Why, in a year full of beloved celebrities leaving us, is Gene Wilder‘s death affecting me so much? If we think about it logically, it makes no sense for the death of an actor to affect us on a personal level, no more than the death of any other stranger we might have learned passed away. Actors are a part of our lives because they pretend to be someone else and recite lines written by someone else. What makes them a part of our existence is the very thing that should distance them from us as actual people we can know.
Yet we know that’s not true. Some actors, somehow, make us feel as though we know the real them through their performances, and in that way they aren’t strangers, but tangible people that make our lives better just by existing, like an old friend that moved away but still calls. On some level we understand it isn’t logical to feel that type of connection, but since when does logic have much to do with love and loss. Because the actors that do mean something to us are the ones that speak to us about what it means to be human, and Gene Wilder was one of those people for me.
Since I heard about his death yesterday I’ve been trying to understand why I’m so upset, about why it felt like an old friend had died. I didn’t know him personally, had never met him or spoken with him, yet the news hit me like I was expecting to get a call from him tomorrow.
I know in the modern world of social media platforms that every celebrity death can feel like a race to declare which of us is most upset, that for some a death is an excuse to get attention. But for many there is a quieter grief that is very real, a grief worthy of being above skepticism. The truth is this one hurts me, because for as long as I’ve been able to love things I’ve loved Gene Wilder, and it all started because I have always loved Willy Wonka.
To say the movie is one of my favorites doesn’t really explain how I feel about. It’s as ubiquitous in my memories of growing up as family vacations and my favorite teachers. It was always on; I always watched it; I have always loved it.
Yet, I never identified with any of the children in it, never dreamed of winning a factory of chocolate, or of finding a Golden Ticket. No, I was mesmerized by Willy Wonka himself, that strange, funny, creepy man who calmly watched children endangered in his weird world.
When you’re young you love the things you love without question, and even as I got older and came to understand what made Gene Wilder a unique and singular talent–the calm rage of a volcano always on the verge of erupting, who just also happened to be one of the funniest people ever–I never asked myself why that particular character had taken hold of me so strongly.
I quote Willy Wonka constantly, own multiple copies of it, have watched it too many times to count, but until now I have never really asked why it means so much to me, and why the man who brought him to life did too.
Since yesterday that’s all I’ve thought about though, and as such I keep coming back to my favorite scene from the movie, one I return to when I hear about a wonderful thing someone has done, something that reaffirms my faith in what sometimes feels like a dark world. And it’s Gene Wilder’s humanity as Willy Wonka that makes the scene what it is.
The tour is over, Charlie is the last child standing, and he and Grandpa Joe believe he has won the grand prize, when Willy Wonka politely says goodbye to them both. What follows next has always and sincerely shaped the way I view the world.
They follow Willy Wonka into his bizarre office, where everything has been cut in half, and there they are informed by Wonka, who thus far has smirked his way through the movie like a villain that knows something the hero does not, that Charlie didn’t win. Grandpa Joe loses it.
That’s when Wilder’s rage comes spewing out. Charlie broke the rules, the same as the rest of them; Charlie can’t be trusted, so he doesn’t win. Good day, sir. It’s awful. It’s heartbreaking. Charlie broke the rules, yes, but we know he’s not like the rest of them. This isn’t fair.
In that moment Grandpa Joe sees Willy Wonka for the monster we fear he might be, another in a world full of them, and Grandpa Joe says they’ll give Slugworth what he wants. But Charlie sees someone else sitting there, he sees the other side of the man, a man cut in half just like his office, the side of Willy Wonka that an adult can’t see. That man is broken, disappointed, undone by his own hope to find a child worthy of such a gift. Willy Wonka didn’t fail the world, it failed him.
Charlie goes over and puts down the Everlasting Gobstopper and walks away. That’s when the cynic, fearful that the world is only full of greed and darkness, loses his rage and puts his hand over the candy, a candy that promised wealth to a poor child, but is now a symbol for something much more important.
“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
The line was written by Shakespeare, but it forever belongs Gene Wilder.
The world can seem dark and disappointing, but it isn’t. There is hope there, a humanity that will overcome, and it was Gene Wilder that brought that to life.
So I know this is just another tribute in thousands that will be written, some heartfelt, some less so, and I know that I didn’t know Gene Wilder, but yet it feels like I lost an old friend. I think I know why now too: it was his ability to be a cynic, one constantly fighting against an anger with the way the world is instead of how it should be, all while still being sentimental and hopeful.
I’m not upset because I feel like I knew Gene Wilder; I’m upset because it felt like somehow he knew me.
The world already seems a little more weary without him, but his humanity will shine through every time a kid watches Willy Wonka for the first time, just as it always has for me.
What’s your favorite memory of Gene Wilder? Share it with us in the comments below.
Images: Paramount Pictures