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online, from hour-long Red Letter Media videos to getting their own category at the Razzies just last month (which they rescinded after a backlash).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.
This all culminates in a series of uncomfortable circumstances that leave a bad taste in the mouth, both when watching the films themselves and looking back on the jokes many of us cracked at his expense in the intervening years (a phenomenon from which few of you reading this are likely immune, myself included).
Willis, in his prime, was one of our most charismatic, vibrant, alive movie stars: He was one of the few TV stars (from Moonlighting) to transition successfully to film, a wiry, laconic wisecracker whose John McClane stood out against the bulked-up bodybuilder physique that characterized the 1980s action star. He was an actor, not just a performer, able to smirk, stare, and scowl with equal charm and ferocity in Die Hard flicks and Pulp Fiction alike. (Willis could do Predator, but Schwarzenegger could never do Death Becomes Her. I’m just saying.)
Even in middle age, his performances slowed down and grew muted in ways that felt like natural evolutions of his unique presence. David Dunn in Unbreakable, James Cole in 12 Monkeys, Sin City‘s Hartigan, all were old men looking back at the prime of their lives with a hint of sadness, but with the potential of using their remaining days/months/years to do one last bit of good before checking out.
Some of his last great performances are still so incredibly full of life, even within that quietude: Moonrise Kingdom‘s lonely police Captain Sharp made beautiful use of Willis’ sad eyes, and Old Joe in Looper is a character defined by his awareness that he’s at the end of his temporal rope, driven by the instinctual pull to keep going, keep living, keep trying. Regardless of the sad, slow tumble into forgettable action pictures that followed (Death Wish, Vice, The Prince), it’s these roles we remember most.
The truth is, we’ll never really know what truly motivated Willis’ spate of geezer-teasers, a final unfortunate blip at the tail end of what was a more nuanced, multifaceted career than most people assume. Were they quick cash-ins for him? Were they motivated by a desire to bank money for his family while he could still work? Was he manipulated by a coterie of enablers who shoved him in front of cameras when he wasn’t ready so they could reap the benefits?
The answer, I think, is somewhere in between, the messy consequence of trying to keep one of America’s biggest names working, even when he no longer could. If current reporting is accurate, that led to conditions that were both undignified for Willis and borderline unsafe for the cast and crew he was working with. It was long past time for Willis to hang up his jazz harmonica, and it’s my sincere hope that this also lessens the chance that others would take advantage of him and his name for a quick buck.
Most of all, I hope this news allows us to do what I’m sure Willis would want us to do in his retirement: look back on the roles and work he’s given us thus far and celebrate everything he’s contributed to the artform. And not only that, to extend a bit of grace to a man who, over the last few years, put out a few stinkers.