There is a running joke in Robert Altman’s The Player about a director who approaches a Hollywood producer with an idea for his next movie. His film is a hard-hitting prison drama, and his big idea is to make a mainstream feature with no happy ending and no stars. At the end we finally get to watch the film, and see Bruce Willis bursting through the door to carry Julia Roberts to safety, salvaging the box office takings at the expense of artistic integrity.
It is this reputation, as box office dynamite, that has made Willis’ career so successful, yet has arguably hindered him from picking up the awards that his work merits. Willis has never been nominated for an Academy Award and, despite Looper’s near-universal acclaim, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Pulp Fiction is arguably the best American film of the last 20 years, and Bruce Willis was in the starring role. He also took the lead in M Night Shymalan’s acclaimed The Sixth Sense. Not only that but he hasn’t been seen near Shymalan’s dreadful recent work, another mark to his credit.
Indeed not only has Willis appeared in a number of great movies, his performances have been central to their success. Samuel L Jackson may have taken most of the plaudits in Tarantino’s crime masterpiece but who can forget Willis’ immortal line ‘Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead’? I haven’t even mentioned Die Hard yet. It may have been an action movie, and Alan Rickman may have stolen the show, but Willis’ McClane set the trend for a generation of gnarled anti-heroes. He was the man that took a film noir character and placed him in a terrorist tower block. Perhaps it was fitting that he took the role of a genuine noir cop in Sin City.
Willis was recently in The Expendables 2, sending himself up alongside a host of other Hollywood action stars. Yet he stuck out like a sore thumb. Not for his performance, but because he still gets cast in good films, films that the likes of Dolph Lundgren and Steven Seagal could only dream of. Looper has received ecstatically good reviews; its current metacritic rating is 87%, higher than classics like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights or Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.
Sadly, in establishing himself as a bona fide star, a Hollywood action movie regular, Willis distanced himself from the ranks of ‘serious’ performers. It is unfortunate that he is often perceived as being closer to actors like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger than Daniel Day-Lewis or Philip Seymour-Hoffman. Not only is it unfortunate, but it is unfair. Willis may not be of Day-Lewis’ stature – who is – but he is a fine actor, and his staying power is testament to that.
Die Hard may well be the reason that Willis is yet to be nominated for an Oscar. The problem is simple: when people think ‘Bruce Willis’ their first thought is probably a man in a vest shouting ‘yippee-ka-yay motherfucker’ as a terrorist falls out of a window. That’s why Bruce Willis, Palme D’Or winning actor, Wes Anderson collaborator and indie stalwart, hasn’t had the awards he deserves.
PHOTO/ Daniel Semper, Empire. Buou