four movies he made afterward – The Producers (1968, scoring himself a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination), Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970) and, incredibly, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) – were box-office success. He mused: “I remember a quote from Gary Cooper: ‘I need one movie out of three to be a hit.’ I was leaving for California to do Woody’s film in hopes of resurrecting my career.” Thus, he joined the likes of Allen, John Carradine, Lou Jacobi, Louise Lasser, Anthony Quayle, Tony Randall, Lynn Redgrave and Burt Reynolds in the ripe and ready ensemble of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), very loosely based by Allen on Dr. David Reuben’s notorious best-seller. “Apart from ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good night,’ Woody said only three things to me during all of the filming. 1) ‘Did anyone offer you tea or coffee, Gene?’ 2) ‘Do you know where to go for lunch?’ 3) ‘By the way – if you don’t like any of these lines, just change them to what you’d like to say.’ In the episode entitled “What Is Sodomy?,” he portrayed the suburban general practitioner who develops an sudden, unexpectedly woolly attraction to an sirenlike sheep visiting from Greece named Daisy, with absolute conviction and poignancy through a 15-minute sequence packed with the agony and ecstasy of infatuation, passion and disillusionment. The film’s other subject areas are quite engagingly and audaciously explored on the topics of “Do Aphrodisiacs Work?” (medieval chastity belt malarkey), “Reaching an Orgasm” (Antonioni-style compulsion to nooky in public spaces), “Transvestites” (cross-dressing fetishism), “What Are Sex Perverts?” (personality quirks as game-show fodder), “Are Findings Accurate?” (breast fixation on a grand scale, complete with horny Boy Scouts) and “Ejaculation” (soldier sperm as wartime paratroopers). Wilder found his contribution to be a happy filmmaking experience, and he got what he wanted: a box-office hit. When lists of great Wilder movie creations are compiled, there are the bona-fide usual suspects of Eugene Grizzard, candyman Wonka, Blazing Saddles’ Jim, Victor Frankenstein, the happy hookups with Richard Pryor and Wilder’s beloved wife Gilda Radner. But, with no slight offered to George Clooney’s sterling ER MD character, attention must also be paid to Wilder’s Dr. Doug Ross in the crazy-quilt compilation Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* *But Were Afraid to Ask, to be unleashed July 18 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.