For most of my life, writing has come naturally to me. I consider myself lucky to be able to manifest thoughts and feelings onto paper, with the words practically writing themselves. Today, however, writing is not easy. I’ve spent several minutes staring at a blank screen, unable to find a single word. Even now, as I watch the spaces fill in behind me, I don’t know which letters will follow suit. Gene Wilder, the legendary man known for his brilliant performances in several iconic films, has passed away. Though his career is forever immortalized by the continued success of his films, this remains a crushing blow in a year that has already claimed the lives of many entertainers.
Gene Wilder was more than just an entertainer to me, however. He was, and still very much is, one of my on-screen heroes. Life is seldom easy for myself or anyone who might be reading these words. When facing hardships, each of us need an outlet that pertains to our interests and allows us to disconnect from the world and find a peaceful place to exist for a little while. For me, film has always been that comfort – and there have been very few actors who could make me smile the way Wilder has. There are several films I could choose to discuss right now, be it Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Stir Crazy, or any of the other fantastic films you could pull from his filmography, but in my case, Gene Wilder’s career always comes back to one specific film – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, tells the story of Charlie Bucket, a thoughtful and respectable boy from a poor family, as he receives a Golden Ticket and is granted the chance to visit Willy Wonka’s mythical and secretive chocolate factory with four other children from around the world. A grand story of consequence and reward, Willy Wonka has resonated with audiences since its release in 1971.
In the film, the legendary Willy Wonka is portrayed by Gene Wilder as a larger-than-life idealist/madman in which the audience is equally drawn to and afraid of. Upon meeting Wonka for the first time, the children, their chaperones, and the many watching from outside the factory gates, are surprised to be greeted by a man with a cane and a limp. When the cane becomes stuck between cobblestone, Wonka tumbles forward, doing a somersault before hitting the ground and bouncing up to applause from his audience. This is the first personal glimpse we get into how peculiar the character is, and it’s an act that sets up Wonka’s shifting personality for the remainder of the film. In reference to taking on the role of Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder pitched this idea to director Mel Stuart:
“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.”
Can we appreciate how genius that idea was? Throughout the rest of the film, Wonka is alternately quirky, angry, odd, and terrifying – and it’s because of Wilder’s little detail that his poker face works so well. The audience doesn’t know Wonka’s true colors or intentions until the final minutes of the film, something that can be credited entirely to Gene Wilder’s masterful performance.
It’s because of Wilder’s unsettling performance throughout the film, as well as one specific scene involving a ferry, that Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is often credited with being the scariest non-horror film ever made. With a colorful light sequence highlighting his intense gaze, Wilder grows louder and louder as he recites the poetry from Roald Dahl‘s book in horrifying fashion:
“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! / Is it raining? Is it snowing? / Is a hurricane a-blowing? / Not a speck of light is showing, / So the danger must be growing, / Are the fires of hell a-blowing? / Is the grizzly reaper mowing? / Yes! The danger must be growing, / For the rowers keep on rowing, / And they’re certainly not showing / Any signs that they are slowing…
This scene provides us with Wonka’s most unhinged moment, and serves as an everlasting reminder of Gene Wilder’s ability to play more than comedy. Though he gravitated toward the genre throughout his career, Wilder remained a versatile performer who could captivate us on a dime.
By the end of the film, we learn that Wonka’s unsettling nature was simply a charade used to test the children and decide which one of them would be the perfect heir to his chocolate factory. Displaying a sweet, kind-hearted side that is as shocking to Charlie Bucket as it is to the viewer, Wonka rewards Charlie for being a good child and declares him the winner of the contest. In this short amount of time, Wilder’s performance goes from that of an unhinged maniac to someone who is perfectly normal and genuinely cares about people. It’s a testament to Gene Wilder’s acting prowess that his change of heart was not only believable, but that his character became immediately likable after being brash throughout the rest of the movie. This role is undoubtedly the most diverse and brilliant performance of his career.
It goes without saying that each of us will remember Gene Wilder in different ways: whether it’s his wonderfully mad performance in Willy Wonka; his Oscar-nominated work in The Producers; or his hilarious turns in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, he will live on in our hearts and minds, and his legacy will outlive us all.
Willy Wonka: But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
Charlie Bucket: What happened?
Willy Wonka: He lived happily ever after.