Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Remembering Gene Wilder

Ironically, this late comedic actor is probably most beloved for one film that was a flop when it first released and another that was a huge hit, but its director admits it would be almost impossible to produce in today’s “problematic” Puritanical climate. Those films are Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Blazing Saddles. Of course, he also starred in Young Frankenstein, co-written with his good friend and creative collaborator, Mel Brooks. Fittingly, Brooks has much to say about his late comrade in Ron Frank’s documentary, Remembering Gene Wilder, which opens Friday in New York.

Frank incorporates extensive excerpts from Wilder’s narration of his memoir’s audio book, but Brooks is still one of the most prominent voices in the film. He met Wilder through his future wife Anne Bancroft, when they were both appearing on Broadway together. Both Brooks and Bancroft thought Wilder would be perfect for a film he was developing, which would become
The Producers.

At the time,
Willie Wonka was seen as a career setback, but he rebounded with Blazing Saddles. Then, Wilder started writing a treatment for Young Frankenstein, rather fortuitously meeting Marty Feldman and Pete Boyle through his new agent.

Frankly, it is rather amazing how huge Wilder looms in our collective cultural memory, based on less than 40 on-screen credits. Of course, there were the films co-starring Gilda Radner and his collaborations with Richard Pryor. Their final, under-appreciated film together,
See No Evil, Hear No Evil introduced Wilder to his second wife Karen, who taught him lip-reading and coached him how to respectfully portray a deaf character.

Remembering Gene Wilder reminds us how much funnier films were in the 1970s and 1980s. Even the misfires produced by the Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder-Marty Feldman axis of lunacy get more laughs than anything in theaters today. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of sadness in Frank’s documentary, because that was the truth of Wilder’s life. To his credit, the film covers Radner’s death and Wilder’s difficult demise from Alzheimer’s complications with fitting honesty and sensitivity.

In addition to his films with Brooks, Radner, and Pryor, Frank serves up some good coverage of
Bonnie and Clyde, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, The World’s Greatest Lover (including commentary from co-star Carol Kane), and The Frisco Kid. If any film gets short shrift, it would probably be Stanley Donen’s The Little Prince. It is a nice profile that stirs nostalgia in the right way. Recommended for fans of vintage 70s and 80s comedy, Remembering Gene Wilder opens this Friday (3/15) in New York, at the Quad.