With the passing of Gene Wilder yesterday, tributes started flying left and right about the talented actor. I was pleased to see that most centered on his entire portfolio of acting. I guess I expected most of the articles and segments to focus on his role as Willy Wonka.
But that assumption by me was based mostly on my own ignorance. To be completely honest, the only movie I watched of his from start to finish was “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” I remember one time when I was probably 11 or 12 my dad pointed out Gene Wilder to me in a different film on one of those old movie channels. Because of his unique appearance I knew right away that it was him but in the back of my head I kept telling myself “Man, that isn’t right.” Sadly, I only took him seriously when he was wearing his Candy Man suit.
Just some real brief commentary on “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” As a little kid I loved the movie but as I grew into my teens I hated it. I guess the creepiness factor set in just a little bit. No matter if you are a fan of the movie or not, I think we can all agree that it is just a little bizarre. Watching the different couples of grandparents co-habitat in beds inside the living room didn’t really seem right. The children themselves and how they were eliminated one-by-one always came off as strange and a little dark to me. The soundtrack was depressing. The Oompa Loompas…well…I don’t think I need to add anything about them.
I know the film was based on a book but we all know how directors and producers take full liberties when adapting these types of projects. I think they could have made some changes that would have made the movie age a little better over the years.
So of course that brings us to Gene Wilder. Did the star fit the creepy mold of the rest of the film? Absolutely. However, I think the creepiness of Willy Wonka fit just because it was counterbalanced by the versatility and sarcasm built into the role.
Willy Wonka was so incredibly condescending and sarcastic in the 1971 film that he became a pop culture star for passive aggressive insults in our modern age. Most of us know about the Condescending Wonka meme. If not, you can read this blog post I wrote about the phenomenon four years ago.
But I rather focus more on Wilder’s versatility in the role as opposed to his sarcastic wit. The Willy Wonka character goes through a few very different personas in the movie. The first one starts after he pretends to be a stiff old man and then performs that awful somersault. From there he is a joyful, energized, talk-a-million-words-per-minute-strike-that-reverse-it, witty, fun Candy Man. It is the Willy Wonka that we all imagine!
As the film goes on, however, he starts to become a little more withdrawn and much more sarcastic. As the children start to drop off, he becomes reflective. You quickly find out that Wonka isn’t such a happy guy.
But his character soon takes an even greater nose dive. In one of the most uncomfortable movie scenes I have ever watched, Wilder’s character goes from a cranky older man to a raging maniac. He gives Charlie and his grandpa a piece of his mind in his classic “YOU LOSE” tantrum (I wrote about the mashup of this classic scene in early 2012).
However, the 360 in the Willy Wonka character is completed when Charlie returns the Gobstopper. Wilder goes from rage to euphoria as he tells Charlie that he won. The transformation is incredible as you can almost see bright lights of happiness turn on inside of Wilder. It was certainly a noteworthy performance.
So while I respect Wilder’s acting genius in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” you won’t catch me watching the film the next time it comes on TV. In fact, I think you would have to give me at least 20 golden tickets before I ever give it my attention again. Rest in Peace to Gene Wilder. Don’t Blink.