Gasoline Alley, Midnight in the Switchgrass, Cosmic Sin — these are just a few of the titles the visage of Bruce Willis has graced in the last several years, direct-to-video cash-ins that leveraged a few minutes of screentime from one of America’s most revered action stars to drive VOD sales and move Redbox inventory.
Take a chintzy script you can film in Eastern Europe or Atlanta with minimal crew and one or two C-listers, throw Willis at the beginning or the end (aided by obvious body doubles), then slap his face on the poster and you’ve got a movie, baby. Willis’ take on this material, in particular, earned this subgenre of film the moniker “the geezer teaser.”
Willis’ recent films in particular have been the subject of a deluge of jokes online, from hour-long Red Letter Media videos to getting their own category at the Razzies just last month (which they rescinded after a backlash). The rest of the Internet gleefully lapped up the gags, too, as Twitter gawked at one VOD stinker after another, each with the same stoic, bored, often recycled still photo of Willis on the cover. “Why Does Bruce Willis Keep Making Films He Clearly Hates?” reads the headline of one Esquire article from 2020.
The subject of Willis’ mental health was an open secret in Hollywood prior to yesterday, when Willis’ family announced that Bruce would be retiring from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia — a cognitive disorder that impacts one’s ability to understand and express speech (often caused by brain damage or stroke).
But to the outside observer, Willis was just doing the same as the likes of Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, and John Cusack: leveraging their cachet as washed-up action stars to do the only kinds of movies that they could carry anymore. In light of the specific circumstances of Willis’ condition, those jokes ring a little more hollow — punching down at a man suffering from the early onset of mental decline than ragging on a lazy, egotistical movie star.
Making matters worse is Wednesday’s report in the Los Angeles Times, confirming what many online had been speculating about for months before the official statement from Willis’ family earlier that day. Indeed, Willis’ work on these films was impacted by his impaired cognitive function, requiring his roles to be cut down dramatically at the script level and the use of earpieces to feed him lines during takes.
As the report alleges, he often wouldn’t understand the lines he was being given, and in one instance is reported to have accidentally fired a prop gun at the wrong moment on set. As if that wasn’t enough, accounts of the way his assistants and handlers carted him around from set to set, collecting large paychecks on each film (not to mention the open discomfort directors like Jesse V. Johnson expressed at the prospect of working with Willis in his condition) border on elder abuse at first read.