Many factors combine to make Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a unique delight: life-saving burping; an edible backyard accompanied by a timeless tune; Jack Albertson’s lovable Grandpa Joe; Roald Dahl’s absurd, whimsical imagination.
But without the comic genius of Gene Wilder, who died last week at 83, Willy Wonka would have withered away, mired in the anonymity it inexplicably encountered upon its 1971 release. Perhaps the zany and at times dark nature of the film scared some initial fans away, but over four decades later we celebrate it as one of the most inventive comedies in cinematic history. It is an endlessly quotable and rewatchable film, easy on the eyes but also provocative for a work many would consider children’s fare. As the whimsical Wonka, Wilder channels Roald Dahl’s trademark dark comedy in what is widely considered one of the finest performances of his storied career.
Wilder’s talent brought about superstardom rather quickly, as he jumped from a supporting role in Bonnie and Clyde to a prolific stretch of hits — starting with 1967’s The Producers and ranging from Wonka to Blazing Saddles to Young Frankenstein and Stir Crazy. These films have left lasting marks on Hollywood (Mel Brooks won’t hesitate to tell you where he ranks Saddles), and the link that ties them together is Wilder’s almost unmatched ability to mix wit with charm, craziness with moral clarity. Having trained for years as an actor, Wilder was more than simply a comedian; he was a performer who threw himself into every scene with conviction, whether the script called for a gunfight, a temper tantrum, or a tap dance with a monster.
With Wonka, Wilder existed somewhere between a dream and a nightmare (I will spare you a link to the infamous tunnel scene), playing the candyman as a mysterious figure capable of joyous song but also outright anger — and yes, condescension. He is helped along by some spirited child actors and Dahl’s fantastic creations, but Wilder’s performance elevates the film with a brilliance that few other actors could pull off without seeming creepy, overzealous, or some mix therein.
For the past two decades, Wilder had largely stopped acting (though he did win a well-deserved Emmy for a guest turn on Will & Grace), choosing to express his thoughtful intelligence instead through writing memoirs and fiction as he became increasingly unimpressed with the slate of films before him. It is easy to call his lack of recent films a shame, to wonder what he could have produced with his writer’s mind and onscreen ability. But something stands out about an actor who picks his spots, who consciously chooses excellence over prolificness. Every time you watch Wilder on screen, you can trust that his sharp brain and big heart are committed to what he is performing. There is no Pixels (or Blended — whatever is more known I suppose) on his resumé.
The acting world lost a treasure last week, but Wilder’s remarkable and idiosyncratic legacy will live on in a shelf’s worth of classic films. “Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it,” he sang in Wonka. Not always an accurate statement, you could argue. But with Wilder’s effortless charm and measured charisma, there was nothing to it. And nothing quite like it.