Remembering Gene Wilder

If you were around during the ‘70s and ‘80s, odds are you were a big Gene Wilder fan. The comic actor couldn’t have been bigger during those decades, thanks to a string of major hits. I vividly recall my father taking six-year-old me to see Young Frankenstein, where I sat in rapt attention at Wilder’s performance. Something about him felt fundamentally real, even in the midst of an intentionally outrageous story. When Silver Streak came out two years later, I begged my dad to take me to that one too. So yes, I was already in the bag for the documentary Remembering Gene Wilder, but fortunately, it’s truly a good film and not just a “fans only” kind of thing.

Director Ron Frank utilizes Wilder’s audiobook narration and interview clips to help tell his story. A short section focuses on the star’s upbringing, although it largely jumps in at the start of his film career – a dazzling one-two punch of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mel Brooks’s The Producers. From there, it charts Wilder’s triumphs in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, and Stir Crazy, among others. Friends and admirers, including Alan Alda and Carol Kane, weigh in on his unique talents. Brooks is interviewed too, and he unsurprisingly has a ton of incredible stories to tell about their collaborations. His recounting of how the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene in Young Frankenstein almost derailed their partnership is particularly fun.

Universal

Later in the documentary, there’s focus on Wilder’s personal life, including his marriage to Gilda Radner, how he was impacted by her premature death, and how he found love again, almost by fluke, thanks to the flop See No Evil, Hear No Evil. His work with Richard Pryor is another subject, and it’s strange to learn that they weren’t especially chummy offscreen. (Pryor’s daughter Rain offers insight on that.) What comes across time and again is that Wilder was as kind as he was creative. Success didn’t spoil him, it inspired him to share his gifts fully.

Remembering Gene Wilder hits on that idea most strongly. He wrote, acted, and directed, taking inspiration from coworkers and loved ones. You really get a sense of his work ethic here. The section on Willy Wonka sets the tone early, emphasizing Wilder’s desire to be unpredictable yet authentic with each role he played. Coasting was not an option. Surely, this is a big part of what audiences responded to.

Using Wilder’s own words was a smart choice, as it takes viewers inside his mindset, and the film makes liberal use of clips from his work. It made me want to go watch all his movies again. You can feel the love emanating from Remembering Gene Wilder. It’s an impassioned tribute to a one-of-a-kind performer who left behind a legacy of laughter, both in theaters and in real life.


out of four

Remembering Gene Wilder is unrated, but contains mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.


© 2024 Mike McGranaghan