“I didn’t think Jerry Silberman had the right ring to it. I wanted to be wilder.”

Like many kids of my generation (and I suspect plenty before and since), I first encountered Gene Wilder upon my first viewing of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. As a child, I thought that movie was an imaginative adventure ride that played into virtually every fantasy I had. As I got older, however, I looked at the man in the center of it and recognized him as more than just an actor. When first released, Wilder’s turn as Willy Wonka not only further cemented his status as one of the biggest movie stars of the era, but it, along with a cavalcade of other memorable film roles, helped to show him as someone destined for the screen for the sole purpose of expressing the magic that was inside of him. Director Ron Frank’s new documentary, Remembering Gene Wilder, does right by the silver screen icon with a tribute that shows an artist whose eclectic career was guided not by strategic motivations, but rather through a creative instinct that remains unmatched. 

Alternating between his personal life and professional breaks, Frank takes a look at the life of Wilder through vintage interviews, classic movie clips, and words from the people who knew him best. Amid all the nostalgia for one of the most indelible actors who ever graced the screen, Remembering Gene Wilder aims to uncover the soul behind this innovative artist.

Remembering Gene Wilder doesn’t waste any time in spotlighting the many facets its subject naturally possessed as an actor, taking great care to show the level of pathos and electricity he brought to every one of his performances. Wilder could indeed be a big, emotionally charged onscreen presence, but the way he imbued his characters with such warmth and explosiveness made him one of the most unique movie stars of his day. The film goes to appropriate lengths to show how much he gave to each part he took on and what he got back in return. With The Producers, Wilder enjoyed creative freedom like he’d never known, allowing him to find his artistic voice as a screen actor that could not be dismissed. Willy Wonka co-star Peter Ostrum describes Wilder as an experimental force who also took the time to mentor the young actor, eventually becoming a father figure to him. Finally, the doc shows how why Wilder’s conception and creation of Young Frankenstein was the single happiest experience of his career, a fact which comes across in the movie, not to mention the equally hilarious bloopers shown here. Elsewhere, Remembering Gene Wilder paints the star as a collaborator like no other, showing his instant brotherhood with Mel Brooks as well as his unique (and culturally significant) shorthand with Richard Pryor. 

But Remembering Gene Wilder is ultimately about what it was like to actually be Gene Wilder. Amid all the beloved, classic film clips, Frank undergoes a largely successful attempt to dive inside the man behind the many famous characters he brought to the screen. A look at Wilder’s early years traces the origins behind the mix of tenderness and ferocity which comprised the man everyone fell in love with. There’s the heartbreaking story of his mother’s bout with an illness that almost killed her and the doctor’s instructions to the young Wilder to make sure he never upset his mother. Scarring as this was (not to mention a huge burden for a youngster to carry), we see how this crucial moment in the boy’s life was the driving force behind his comedy instincts, with his much-suppressed rage and frustrations coming out in his acting throughout the years. Listening to Wilder describe it, it’s almost as if being on stage saved him from the scariness of the world he’d known as a child, allowing him to feel safe and free to be the kind of person he couldn’t be off of it. The impact of his first wife Gilda Radner on his life and the way he found peace off the screen in his later years paints a picture of him as both a mad scientist of an actor and a vulnerable soul.

From a cinematic standpoint, there isn’t a great deal to write home about here. There’s an overreliance on many of the clips that made Wilder a star, and some of the film insights feel like special features quality. However, Remembering Gene Wilder doesn’t need visual flair when it comes to a subject such as this one. If the film has a single aim, it’s to spotlight the man and the artist as he was. In that vein, Frank has done his job and then some. The narration by Wilder gives a sweet, storybook feel to the film and the testimonials by those who knew him contain true heart. By the time the credits roll, it’s easy to feel we’ve taken Wilder for granted and it becomes even more apparent that there was something about every acting move he made that made him so enlightening. A man full of whimsy and poignancy, Wilder pushed boundaries on the screen by being wonderfully extreme and absurd. But as the film so lovingly shows, Wilder was also a sensitive soul who did what he was meant to do. 

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