RIP Willy Wonka

When a famous musician dies, the law dictates that their back catalogue must shoot back up the charts. If it’s an actor, we all hit YouTube.

So, the video streaming channel is in for a busy couple of days, following the sad news that Gene Wilder has passed away from complications due to Alzheimer’s Disease. I, for one, have just chewed my way through clips from The Woman in Red, The Producers, Blazing Saddles and, of course, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

I’m not prone to demanding people should and shouldn’t watch things (I’ve never seen Forrest Gump, so I’m in no position to demand anything) but if you’ve never seen the 1971 big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, you should. Wonka is one of Dahl’s most interesting grown-ups, or, rather, he is the way that Wilder plays him.

Generally speaking, Dahl’s adults tend to fall into one of two camps – you’re either Miss Honey perfect or Mr Twit awful. Wonka is much more ambiguous and, as a result, believable, although if you’ve only ever witnessed Johnny Depp’s creepy man-boy Wonka you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Wilder’s version is so much more interesting. He plays Wonka as a three-dimensional man with a microclimate of emotions that is as bewildering to Charlie as it was to me as an eight-year-old trying to learn how to navigate my way through the grown-up world.

Don’t believe me? Check out the YouTube clip of Wonka and Charlie in Wonka’s office at the end of the film. Charlie believes – as the last child standing – that he has won the competition, but Wonka has other ideas. Charlie and Grandpa have been caught stealing fizzy lifting drink and Wonka is the sort of angry that makes children cry. Charlie almost does. The story goes that Wilder and Peter Ostrum (Charlie) had become good friends on set and Ostrum had no idea that Wilder – renowned for his kindness – was about to let rip like this. The tears in Ostrum’s eyes are real.

I digress. Wonka is mad as hell and orders Charlie and Grandpa to leave. Before he does, though, Charlie hands back his everlasting gobstopper – given to the children earlier in the film on the proviso that they ‘solemnly swear never to show them to another living soul as long as you all shall live’. The action prompts a 180-degree shift in Wonka’s mood. He utters the line ‘so shines a good deed in a weary world’ and breaks into a smile, declaring Charlie has won after all.

It is testament to Wilder’s acting skills that the flip is so quick, so convincing and for me, this scene represented everything that I found scary about grown-ups. They held all the power to make life magical or miserable.

During my YouTube binge, I found another beautiful example of this, in a scene where Wonka is showing the children his lickable wallpaper. He encourages them to try, declaring that the strawberries taste like strawberries and the snozzberries taste like snozzberries, to which Veruca Salt demands: ‘Whoever heard of a snozzberry?’ Wonka replies: ‘We are the music makers and we are the dream makers.’ So far, so magical. And yet, as he’s saying this to her, he’s pinched a hand around her cheeks in order to make him look at her.

You might think I would be terrified of Wilder’s Wonka. And you’d be right. I’ve mentioned before how much the half bust on his desk gives me the creeps. But, I also love him. His rendition of Pure Imagination still sends tingles down my back for all the right reasons (I just checked with another trip to YouTube). I love the edge with which Wilder plays him. This man is offering you the whole freaking chocolate universe, so long as you play by his rules.

For me Wilder is Wonka, in the way that for many Harry Potter fans, they will only ever see Daniel Radcliffe. It is the mark of a fine actor and a great character. And, unlike some artists who grow weary of their iconic alter egos, Wilder seems to have understood, and cherished, the place his Wonka held in children’s hearts.

In a message released by Jordan Walker-Pearlman on his uncle’s passing, he says: ‘The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.’

I think I love Gene Wilder even more this morning.

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