Still Wild About Wilder’s Willy Wonka

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RIP Mr. Wilder!

Blog post from March 2, 2012

When my friend Molly posted this photo of my first movie hero last week, I felt like I had just chugged a Fizzy Lifting Drink. I was sky-high and belching my way to Cloud 9.

Then I read her caption: “My most serious crush, even more than David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman.” Huh? Willy Wonka as sex symbol? When I try to describe Wilder’s on-screen appearance as Wonka, I sound an awful lot like Grandpa Howard from Sixteen Candles. You know, when he’s inquiring about the whereabouts of Long Duck Dong.

“What was he wearing? Well, uh, let’s see, he was wearing a [brown top hat, purple jacket, tan bow tie, and pink shirt]. Hmmm? No, he’s not retarded.”

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A couple of days after Molly’s post, my brother left me the following message: “Shane, I just watched Willy Wonka again. It’s still the greatest. You’ve gotta write a blog about it.” Hmmm? No, he’s not retarded either. Brett’s a fanboy who—like me—calls Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory the greatest children’s movie of all-time. [Sorry Dorothy, flying monkeys creep the crap out of me].

As a little boy curled up in my beanbag chair, I remember being so captivated by the colors of Wonka World…so intoxicated by the imagined smell of the chocolate river…and so scared shitless by that riverboat tunnel ride. “There’s no earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going/There’s no knowing where we’re rowing/Or which way the river’s flowing.” This same verse can be used to describe the genius of Gene Wilder’s Wonka. It is, quite simply, my favorite cinematic invention of all-time.

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In his biography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, Gene Wilder writes that he was hesitant to play Willy Wonka at first. In fact, he would only accept the role on these terms:

“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself…but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

When asked why, Wilder replied:
“Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

And from that time on, Gene Wilder gives a chocolate factory tour-de-force performance as Willy Wonka. He’s compulsively manic, eccentric, distrustful, and quite possibly diabolical. “And almost everything you’ll see is eatable, edible. I mean, you can eat almost everything.”

I firmly believe that Gene Wilder built his performance on a simple fact. Kids are smarter than we—and Disney—give them credit for. They don’t miss a trick. The brilliance of Wilder’s slight-of-hand performance is that he’s still tricking kids some 40 years later. The trick? Kids don’t even realize they’re being fed a three-course morality meal. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is chock-full of hard lessons in gluttony, vanity, greed, bad parenting, and “gum-chewing’s fine every once in a while.”

But Wonka’s lessons never taste preachy because Wilder never lets kids get comfortable. He dismisses “bad eggs” the same way he dispenses whimsy…with little effort or concern. “It happens every time. They all become blueberries.”

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As a kid, I was scared to death! They’re “gonna squeeze her like a little pimple”? Won’t she explode? Will Charlie be next? Sorry kids, no Disney shortcuts here. Your happy ending is going to be earned.

“The suspense is terrible, I hope it’ll last.

The suspense lasts until the final scene. Just when you think there’s nothing left of the weary Wonka, his frustration over not finding a worthy heir boils over into a fit of rage: “You get nothing!!! You lose!!! Good day sir!!!” Then with the simple drop of an everlasting gobstopper, all that vein-popping, spit-spewing, hair-straggling rage settles into a genuine smile. That same smile, I presume, that Molly’s been crushing on all these years.

Yes, Charlie ultimately gains Wonka’s trust. And Wilder finally lets us trust Wonka….while planting a gobstopper-size lump in our throats. No more tricks. Just the treat of watching Wilder’s Wonka tell “an honest, loving child” that he’ll live happily ever after.

There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination.

Willy Wonka and the Chocoloate Factory is that rare family film that hits all the magical movie marks: Delightful and funny, exciting and scary, silly and smart. And Wonka’s all these things because of Gene Wilder’s genuine work of pure imagination.

As for Molly, I have but one question: Like the gobstopper, is your Wilder crush everlasting?

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