One of the smartest and most relentlessly curious beings in human history wrote in one of his centuries-old-yet-still-famous notebooks: “While I thought I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” So you see, even Leonardo da Vinci didn’t know what the hell he was doing.
But Gene Wilder knew what the hell he was doing. Always.
OK, probably not always. I don’t know the man, obvs. He was a human being, after all, and therefore fallible and amply filled with moments of cluelessness. But there are three instances in his life that I feel are worth mentioning now, as I sit here ugly crying at my desk. One of them involves his creation of Willy Wonka, and the other two involve his recent death. I’ll start with Wonka and get to the death stuff later. I know. The suspense is terrible. I hope it’ll last.
#1. Wielding Willy Wonka
Gene Wilder, for me, invented Willy Wonka. Yes, I am aware that technically Roald Dahl invented him, which was no easy task and has not gone unnoticed by me. But the old curmudgeon clearly didn’t know a beautiful thing when he saw it, because he hated the movie for making so many changes to his story.
On the one hand, I understand. However, it’s not like they went all ‘Hi-I’m-Stanley-Kubrick-and-I’m-going-to-smash-Stephen-King’s-vehicle-before-his-very-eyes-on-a-giant-screen-to-establish-dominance-and-make-it-MINE’ on him. (If you’ve read/seen The Shining, I’m referring to the whole VW Beetle fiasco, which was a total dick move, IMHO.) Yet Dahl still described Wilder’s portrayal of Willy Wonka as “pretentious” and “bouncy.” A description I refuse to accept, because, as I said before, Gene Wilder invented my Willy Wonka, and invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, 2% butterscotch ripple, and 105% Gene Wilder.
Mr. Wonka would not have been who he was without Wilder, which goes without saying – but the man’s genius not only changed the original script of the film, it shaped the resonance of his character and the overall meaning of the story.