Today the River Styx flows with chocolate, for Gene Wilder has died. Of course, most people will remember him for Wonka, or for his three masterpieces with Mel Brooks, or for the Richard Pryor buddy capers. But if you stream one film tonight in his honor, make it The Woman In Red.
Stay with me, now.
Wilder not only starred in but wrote and directed the 1984 comedy, about a married businessman who’s bored with his life and becomes obsessed with a beautiful stranger. It’s actually a remake of the 1976 French film Pardon Mon Affaire. A ballsy move from the beginning: for his directorial debut, he chose to adapt an obscure French film. He got Stevie Wonder to produce the soundtrack album, which, say what you will about the saccharine Oscar winner “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” was a pretty good get considering Wonder’s incredible run through the ‘70s. To cap it off, Wilder cast Kelly LeBrock in her first film role. That’s right: without Gene Wilder, the road to Weird Science and Hard to Kill would have been that much longer. Thanks in part to LeBrock’s flicker of nudity, The Woman In Red earned one of the first ever PG-13 ratings.
Some critics have said its chauvinism hasn’t aged well. But actually the movie’s portrayal of male vanity is exactly what’s made it age well: As we’ve seen in the era of Trump, chauvinism hasn’t really gone anywhere. Wilder isn’t endorsing it; he’s lampooning it. He himself had been married twice—and later that year would marry a third time, to Gilda Radner, who has a hilarious supporting role in the film. Wilder is mocking the absurd lengths men will be driven by their libidos. Women, too: The film’s surprise ending, when (spoiler alert) we learn that LeBrock’s character is also married, turns it into a commentary on female sexual empowerment.
The Woman in Red is the most underrated film of Wilder’s career, and one of his very best. He certainly thought so himself. “Young Frankenstein and The Woman in Red are the two best things I’ve done,” he said in an interview to promote the film’s release. “I don’t enjoy watching myself a lot in movies, but I don’t ever get tired of Young Frankenstein. I can watch that all the time. I still laugh at it. And I feel that way about The Woman in Red.”
We’ll miss you, Gene. See you tonight, on our screens.