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Between the debut of Albert Brooks: Defending My Life on Max and the local premiere of Remembering Gene Wilder as the opening-night film of Philadelphia Jewish Film + Media Fall Fest (running through Saturday, November 18), it was quite a weekend for expansive documentaries about beloved Jewish comedy legends of the latter half of the 20th century. And as the moderator of the post-screening Q&A pointed out, the Jewish people could use a little bit of laughter these days.
Remembering Gene Wilder, directed by Ron Frank, is reasonably straightforward: a hugely enjoyable walk through Gene Wilder’s entire life and career narrated by Wilder himself via the audiobook of his 2005 memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.
Wilder played no fewer than four all-time great movie characters: Leo Bloom, the Waco Kid, Willy Wonka, and Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. But beyond all that, there was the Wilder persona seen so often on talk shows, from Dick Cavett in the 1970s to Conan O’Brien in the aughts, and seemingly in real life as well. There’s plenty of well-chosen footage of all of that, as well as home movies from both of the actor’s marriages.
The film is also full of talking-head interview testimonials, most notably with Mel Brooks. The director of three of Wilder’s best films, Brooks is one of the all-time great documentary talking heads—and considering how much he appears, it’s clear that the filmmakers got plenty of dynamite material out of him. Brooks, who is now 97, has outlived essentially all his old collaborators, yet he’s always willing to sit for frequent documentary interviews in order to pay tribute to them.
From The Producers to Will & Grace
Wilder was born as Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee in 1933. He headed to New York to do theater in the 1950s, and it was a chance meeting with Anne Bancroft that led him to Brooks and that breakthrough role in 1968’s comedy classic The Producers.
The film explores all of Wilder’s most famous roles, starting with The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein with Brooks, and then Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Frisco Kid, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (no, that film’s director, Woody Allen, does not participate), and ultimately his many films with Richard Pryor. The documentary also gives welcome attention to Wilder’s amazing, Emmy-winning guest spot on Will & Grace in 2002, the last prominent acting role of his career.
There’s also much about Wilder’s marriage to Gilda Radner, her illness and death in 1989, and Wilder’s happy second marriage. Following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he died at age 83 in 2016 among a wave of beloved celebrity goodbyes, including Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Carrie Fisher.
The film, thankfully, never raises the ever-tiresome “Could Blazing Saddles be made today?” question, although someone did ask about it in the Q&A.
It’s probably for you
Sure, if you’re the sort of person who’s read a lot of showbiz memoirs or seen prior documentaries about Brooks or Radner, a lot of material here is going to be familiar to you (it does reveal, however, that Wilder and Pryor, while a great comedy team, were never particularly close off the set).
But if you’re interested in Wilder and that period of comedy history, this documentary is probably for you. And really, who didn’t love Wilder?
An encore presentation of Remembering Gene Wilder will take place Tuesday, November 14, at 7pm at Bryn Mawr Film Institute. A full release is expected in 2024, although details have not been announced.
The full remaining schedule of the Fall Fest is here. Some Fall Fest films will also be available to stream January 6-8, 2024, with tickets on sale on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Above: (Image courtesy of Health Point Productions.)
What, When, Where
2023 Jewish Film + Media Fall Fest. $10-$15. Through November 18, 2023, at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S Independence Mall E, Philadelphia, and other venues. (215) 545-4400 or phillyjfm.org.
The Weitzman is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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