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Remembering Gene Wilder’s Best Performance: The Delightful, Devilish Willy Wonka

The actor’s mesmerizing turn as Roald Dahl’s confectioner — like the movie that contains it — operates on a completely different level for children than for adults

“What’s the first movie you remember seeing in the theater?” That’s the sort of getting-to-know-you question that gets lobbed at movie buffs with some regularity, and I always answer without hesitation that it was “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Yes, in the original run. I was 4 in 1971. My gray hairs didn’t just happen.

One of the many treats of this wonderfully dark and delightfully bizarre musical is that it occupies a rare space — alongside the 1960s “Batman” TV show and the original Looney Tunes shorts — as entertainment that can be thoroughly enjoyed by children, and then thoroughly re-enjoyed on a different level when those children become adults. For “Willy Wonka,” a great deal of the film’s success for both age groups comes from Gene Wilder’s unforgettable performance as the titular confectioner.

As a 4-year-old, “Willy Wonka” was a wondrous and occasionally terrifying (that paddleboat sequence) journey through a magical, dreamlike candy factory. What kid wouldn’t want to be surrounded by chocolate rivers, giant Gummi Bear trees and soda pop that could make you float? And if some of the children in the movie got punished along the way for their transgressions, well, that’s childhood for you.

I rediscovered “Willy Wonka” again when I was 20, and it was like seeing a completely different movie. Wilder’s Wonka had previously just been eccentric and a little off-putting, but this time, I could appreciate the devilish wit of the entire performance. The way he rolls his eyes at the bratty kids (and their equally obnoxious parents), his ability to derail a line of questioning with a line of non-sequitur dialogue (the literary references of which I was now beginning to catch), and his general air of aloof judgment were a joy to behold.

He’s giving us big facial expressions — that would launch a thousand memes — throughout the film, but he’s also hiding the fact that Willy Wonka is really, in the final analysis, a kindhearted man seeking an heir. Watching the movie as a child, I never bought his 180-degree turn-around after Charlie proves himself worthy; as an adult, I could tell that this kindness was something the character was tamping down all along.

As Wilder memorably noted of his performance, “We all grew up on movies with scenes where the actor is lying and you know he’s lying, but he wants to make sure you know it’s a lie, and so he overacts and all but winks at you, and everybody in the world except for the girl he’s talking to knows he’s lying. I want to do the opposite. To really lie, and fool the audience… I wanted people to wonder if Willy Wonka was telling the truth so that you wouldn’t really know until the end of the picture what Willy’s motivations were.”

It’s a feat that remains unmatched 45 years later. (Johnny Depp barely seemed to try in his anemic turn as Wonka in the misbegotten 2005 Tim Burton remake.)

There are so many great Gene Wilder performances to remember as we look back on his distinguished career — his collaborations with Mel Brooks and with Richard Pryor, to name just a few — but I started with Wilder as Willy Wonka, and it’s the one that will always mean the most to me.