April 19, 2024 7:10 am

Remembering Gene Wilder
Remembering Gene Wilder

Remembering Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder couldn’t have chosen a better stage name. “Gene” is so ordinary, so sane. It promises gentleness: genial, congeniality. But Wilder? That’s the sort of actor who could play Leo Bloom, Willy Wonka, Dr. Frankenstein’s nephew, or The Waco Kid. 

Sure enough, from his breakout role as Bloom, the accountant who gets pulled into a criminal scheme opposite Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock in “The Producers,” through his Emmy-winning supporting performance as Mr. Stein on TV’s “Will & Grace” in 2003 (after which he retired), his performances blended gentleness, volatility, and a romantic spirit. He was mesmerizing whether starring in classics like “The Producers,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles” or misfires like “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” or his self-directed “The Woman in Red.” He was calm and chaos, reason and madness. He made you believe in whatever he was doing on screen, no matter how preposterous. He had that gift.

His personal life was marked by tragedy. Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and dropped into cinema via theater in the late 1960s, he lost his mother to ovarian cancer at 23 when he was serving in the Army, and his wife Gilda Radner to the same disease decades later. He remarried (to Karen Webb a clinical supervisor for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing who advised Wilder on his performance as a deaf man in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil”), battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma into remission with chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, but died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. 

“Remembering Gene Wilder” covers this and more, though not too much more. It’s patchy and digressive, and the overreliance on syrupy music becomes off-putting towards the end. But fans of the actor will probably enjoy it, because it’s a chance to appreciate the life and art of a remarkable talent whose period of superstardom was actually much briefer than we might have realized. 

Wilder’s glory years were roughly 1968-1980, a stretch bracketed by “The Producers” and his biggest box-office success “Stir Crazy” (opposite Richard Pryor, with whom he made five features). After the one-two box office punch of “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” in the same year (Wilder co-wrote the script to the latter and was Oscar-nominated) he decided to go the route of his pal Brooks by writing and directing his own star vehicles, starting with “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” and “The World’s Greatest Lover.” 

But the productions were a mixed bag, and the movies he made for other directors tended to be worse and less intriguingly personal. By the ‘90s it became clear that he was the sort of acquired taste that audiences wouldn’t automatically come out to see. After losing Radner and then his friend and comedy teammate Pryor (to multiple sclerosis) Wilder started to lose interest in acting and filmmaking, and by the end of his life concentrated mostly on writing novels and nonfiction, painting watercolors and tap-dancing with Webb, and raising money for cancer awareness and treatment in honor of Radner.

The movie doesn’t offer much critical analysis of Wilder’s creative or personal choices. Even for a film about a guy who was, by all accounts, a decent chap who brought joy to the world, this is a borderline hagiography–and that’s too bad, because Wilder was a complicated, fascinating person. He clearly had an ego as big as that of any of the legendary artists he worked with. He was catnip to women: married four times (always quickly); no biological children, but an adopted daughter from his second wife Mary Joan Schutz’s previous marriage. Schutz divorced Wilder after “Young Frankenstein” because she thought he was having an affair with costar Madeline Kahn, but it was another castmate, Teri Garr, that he ended up dating after the split. None of this is in the movie.

Gene Wilder seems to posthumously narrate parts of his own story, thanks to tracks lifted from audio books (a technique also used in the half-hour documentary “Gene Wilder: In His Own Words,” as well as other nonfiction celebrity bios, including “Listen to Me Marlon”). There are also interviews with Webb; Brooks; Carol Kane (his co-star in “The World’s Greatest Lover”); Alan Alda (a friend); Wilder’s cousin Rochelle Pierce; Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz; and musician-actor Harry Connick, Jr., whose connection to Wilder is unclear, but who offers sharp insights, including this description of Wilder’s voice: “It was almost like the way a wise person would speak to you from on top of a mountaintop.”

The editing (also by Frank) is smooth within each section but chunky overall. The movie lurches from one phase of Wilder’s life and career to another. The quick fade-ins and fade-outs make it feel like the commercial TV version of the movie, minus the commercials. Some key works are represented by full-length clips, others by behind-the-scenes material that seems to have been pulled from DVD extras. Brooks is such an entertaining storyteller that the movie gets sidetracked by him. Fans of both entertainers will have already heard most of the anecdotes about their collaborations, but it’s still fun to hear Brooks tell them again. 

The film is held together by Wilder’s eerie bright energy, which is palpable even now, years after his passing. His eyes are haunting, and haunted. There are a lot of closeups, still and in-motion, that capture the sadness Wilder endured and subtly communicated to viewers, on top of the hilarity he was known for. 

Gene Wilder couldn’t have chosen a better stage name. “Gene” is so ordinary, so sane. It promises gentleness: genial, congeniality. But Wilder? That’s the sort of actor who could play Leo Bloom, Willy Wonka, Dr. Frankenstein’s nephew, or The Waco Kid.  Sure enough, from his breakout role as Bloom, the accountant who gets pulled into a criminal scheme opposite Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock in “The Producers,” through his Emmy-winning supporting performance as Mr. Stein on TV’s “Will & Grace” in 2003 (after which he retired), his performances blended gentleness, volatility, and a romantic spirit. He was mesmerizing whether starring in classics like “The Producers,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles” or misfires like “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” or his self-directed “The Woman in Red.” He was calm and chaos, reason and madness. He made you believe in whatever he was doing on screen, no matter how preposterous. He had that gift. His personal life was marked by tragedy. Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and dropped into cinema via theater in the late 1960s, he lost his mother to ovarian cancer at 23 when he was serving in the Army, and his wife Gilda Radner to the same disease decades later. He remarried (to Karen Webb a clinical supervisor for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing who advised Wilder on his performance as a deaf man in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil”), battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma into remission with chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, but died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.  “Remembering Gene Wilder” covers this and more, though not too much more. It’s patchy and digressive, and the overreliance on syrupy music becomes off-putting towards the end. But fans of the actor will probably enjoy it, because it’s a chance to appreciate the life and art of a remarkable talent whose period of superstardom was actually much briefer than we might have realized.  Wilder’s glory years were roughly 1968-1980, a stretch bracketed by “The Producers” and his biggest box-office success “Stir Crazy” (opposite Richard Pryor, with whom he made five features). After the one-two box office punch of “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” in the same year (Wilder co-wrote the script to the latter and was Oscar-nominated) he decided to go the route of his pal Brooks by writing and directing his own star vehicles, starting with “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” and “The World’s Greatest Lover.”  But the productions were a mixed bag, and the movies he made for other directors tended to be worse and less intriguingly personal. By the ‘90s it became clear that he was the sort of acquired taste that audiences wouldn’t automatically come out to see. After losing Radner and then his friend and comedy teammate Pryor (to multiple sclerosis) Wilder started to lose interest in acting and filmmaking, and by the end of his life concentrated mostly on writing novels and nonfiction, painting watercolors and tap-dancing with Webb, and raising money for cancer awareness and treatment in honor of Radner. The movie doesn’t offer much critical analysis of Wilder’s creative or personal choices. Even for a film about a guy who was, by all accounts, a decent chap who brought joy to the world, this is a borderline hagiography–and that’s too bad, because Wilder was a complicated, fascinating person. He clearly had an ego as big as that of any of the legendary artists he worked with. He was catnip to women: married four times (always quickly); no biological children, but an adopted daughter from his second wife Mary Joan Schutz’s previous marriage. Schutz divorced Wilder after “Young Frankenstein” because she thought he was having an affair with costar Madeline Kahn, but it was another castmate, Teri Garr, that he ended up dating after the split. None of this is in the movie. Gene Wilder seems to posthumously narrate parts of his own story, thanks to tracks lifted from audio books (a technique also used in the half-hour documentary “Gene Wilder: In His Own Words,” as well as other nonfiction celebrity bios, including “Listen to Me Marlon”). There are also interviews with Webb; Brooks; Carol Kane (his co-star in “The World’s Greatest Lover”); Alan Alda (a friend); Wilder’s cousin Rochelle Pierce; Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz; and musician-actor Harry Connick, Jr., whose connection to Wilder is unclear, but who offers sharp insights, including this description of Wilder’s voice: “It was almost like the way a wise person would speak to you from on top of a mountaintop.” The editing (also by Frank) is smooth within each section but chunky overall. The movie lurches from one phase of Wilder’s life and career to another. The quick fade-ins and fade-outs make it feel like the commercial TV version of the movie, minus the commercials. Some key works are represented by full-length clips, others by behind-the-scenes material that seems to have been pulled from DVD extras. Brooks is such an entertaining storyteller that the movie gets sidetracked by him. Fans of both entertainers will have already heard most of the anecdotes about their collaborations, but it’s still fun to hear Brooks tell them again.  The film is held together by Wilder’s eerie bright energy, which is palpable even now, years after his passing. His eyes are haunting, and haunted. There are a lot of closeups, still and in-motion, that capture the sadness Wilder endured and subtly communicated to viewers, on top of the hilarity he was known for.  Read More