Last weekend Leah and I saw the preview for Tim Burton’s new version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. We both shrieked in horror when we saw what Johnny Depp looked like in the film with his Prince Valiant haircut and a set of ultra-white prosthetic teeth that look like Chiclets. But I’m still looking forward to seeing the film—I think Burton was smart to go back to the original Roald Dahl book to craft his characters and distance himself as much as possible from the beloved 1971 movie and from Gene Wilder’s iconic performance as Willy Wonka.
No matter what I start writing about in this blog I seem to continually veer back to the early 1970s—ironic since this is a time period I spent decades trying to forget. 1971 was the year my parents went through their very ugly divorce, and also the year when I parachuted myself into a fantasyland of films, books, and TV shows—anything that would give my numbed-out self a safe way to experience the emotions I’d hidden away for the duration. In addition to “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” 1971 was the year that “Fiddler on the Roof” came out as well as other movies I loved such as “Bananas,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Harold and Maude,” and “Nicholas and Alexandra.”
On television, I was transfixed by “The Homecoming,” the original movie about the Walton family of Virginia that spawned the TV series. All of the Walton kids were present in the movie, but Miss Michael Learned had not yet donned Olivia Walton’s apron. The part of the mother was played by Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal, the real-life wife of author Roald Dahl.
At the time my two favorite books were Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.” At first glance they seemed to be fun, colorful children’s stories, but the books were actually dark, macabre studies of human fallibility. While protagonists Charlie and James exhibited an innocence and goodness that belied their bleak, poverty-stricken lives, they were surrounded by a coterie of unsavory, mean-spirited, and even sadistic characters. I don’t think any so-called children’s author in history understood the dark side of childhood as well as Roald Dahl. I had never thought of writing to a famous person before, but that spring, holed up alone in my room with my books and portable TV, I longed to communicate with the creator of these sinister tales.
The few words that Roald Dahl wrote back to me on a postcard from Norway are implanted in my brain and I can recite them without taking a breath: “My dear Danny—Your splendid letter has followed me here. Thank you so much for writing. With love from Roald Dahl.” I used to study the Rand McNally globe in my bedroom and imagine the journey my splendid letter took as it traveled from Dahl’s estate in Buckinghamshire, England all the way to his vacation resort in Spitsbergen, Norway. And there, at his side, possibly reading my letter over her dear husband’s shoulder and wiping tears from her eyes at the poignancy of my words, was the original Olivia Walton, Patricia Neal.
Dahl and Neal perfectly filled the role of replacement parents. I gobbled up the story of Patricia Neal’s debilitating strokes—she suffered three aneurysms on February 17, 1965. Newspapers around the world blared the headline: “Film Actress Patricia Neal Dies from Stroke at 39.” The year before Neal had won a Best Actress Oscar for her magnificent performance as Alma, the earthy housekeeper in “Hud.” No one expected her to survive the strokes or the three-week coma that followed. When she finally emerged, the pregnant actress was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak or understand conversations. It was her husband Roald Dahl who was largely credited for bringing his wife back to life through sheer stubbornness and love. Patricia Neal was obviously as stubborn as her husband, and defied all of the doctors’ prognoses. “We Tennessee hillbillies don’t conk out that easy,” she later said. What an incredible love story, I thought. Why were the Dahls able to triumph through adversity while my family collapsed like a house of cards under the weight of my mother’s affair and other pent-up hostilities.
Shortly after getting the postcard from Roald Dahl, I went to see the just-opened movie “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” I reveled in the dismal depictions of childhood dysfunction. Whether it was the gluttony of Augustus Gloop, the spoiled excess of Veruca Salt, the nasty gum-chewing habits of Violet Beauregard, or the brain-killing media obsession of Mike Teavee, it was obvious that these vices were the by-products of their toxic families. As the Oompa Loompas sang:
Oompa Loompa doompadee doo
I've got another puzzle for you
Oompa Loompa doompadah dee
If you are wise you will listen to me
Who do you blame when your kid is a brat
Pampered and spoiled like a Siamese cat?
Blaming the kids is a lie and a shame
You know exactly who's to blame:
THE MOTHER AND THE FATHER!
This 1970s view of parental responsibility suited me just fine. I started planning my summers with my new family in England and Norway. Surely Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal would welcome me into their large clan with open arms. “With love from Roald Dahl,” he wrote, not “Sincerely, Mr. Dahl.” Did Patricia Neal turn down “The Waltons” TV series so she’d have more time for us, her real children?
The next children’s book that Roald Dahl published was called “Danny the Champion of the World.” What was I to think? The author was obviously so inspired by my splendid letter and my pluck and determination that it inspired this new story. I searched in vain for any mention of me in the book’s dedication or the interviews he gave about his new work. But nothing could convince me that I wasn’t his Danny. Let’s see…how much allowance money did I need to get a one-way ticket to Gipsy House, the sprawling Dahl estate I would soon be calling home?
But like the characters in his books, I eventually realized that life does not provide any trouble-free Golden Tickets. It turned out that Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal had enough pain and misery in their lives to make my family drama look pretty rosey. The pain began even before their marriage. I read about Patricia Neal’s tumultuous five-year affair with Gary Cooper. At one point, Neal received a telegram that read, “I HAVE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU. YOU HAD BETTER STOP NOW OR YOU WILL BE SORRY. MRS. GARY COOPER.” Neal ultimately ended the affair and sent Cooper back to his wife. Shortly thereafter, at a party in New York, she met an up-and-coming English author.
Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl were married on July 2, 1953, one month to the day before my Chicago parents walked down the aisle. But the Dahls’ married life was hardly the carefree one I fantasized about. The Dahls had five children but their infant son, Theo, was struck by a taxi, and needed years of physical therapy following a debilitating head injury. Their eldest daughter Olivia contracted a bad case of the measles and died at the age of 7. And in the end, Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal went through their own well publicized divorce that was even more hideous than what my parents put each other through. Neal told all in her autobiography, “As I Am,” and following Dahl’s death in 1990 many people concurred that he could be a ruthless, egotistical bully. Patricia Neal was recently interviewed by Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies. Despite all the pain she suffered in her marriage and the awful things she wrote about her former husband, she admitted that he was the love of her life and that she still loves him today. Go figure. My own family recovered from my parents’ divorce to such an extent that my father was one of the main speakers at my mother’s funeral. Like a good Roald Dahl story, life is so much more complex than lesser authors would have us believe.
As Willy Wonka sang to me from that screen in 1971:
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Wanna change the world?
There's nothing to it.