'Remembering Gene Wilder' review: saluting a comedy icon

The charming and affectionate documentary “Remembering Gene Wilder” is by no means a complete picture of the legendary comedy actor who died in 2016 at age 83. But within the confines of a fast-paced 90 minutes, director, editor Ron Frank and writer Glenn Kirschbaum pleasantly guides us through many highlights of Wilder's career and personal life, vividly reaffirming why the artist blue eyes and electric hair he was a star and such a dear person.

Using a wealth of classic film clips, excellent archival footage and photographs, lively interviews with Wilder's friends and colleagues such as Mel Brooks, Harry Connick Jr., Alan Alda and Carol Kane, and stretches of gentle narration from Wilder himself (taken of the audiobook). from his 2005 memoir, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger”), the film moves largely chronologically from his childhood in Milwaukee to the end of his life, which was claimed by the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. .

Born Jerry Silberman into a Russian Jewish family, Wilder (he changed his name early in his acting career) was warned as a child never to argue with his heart-problem mother because “it could kill her.” Instead, he dedicated himself to trying to make her laugh, proving an ideal origin story for someone who would delight audiences with her unique comedic abilities. Contributions from Wilder's cousin, Rochelle Pierce, provide a privileged perspective on the actor and his family.

The film jumps to Wilder's first stage appearances and the one that would change his life: performing on Broadway in 1963's “Mother Courage and her Children” with star Anne Bancroft. During the show's run, he suggested his talented co-star, his then-boyfriend, Mel Brooks, for a role in an extravagant script he wrote called “Spring for Hitler.” Several years later, Brooks cast Wilder as neurotic accountant Leo Bloom in the satire retitled “The Producers.” He was born a star and one of the great cinematic associations.

From left, Teri Garr, Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and director Mel Brooks on the set of “Young Frankenstein.”

(Alamy Stock Photo)

Peppered with warm, detailed memories of Brooks and backed with riotous clips from the outrageous 1967 comedy, the documentary traces the creation of Wilder's Oscar-nominated performance opposite the irrepressible Zero Mostel. Reminders of such crazy moments as Wilder's “blue blanket” collapse underscore the actor's unbridled genius.

Completing the Wilder-Brooks trifecta of hit comedies is coverage of their landmark collaborations in two iconic 1974 releases: the western spoof “Blazing Saddles,” in which Wilder replaced Gig Young as the Waco Kid, and “Young Frankenstein.” , the Horror-comedy with Wilder (who co-wrote with Brooks) in the lead role. A series of memorable film clips and making-of anecdotes from Brooks and “Frankenstein” producer Michael Gruskoff, along with creative observations from Wilder (“When he got excited, he was a volcano,” Brooks recalls) make this part of the especially funny documentary.

Wilder's first supporting role in “Bonnie and Clyde,” his famous lead portrayal in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” his, ahem, self-conscious role in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid) to ask) by Woody Allen. )”, he ventures into directing (“The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes's Smartest Brother”, “The World's Greatest Lover”) and his collaborations on screen with another comedy giant, Richard Pryor (“Silver Streak”, “Stir Crazy”, “See No Evil, Hear No Evil”), also receive their close-ups. (Pryor's daughter, Rain, adds a lot to the discussion.)

The film's attention to Wilder's Judaism focuses primarily on his endearing role as a Polish rabbi who travels to San Francisco in the 1979 comedy western “The Frisco Kid.” (Harrison Ford replaced, of all people, John Wayne, as a bank robber who befriends the rabbi.) Clips from the box office flop show Wilder at his best, speaking Yiddish and in Hasidic dress; Veteran producer Mace Neufeld remembers the production and Wilder's skillful contributions.

A director happily remembers a former colleague.

Mel Brooks, interviewed in the documentary “Remembering Gene Wilder.”

(Kino Lorber)

Although the documentary omits discussion of Wilder's early romantic life, which included two failed marriages (he also had an estranged adopted daughter), his last two, much happier marriages take up much of the final half-hour of the movie.

Wilder's chance meeting with “Saturday Night Live” cast member Gilda Radner when they co-starred in the 1982 action comedy “Hanky ​​Panky” led to the unlikely soulmates marrying and making two more on-screen couples. big one: “The Woman in Red” and “Haunted Honeymoon,” written and directed by Wilder.

But as Wilder described (through his audiobook narration and clips from archival television interviews), as well as Mel Brooks and Radner's friends Alan and Robin Zweibel, tragedy struck when Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. in 1986. He died in 1989. Although the details of the Wilder-Radner union are now more than familiar, their story, as told here, remains deeply moving.

Also movingly portrayed is Wilder's subsequent marriage to Karen Webb, supervisor of the then-named New York League for the Hard of Hearing, with whom he first consulted in 1988 for her role as a deaf store owner. in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.” .” They reunited after Radner's death, began dating, married in 1991, and lived together in Connecticut until Wilder's death. His widow sheds much light on their seemingly idyllic relationship, during which time Wilder finally ended his acting career and focused more on writing and painting. Then came his heartbreaking descent into dementia.

Completists may wish that Frank and Kirschbaum would cover Wilder's acting work in the 1990s (a few late features, several TV movies, a short-lived sitcom) and better explore his decision to retire from acting. However, his last on-screen appearance, an Emmy-winning guest role on the TV show “Will & Grace,” is featured, along with funny clips from the show and glowing words from series star Eric McCormack. .

While “Remembering Gene Wilder” isn't always the most dimensional or penetrating look at an actor's life and psyche, it still serves as an optimistic tribute to a singular movie star and a worthy reminder of how much has been lost.

'Remembering Gene Wilder'

Not qualified

Execution time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: In limited release on Friday, March 22.

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