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Gene Wilder's Portrayal Of Willy Wonka Was One Of Cinema's Most Enduring Roles

Yesterday the world received news that beloved actor Gene Wilder passed away at age 83 due to complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. This came as a shock to many, because Wilder’s 3-year battle with the illness was kept secret from the public eye. Wilder’s nephew stated the news was kept on the DL because Wilder “simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.” If this isn’t an indication of Wilder’s captivating personality, I don’t know what is.

While Gene Wilder starred in several iconic films, it was his portrayal of a quirky confectionery owner in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory that left the deepest imprint on many. The movie itself, based off of Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, elicits a lot of mixed emotions – which is pretty on par with most of Dahl’s works – though Wilder brought an endearing eccentricity to his role that will never be forgotten.

As a kid, Willy Wonka meant huge bursts of color, living vicariously through the lucky children who basically got to overdose on sugar, and Oompa Loompas that would haunt your dreams. Willy himself just happened to be the man behind it all.

But in re-watching the movie as an adult in response to the news of Wilder’s death, it’s clear that Wonka is a pretty complex character. He is a soul with a troubled past whose aim is to better himself, all while trying his best to impart wisdom and enforce the rocky border between right and wrong. And there is no other actor who would be as dedicated and enthusiastic about enacting these varying items of minutiae than Gene Wilder.

Wilder was known to be constructive yet forceful with all of his roles. He wasn’t afraid to question the script or provide commentary on costume designs. As a matter of fact, he did both during the filming of Willy Wonka.

The actor had a huge impact on Wonka’s first entrance in the movie – he insisted the character should walk out to meet the masses while limping visibly with a cane. Then, Wonka was to drop the cane and perform a perfect somersault. Wilder went on record to say this simple action would be enough to deem the character unpredictable, and maybe even untrustworthy in the eye of the audience. He was right.

After receiving the original sketches for Willy Wonka’s costume, Wilder wrote a 300+ word letter directly to the costume designer, with constructive suggestions to improve its external facade. Upon reading this letter, you will realize each proposition is incredibly detail-oriented. This is just further proof of Wilder’s thoughtfulness.

However, Wilder’s passion goes beyond just the tangible. There has always been an undeniable aura about him; a charisma unparalleled by many of his colleagues in the industry. While I have seen a few of his other films, albeit several years ago, a moment that perfectly describes this phenomenon is Willy Wonka’s first song of the film, “Pure Imagination.”

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Admittedly, I was multi-tasking when I watched the film this go-around, but as soon as Wilder began to sing this melody, I dropped everything. I was captivated. I don’t know if it was Wilder’s expressive eyes, or his immense vocal talent — or both — but he has a way of connecting with you on a level you didn’t even know was possible.

Of all the parts of this film, I personally think it was the performance of this musical number that beguiled all witnesses, regardless of age, because it gave an underlying feeling of hope. If you allow yourself to be creative and vulnerable, no matter the circumstances, your imagination can take you where you need to be. It doesn’t matter whether you are poor like Charlie, hoping to relive your youth like his grandfather, or even a total brat like Veruca Salt. In the end, despite any of your trials or personal short-comings, you are going to be okay.

Even though Willy Wonka was released in 1971, several years before my fellow millennials and I were born, it is impossible to forget Gene Wilder and his ability to make you laugh and comfort you without even being in the room.

Gene, I hope you are now in your own pure imagination, living there. You’ll be free, if you truly wish to be.

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