Thursday is the 45th anniversary of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and nearly a half-century later, a specter is haunting pop culture.
Gene Wilder deserved an Oscar for this film.
Wilder is one of the greatest comic actors of the 20th century, but his turn as Wonka is one of the most finely-tuned feature-length performances from any actor, ever.
Wilder’s performance in Chocolate Factory careens wildly in tone, veering from charming-if-slightly-off in his first few scenes to downright unhinged and terrifying in the infamous tunnel scene a few scant minutes later.
Wilder’s Wonka was by design unpredictable, but meticulously planned out by the actor. Beating out Fred Astaire and Peter Sellers (Sellers reportedly put in a personal call to Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl to campaign for the part), among others, for the role, Wilder had a huge hand in developing the character’s appearance and demeanor, only accepting the role on the condition that he could block his character’s entrance thusly:
“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.”
And that is exactly what happens. Wilder’s reasoning being “from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” His attention to detail and control over the character extended to the sartorial: He had ideas about the fit and color of everything from Wonka’s pants, jacket and iconic hat: “The hat is terrific,” read one of his notes, “but making it two inches shorter would make it more special.” (I like to imagine this kind of micromanagement was simply Wilder’s way of getting deeply into character, and that he was messing with the wardrobe department and the rest of the cast and crew.)
Johnny Depp said he drew inspiration from game show and children’s hosts like Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers for his 2005 portrayal of Wonka, saying “they put on a mask to get that all-important positive smile.” But that’s what’s so amazing about Wilder’s depiction of the character: There’s no artifice to it. Every moment seems completely unforced and natural, even though the mood swings and shifts he takes the character through should by all rights feel off. Consider this scene:
Listen to the weight, the profound fatigue Wilder imbues the line, “So shines a good deed in a weary world” with. Following his explosive outburst a few seconds earlier, it’s amazing he manages to bookend that weltschmerz with the hope that radiates through his next line: “Charlie?”
In 1972, the Academy Award for Best Actor went to Gene Hackman for The French Connection. The French Connection is obviously an incredible film and Hackman’s performance is justifiably praised as well, but I just don’t think he demonstrates the range Wilder does. Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle has two modes throughout The French Connection: Grimly determined and maniacally determined. Plus, that’s not even him driving that car! (Please note sarcasm.)
The rest of the actors nominated for Best Actor – Peter Finch, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott and Chaim Topol, for Sunday Bloody Sunday, Kotch, The Hospital and Fiddler on the Roof, respectively – all did their finest work in other movies. Chocolate Factory was nominated for an Academy Award, but it was for the film’s score. Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy, but lost to Topol. Now, removing Fiddler‘s larger place in pop culture history, have any of these films or performances resonated in the same way as Willy Wonka? I would assert that they have not. By way of comparison, of the other films populating the Oscar Best Actor list that year, only The Hospital has been placed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry alongside Wonka. (But how many generations of parents and children remember that film? Just saying.)
Considering that the film has been compared by some cult fans to Saw (with candy), the fact that Wilder’s Wonka is viewed so warmly is a real feat. It belongs on a shortlist of the best performances of all time, and nothing about that is pure imagination.