Greatish Performances #8

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#8 — Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971)

One of the best ideas in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory came straight from Gene Wilder. When the reclusive candy maker is first seen in the film, he comes slowly limping out the front entrance of his factory, leaning heavily on a cane. The boisterous crowd assembled is hushed to silence (perhaps a little improbably) by the thought that this famed figure is a mere enfeebled man. Midway down the walk, the cane gets stuck in the cobblestones, sticking straight up like a road sign pole. Wonka takes another step, realizes the absence of his walking stick and leans forward as if to fall flat on his face. Instead, he makes a dextrous somersault and springs upward triumphantly to the revived cheers of the spectators. Wilder insisted on this entrance for one simple reason that was both elegant and bold: if this is way the character was introduced, the audience wouldn’t quite trust him for the rest of the movie.

It’s a dark choice for a central character in what is, ostensibly anyway, a kid’s movie. Of course, the film is adapted from a work by Roald Dahl, who had a pretty dark sensibility to begin with. The whole thing is fairly audacious, when you think about it. A mysterious figure plucks up five kids randomly from points all over the globe, brings them to his funhouse of a candy factory and stands idly by as they slowly but surely prove their unworthiness, stumbling into terrible peril as a manifestation of their worst qualities. All the while, his undersized workers taunt the fallen with thumping songs that merciless detail the awfulness they displayed. This is without even mentioning the crazy boat ride through Bad Acid Trip Tunnel. Sure, there are lessons to be learned, but strip away a lot of the external context that shapes perception of the movie’s intent–the G rating, the colorful trappings, the sweet child protagonist–and it starts to look a little more grim.

Thankfully, that decidedly unsafe reading of the material is what Wilder cues off of for his performance. Wonka is sly, even devious, and he’s notably unmoved by the damage his supposed charges keep inflicting upon themselves. He meets the bad behavior of the children with something best described as a sort of paradoxical amused indifference. Indeed, he’s at his calmest when the situation is most alarming, muttering, “Stop, don’t, come back,” with a placid monotone as the brash American child races to stand in the beam of a device he doesn’t understand. Wilder is very funny in these moments, largely due to the cryptic nature of the reaction, further fueled by the suspicions about his motives that were sparked into being in that initial scene. There’s a sense that the mishaps are all part of Wonka’s plans, or are at least feeding into his expectations. Augustus Gloop flopping into a chocolate river and Violet Beauregarde swelling up like a parade balloon are as rigidly certain as the steps of the secret recipe Wonka uses to fashion Everlasting Gobstoppers.

Wilder is also sure to key into the aspect of the man that holds the capability and creativity to concoct this phantasmagorical workplace for the purpose of manufacturing sugary treats. He is at his most engaged when the grand tour comes across some strange invention–a combination lock opened by music or wallpaper that’s licked like a lollipop–and he can happily share the wondrous bit of magic that he’s made. This is the other side of Wonka that Wilder repeatedly brings to the fore: the man who had the capacity to make vivid miracles happen and so preferred his creations to the world outside that he locked himself away. He’s spectacularly in his element as he strides through the rooms of his home and factory, casually revealing the existence of the impossible.

Of course, there’s one other nice element of Wilder’s performance and that’s that Wonka himself is acting through much of the film. Bringing the kids in was an elaborate scheme to find a successor and much of what he’s presented to them has been a false front, intended to lure out the troublemakers. That are hints of the sheer fun Wonka is having as he keeps this group of children and their parents constantly guessing about what’s going on and what candy-coated danger might be around the next bend. When the final mask falls at the end–after one more performance, one final test–it’s a joy to see the same confidence that was present earlier in Wilder’s characterization get shifted to include friendliness, pride and generosity. A performance that’s been built on layers of deceptive artifice opens up to include strikingly genuine notes.

There’s one last slight moment of intellectual trickery at the end of the film, this one conceived by uncredited screenwriter David Seltzer. The story goes that the last scene wasn’t fully scripted and director Mel Stuart felt there needed to be a significant final exchange between Willy Wonka and the poor, noble Charlie Bucket, who’d been the only visitor honest enough to earn Wonka’s trust, therefore proving himself the proper person to take over operations of the candy factory. (“So shines a good deed in a weary world,” is one of many beautiful, understated line readings given by Wilder, conveying the poetry inside his externally odd character.) Stuart got a hold of Seltzer–supposedly in a bar, which may be apocryphal, but makes for a terrific detail in the story–and explained his need for an ideal button. Within minutes, Seltzer came up with the lines that close the movie. Wonka says to the boy who’s just received this tremendous gift, “But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.” There’s a tone of caution to Wonka’s voice, causing some anxiety in Charlie as he asks, “What happened?” Wonka replies, “He lived happily ever after,” with a beaming pleasure that suggests one more joyous somersault.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise

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