It’s easy for me to say I am a fan of Gene Wilder. I watched every movie of his I could get my hands on (13 so far), I’ve read multiple books by and about him, and I have dived the depths of YouTube to find his old TV interviews. Sadly, my fandom of him was always in hindsight as his career was over before my awareness of him really began. Near the beginning, I went to Best Buy and bought a two pack of movies, Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, took them home and watched them both. Richard Pryor died the very next day. I knew then it would be just a matter of time before we lost Gene Wilder too. That awareness didn’t do much to soften the blow when the news of his passing reached me. I immediately missed him. Gene Wilder remains one of my favorite actors because he achieved something rare: an effortless and inimitable combination of humor and sadness. He brought a complexity to his roles that endeared him to audiences for reasons they could not understand. He was layered without being dense, hilarious without being outrageous, sad without being depressing. It’s this complexity in his acting that makes Willy Wonka & and the Chocolate Factory such a classic.
When I saw I had the chance to see Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in the theater, I knew I couldn’t pass it up, although I did have to forfeit my chance to see Blazing Saddles with a full audience. Seeing the movie this way added only a little: the dark of the theater helped me focus, and the audience’s laughter at the corny jokes and ridiculous characters made it all a little more enjoyable. Having seen this movie more than a few times, I was shocked to find myself surprised by something I thought I knew so well. In my memory, most of this movie takes place in Wonka’s factory, not just the second half. The tone of the first half was also a surprise, populated with silly jokes and painfully unnecessary songs. However, the movie makes good use of some of this time, setting up each of the kids who find golden tickets as exaggerated personifications of common personality flaws found in children. All except our protagonist, Charlie Bucket, whose life is as glamorous as his last name. The glimpse we get into Charlie’s life is filled with soul-crushing poverty and astonishingly inept adults, yet Charlie remains impossibly virtuous throughout. Between all that and the assortment of sketch like scenes that fill the first half, a tone is established that gets thrown out the window in the second half. The moment Willy Wonka shows up on screen, the characters are in his world. Gone are the cheesy jokes, replaced instead with a playful mischief reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat.
Gene Wilder’s characterization of Willy Wonka is similar to his other roles: a quiet gentle man who hints at a deep pool of melancholy just below the surface, but this one has a cynical, almost cruel edge to it. He seems to expect the kids to fall victim to a combination of the unsafe conditions of his factory and their own moral failings; when each of the kids arrogantly charges headfirst into their own doom he can be heard muttering quietly, “No. Stop. Don’t.” Whenever he is challenged by one of his guests, he masterfully sets their head spinning with his sarcastic nonsense, such as “I’m sorry, all questions must be submitted in writing.” Wilder’s unique funny-sad acting style really shines here, his unbreaking straight face and distant stare suggest a man who has suffered some kind of traumatic disillusionment sometime in the past. His detachment can shift effortlessly from dispassionate to hysterical as he slips into yelling, singing ominously, or screaming at his guests. The infamous boat scene is the most obvious example, (“What is this, some kind of freak out?”), but hardly the only one. It’s easy to forget the song Pure Imagination begins with him taunting his guests by pacing back and forth up the steps and swinging his cane wildly in their faces before he allows them into his Chocolate room. But it’s not so easy to forget the shocked and sad look on Charlie’s face when Wonka really cuts loose on him and Grandpa Joe for stealing Fizzy Lifting drinks. This Willy Wonka borrows from the Trickster archetype: defying logic and expectations, refusing to be understood. His whole factory is an expression of his personality in its dangerousness and illogical physics. It only makes sense as a metaphor, but I get the impression that it isn’t supposed to be confined to “sense”, but as the song goes, only pure imagination.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is by no means a perfect movie. There is a dramatic tonal dissonance between the two halves, the sets and special effects have not aged well at all, and the acting from the children, the adults, and pretty much everyone who isn’t Gene Wilder left much to be desired. Despite all those shortcomings, this movie remains a classic for one simple reason: its star. Amid the rubble of a fallible production, started with the cynical intentions of promoting a tie in candy bar by the Quaker Oats Company of all people, there stands a single towering monument to a role acted so well it survives decades of aging, a poor imitation, and even the actor that played it. Gene Wilder IS Willy Wonka. Kids and former kids all over the world can attest to this; there will be no other. The portrayal is as inspired and original as the man himself. Gene had at times expressed mixed feelings about the role that seemed to outshine him, once saying “I don’t want my gravestone to say ‘Willy Wonka lies here.” But I can think of no greater memorial to the man who captured the imagination of so many young people. Decades from now no one will remember Robert Deniro, Daniel Day-Lewis or Tom Hardy any more than we remember Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant. But I’m willing to bet people will still be saying “we have so much time and so little to do” or more appropriately “WE are the music makers and WE are the dreamers of dreams”. While his memory may be gone, his body will live forever in our hearts and minds. Wait. Scratch that. Reverse it. Thank you.
Rest in peace, Mr. Wilder.