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‘Gene Wilder’ sheds new light on an iconic talent

“Remembering Gene Wilder” (2023 production, 2024 release). Cast: Interviews: Mel Brooks, Carole Kane, Burton Gilliam, Eric McCormack, Peter Ostrum, Alan Alda, Harry Connick Jr., Ben Mankiewicz, Rain Pryor, Alan Zweibel, Robin Zweibel, Mike Medavoy, Mace Neufeld, Michael Gruskoff, Karen Wilder, Rochelle Pierce, Dr. Michael Rafii. Archives: Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, Anne Bancroft, Richard Pryor, Gilda Radner, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Gene Hackman, Jack Albertson, Harrison Ford, John Wayne, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gig Young, Woody Allen, Arthur Penn, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Garry Shandling, Conan O’Brien, Dick Cavett, Jeanne Silberman, William Silberman. Director: Ron Frank. Screenplay: Glenn Kirschbaum. Web site. Trailer.

There are times when certain talents don’t receive their due, lingering somewhat below the radar and arguably going undervalued. Fortunately, there are those who recognize their gifts and unhesitatingly sing their praises, bringing a new sense of appreciation to their work. And those testimonials serve to shed a new light on these artists, showcasing them in a way not previously portrayed. Such is the case with a gifted, if not always appreciated writer-actor-director-comedian profiled in the enlightening new documentary, “Remembering Gene Wilder.”

Born Jerome Silberman to Jewish parents in Milwaukee in 1933, Gene Wilder developed an interest in comedy at a young age. When his mother, Jeanne, became seriously ill with rheumatic fever, her doctor advised the aspiring talent to do all that he could to keep from upsetting her, adding that young Jerome might even want to try making her laugh – which he did. His acting and comic abilities subsequently took off, eventually leading him to relocate to New York.

Not long after his arrival in the Big Apple, he landed a supporting role in a stage production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children opposite actress Anne Bancroft. She was impressed with the budding actor’s abilities and believed he would be ideal for a role in “The Producers” (1967), the upcoming directorial film debut of her-then boyfriend (and future husband), Mel Brooks. The role was that of a milquetoast accountant named Leo Bloom, who, with the blessing of eccentric, bombastic producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), concocts a tax dodge scheme on how to make a financial killing on a sure-fire Broadway flop called Springtime for Hitler (also the film’s original title). Even though it took some time for Brooks to eventually meet with and cast Wilder in this outrageous comedy, he landed the part and delivered a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, despite strong initial objections to his casting from one of the film’s backers. His career was thus off and running.

The prolific career of writer-actor-director-comedian Gene Wilder comes to life in the eye-opening new documentary, “Remembering Gene Wilder,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

As it turns out, though, even though “The Producers” was Wilder’s breakthrough role, while awaiting the outcome of his casting decision, he took a small supporting role in director Arthur Penn’s infamous crime saga, “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), a part that was supposed to be serious but that he was able to turn into some of this violent picture’s best comic relief. And, even though this performance didn’t apparently have any bearing on his role in “The Producers,” it established Wilder as someone to watch for big screen comedy consideration.

That consideration flowered in subsequent years. He first earned the role of the title character in the family release, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971), a comedy with more than its fair share of tongue-in-cheek comic touches that suited Wilder’s sensibilities perfectly, many of which he adlibbed himself. Even though “Wonka” underperformed at the box office (many parents objected to some of its dark humor, psychedelic imagery and allusions, and suggestive subject matter), Wilder was singled out for his highly nuanced performance, full of delightfully unexpected moments.

This recognition carried through into subsequent roles, such as his edgy and outlandishly funny portrayal as an accomplished physician who unexpectedly becomes smitten with a sheep named Daisy in director Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” (1972). This was followed up by his iconic portrayal of the Waco Kid, a recovering alcoholic gunslinger in Mel Brooks’s Western sendup “Blazing Saddles” (1974), a role he took over when actor Gig Young was unable to fulfill his commitment to the part, a performance considered one of the most memorable comic portrayals in screen history.

However, Wilder’s greatest accomplishment was yet to come later in 1974 with his work on another Brooks collaboration, “Young Frankenstein.” This black-and-white parody of filmmaker James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1931) and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), which Wilder co-wrote with Brooks, featured the actor in the lead role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced FRONK-en-shteen), a descendent of the legendary mad scientist who tries unsuccessfully to distance himself from his questionable heritage. The film, which boasts a phenomenal ensemble cast including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle and Gene Hackman, has only gotten better with age, thanks in large part to its brilliantly hilarious Oscar-nominated script. This was Wilder at his best – and the picture that he saw as his personal favorite.

Together with longtime friend and collaborator Mel Brooks (pictured), writer-actor-director-comedian Gene Wilder created three of the most memorable comedies in Hollywood history, “The Producers” (1967), “Blazing Saddles” (1974) and “Young Frankenstein” (1974), as examined in director Ron Frank’s engaging new documentary, “Remembering Gene Wilder.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

While many of Wilder’s subsequent offerings were not looked upon as favorably as these early efforts, this insightful documentary expertly examines the actor-writer-director’s later underrated works and puts them in a new light, particularly when it comes to showcasing the novel touches he brought to these performances. These roles reveal a performer who was adept at not only evoking laughs, but also at being able to effectively capture degrees of vulnerability that added warmth to and empathy for the portrayals of these characters. This becomes evident through film clips from such movies as “Silver Streak” (1976), “The World’s Greatest Lover” (1977), “The Frisco Kid” (1979), “Stir Crazy” (1980) and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989). In addition, they also illustrate how Wilder was able to bring out the best in his co-stars, demonstrating a generosity of spirit that many of them attribute to being one of his best attributes as a consummate professional. This includes his collaborations with the likes of Richard Pryor (“Silver Streak,” “Stir Crazy,” “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” and “Another You” (1991)), Carole Kane (“The World’s Greatest Lover”), Harrison Ford (“The Frisco Kid”) and Gilda Radner (“Hanky Panky” (1982), “The Woman in Red” (1984) and “Haunted Honeymoon” (1986)), a relationship that would eventually become more than professional.

Outside of his professional accomplishments, “Remembering Gene Wilder” also focuses on his life off the big screen. Most notably it addresses his last two marriages, his bittersweet relationship with Radner, whom he saw as the perfect partner but who tragically died from cancer only five years after their wedding, and his subsequent betrothal to Karen Boyer, who helped him heal from Gilda’s death and spent many happy years with Wilder until his passing. It also focuses on the many friendships he developed over the years, including Alan Alda, Harry Connick Jr. and Eric McCormack, all of whom noted that the same qualities he brought to his professional collaborations were present in their personal relationships as well.

After Radner’s death and his marriage to Boyer, Wilder’s priorities changed somewhat. He devoted more time to his personal life and, when he did work, he was focused more on television than movies. In this regard, he perhaps became best known for his appearances on the sitcom Will & Grace (2002-2003), winning a Prime Time Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor on a Comedy Series. He also began engaging in other pursuits, such as stage work, writing books and painting watercolors. He entered semi-retirement in 2005, remaining there until his passing from Alzheimer’s Disease in 2016.

Actress Carole Kane (pictured), co-star of Gene Wilder in the 1977 comedy “The World’s Greatest Lover,” discusses her experience working with the gifted writer-actor-director-comedian in the new documentary, “Remembering Gene Wilder.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Through this portrait, viewers witness Wilder’s versatility in so many areas, as well as skills for tackling diverse and often quite eccentric roles. The camera spotlights the many nuances that often went unnoticed in his performances, and interviews with those who knew him reveal a gentle, warm, thoughtful soul who brought as much to his personal character as to his craft. It’s an eye-opening watch in many ways, showing the life of someone truly worth remembering.

Looking back on his many accomplishments, Wilder was indeed a creative titan. He was able to envision inspired creations of his own and how to take those of others and enhance them for maximum effect. And he did this by confidently believing in himself and his capabilities, as well as in the guidance, assistance and cooperation he extended to others. That was crucial to his success, given that our beliefs play a vital role in the manifestation of the existence we experience, an outcome made possible by the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the reality surrounding us. It’s unclear whether Wilder was aware of this school of thought, but, considering the track record of his achievements, it’s obvious that, on some level, he knew how to employ its principles, even if he didn’t use this particular term to describe this process.

This becomes apparent in the film when, in archive footage, he relates how he came up with the idea for “Young Frankenstein.” After he completed filming on “Blazing Saddles,” he developed an interest in wanting to write material for the screen, not just act. So, while on a break between projects, he set about coming up with ideas for original writing projects. In the seclusion of his vacation home, he sat down with a legal pad and began to contemplate concepts when he was struck with an intuitive insight, which he proceeded to write down – the phrase “Young Frankenstein.” He mused over the notion further, and, before long, he was sold on the idea that this could become a viable undertaking. He conferred with Mel Brooks, and, in no time, the production was in development.

Wilder believed so strongly in the concept that it came together rather quickly and easily. But, to fulfill his vision, he insisted on certain aspects of the production to fully flesh it out in line with his conception for the film. For instance, he was eager to have Brooks direct it but not to appear in it. He also saw it being filmed in black-and-white in the style of the James Whale films on which it was based, something he believed was essential to the character of the picture. He faced some studio resistance on this point, given that black-and-white movies had fallen out of favor by the early 1970s, but he passionately contended that shooting in color would be inauthentic to the nature of the production. He also played a big role in the selection of his co-stars, firmly believing in the proposed choices, all of whom were ultimately selected. These all proved to be wise decisions considering the finished product. He believed in them, and he fought for them, because he was convinced he was right – which he ultimately was. Indeed, what a creation this film proved to be.

At home with wife Karen Wilder (nee Boyer) (left), writer-actor-director-comedian Gene Wilder (right) enjoyed the last years of his life after retiring from show business, as seen in director Ron Frank’s engaging new documentary, “Remembering Gene Wilder.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Wilder’s generosity of spirit, a topic that so many of the interview subjects reference in the film, also stemmed from his beliefs. Beginning early on in life, when he figured out how to make his ailing mother laugh, Wilder learned what good could come from such a magnanimous attitude, and he believed in it so firmly that he naturally incorporated it into his professional collaborations in a variety of ways. For instance, as Wilder’s young “Willy Wonka” co-star Peter Ostrum observes in this documentary, the protagonist always treated his youthful counterpart as an equal, despite their significant age difference. As a promising talent whose primary experience before the film was in the youth company of a community theater, Ostrum benefitted from the gentle guidance Wilder offered, helping the youngster give a more polished performance than he might have otherwise.

Likewise, in the films that Wilder made with Richard Pryor, he gave his co-star the patient support he needed in light of the personal challenges he was undergoing at the time – initially, his struggle with substance abuse and, later, his challenges associated with multiple sclerosis. Wilder recognized what his collaborator was enduring and took a gentle approach to giving him space when needed, especially when it came to shooting conditions and schedules, generally with a deft touch and a desire not to crowd Pryor. His belief in taking a proactive but largely hands-off stance enabled him to get the most out of his colleague’s performance without applying undue pressure.

This, of course, carried over in his personal life, particularly during Gilda Radner’s battle with cancer. He worked tirelessly to help secure treatment for his wife and to assist her in her very public effort to help raise awareness about the disease and its detection. The outcome was not what the couple had ultimately hoped for, but it kept them together and fighting throughout the ordeal, one driven by his belief in generosity of spirit and the deep love he held for her.

This trait was not lost on himself, either. He made use of it in making his own performances and projects better, too, as candidly shown through the various nuances he readily applied to his own work, many of which are depicted and commented on in the film. These magic on-screen moments – many of which were roundly overlooked previously – are cast in a new light here. The film and its interview subjects, such as his co-stars and film commentators like Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies, cite the many influences that Wilder drew upon in creating these singular moments. The inspiration that came from some of Wilder’s idols, like Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and 1930s Hollywood movie musicals, not to mention the Jewish humor that was part of his upbringing, all went into making him a better performer, and we, as his audience, benefit from that, something we should be grateful for.

As documentaries go, this offering largely plays it straight in terms of its content and structure, exploring Wilder’s roots and recounting his rise to fame, told in chronological sequence. But, despite this conventional approach, “Remembering Gene Wilder” offers viewers much. The film features a number of recent interviews with his collaborators, friends and an array of movie industry production professionals. It also includes ample clips from Wilder’s films, as well as plenty of archive video and still photograph footage of those who helped shape him and who he, in turn, helped shape. Most importantly, though, this offering examines what made Wilder unique as an artist and as a private individual, someone known for his singular vision as a comedic (yet vulnerable) actor and as a compassionate, generous colleague toward those he loved and worked with. The result is a surprisingly eye-opening look at its subject, revealing sides of Wilder personally and professionally that many outside of his inner circle may not have known. The overall approach of this offering may not be particularly inventive, but the result is well worth a watch nevertheless. This release is available on home media and for streaming online.

Sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back to re-evaluate someone’s creations, and this film drives that point home where Gene Wilder is concerned. When he died, his longtime friend and collaborator Mel Brooks confessed that he was inconsolable for weeks afterward, despite the fact that he knew in advance the end was drawing near. That’s the kind of impact that this talented artist and good man had on others, even if those traits weren’t always fully recognized, appreciated or widely known. Fortunately, this film sets the record straight, helping us to take a new look at one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, one whose presence is indeed missed but whose memory lives on in what he left behind and the impressions he made on those who knew him and those who admired his impressive body of work. Shine on, Mr. Bloom, Waco and Dr. Frankenstein.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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