Features and Columns · Movies

The Secret Behind Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka

Eccentric and sinister, Wilder masks his iconic character’s true intentions behind a facade of charming cruelty.
Gene Wilder Willy Wonka Elevator
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on June 29th, 2021

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Gene Wilder’s Golden Globe-nominated performance in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

As a horror movie fan, I have a deep appreciation for the infamously spooky tunnel sequence in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). After Willy Wonka opens his factory to the winners of his global “Golden Ticket” contest, the group watches in horror as the gluttonous Augustus Gloop gets swallowed by a chocolate river. Wonka quickly ferries them onto a paddleboat to their next stop on the tour, but the quaint ride quickly turns into a nightmare. A garish light show bathes the tunnel in trippy colors, and the guests are pummeled with shocking images projected on the walls. As the group demands to be let off, Wonka–almost in a meditative state–intones a surprisingly creepy poem, “Are the fires of hell a glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?”

This moment of kindertrauma is one of the many reasons why Willy Wonka has become such an iconic character, especially among horror hounds. He’s a diabolical figure existing in a children’s wonderland which, on paper, is an incredible set-up to a horror movie. The sinister undercurrent in Gene Wilder’s performance as Wonka sets the character apart in the pantheon of beloved family films. He isn’t some grandfatherly figure, opening his heart to the children of the world. Wilder’s Wonka has a noticeable distaste for the kids he invites into his candy utopia. He’s indifferent to their safety and seems to actively relish in placing these exhaustingly entitled children in dangerous situations, like the aforementioned tunnel to hell. It’s an unusual, if relatable, spin on a character from a children’s book. Who among us hasn’t wanted to see a spoiled brat get their comeuppance?

This ominous quality that Wilder’s Wonka outwardly expresses is our clue as to why his performance continues to fascinate us decades later. This tunnel sequence arguably gives audiences a glimpse at the character’s true colors–a madman taking pleasure in others’ pain–but it’s only the image Wilder’s Wonka wants the children to see. Because Wonka isn’t the scary, bedeviling character pop culture history has turned him into. The menace he exudes was always part of his plan to test the moral merit of Charlie, the impoverished audience surrogate who eventually inherits his chocolate factory. The reason why we love Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka isn’t that he is this strange, dark presence looming over a children’s film. It’s that throughout Willy Wonka, Wilder keeps a secret from the audience that makes us question his character’s true intentions from scene to scene.

We can intellectualize his actorly decisions, but Gene Wilder has a more blunt way of describing his method: good lying. As he told Roger Ebert in 1971 ahead of Willy Wonka’s release, “Here’s what I mean by lying. 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.”

This secret that Wilder holds–that his quiet nefariousness is a lie–creates a duality in his performance as Willy Wonka. On the surface, he appears to be this eccentric confectioner doling out harsh lessons on good manners, but it’s only to mask his character’s actual motivation: to find someone with a golden heart to match his highly sought-after golden tickets.

Ebert would later elaborate on Wilder’s acting methods in an interview for his 1979 film The Frisco Kid, “He didn’t mean “pretending” in the first dictionary sense. He meant projecting the feeling that you were pretending. Letting the audience suspect that there was something else, something wonderful and mysterious, beneath the surface that the character was pretending to exhibit.”

Gene Wilder Willy Wonka Candy

Nothing personifies Wonka’s duality and Wilder’s propensity for pretending than his character’s famously grand entrance. After much fanfare leading up to Wonka opening his factory doors, a crowd gathers outside to get their first glimpse of the candyman after years out of the public limelight. As the contest winners look on, Wonka appears, but he seems tired, weather-worn. With a cane in hand, he hobbles towards the front gates. As his gait slows, his cane catches in the cobblestone, propelling him forward. He begins to fall, but at the last moment, tucks and rolls into a graceful somersault, popping up with hands raised as the crowd goes wild. This decision, to trick the audience in their first meeting of his character, was the reason Wilder chose to do the film in the first place. It was also a gimmick of his own making. As Wilder wrote in his memoir Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search For Love And Art, when asked by director Mel Stuart why he wanted to do this, Wilder told him, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

This introduction delightfully surprises the crowd, especially the children, but it also leaves them on guard. Children often have blind trust in adults, but here they are given a reason not to trust Wonka at all. If he could make them believe that he is frail, could he also make them believe that he is a monster? This duality creates an exciting energy in Wilder’s character because as Charlie and Grandpa Joe grow increasingly wary of Wonka, the audience also senses that there are ulterior motives for his erratic actions. It’s what helps give the film–and the character–an air of mystery, and danger. And that Wilder is able to perform it in a way that inspires both fear and awe is why audiences keep returning to Willy Wonka decades after it flopped at the box office.

And boy did it flop. As Gene Siskel wrote in his review, “Compared to other films for young children, Willy Wonka rates barely acceptable. Adults will receive more entertainment by dropping their children off at the theater and driving around the block.” The movie would barely turn a profit, making $4 million on a budget of $3 million, but it wasn’t without its fan, with Siskel’s critical contemporary Roger Ebert awarding Wonka four stars, calling it “everything that family movies usually claim to be, but aren’t: Delightful, funny, scary, exciting, and, most of all, a genuine work of imagination. Willy Wonka is such a surely and wonderfully spun fantasy that it works on all kinds of minds, and it is fascinating because, like all classic fantasy, it is fascinated with itself.”

The movie would eventually find a cult following through holiday television broadcasts and on home video, but if there was someone not too thrilled about Wonka’s second life, it was Gene Wilder. He felt that the role’s popularity would cast a shadow over the rest of his career. As Wilder biographer Brian Scott Mednick said, “He gave an interview once where he said he did not want his gravestone to say, ‘Here lies Willy Wonka,’ yet ironically he did not have much choice about his legacy. When he died, all the news outlets highlighted his role as Willy Wonka above everything else. Gene wanted to be most remembered for Young Frankenstein.

His career has some epic highs (The Producers) and unsavory lows (The World’s Greatest Lover), but Gene Wilder was an actor who–in whatever project he was on–found unique angles to approach his characters from, and Willy Wonka is no different. He could have easily played it safe, making Wonka the stuff of childhood fantasies, like some psychedelic Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy. But he smartly chose to askew the expectations of a children’s book character by giving Wonka far more teeth than another actor may have. 

Gene Wilder does deserve to be remembered for his hilarious work in Young Frankenstein, but Willy Wonka shows that regardless of the material, he had a preternatural way of making every character he played unique, subversive, and endlessly memorable.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)