Wide Angle

How We Should Remember Bruce Willis

We can choose a better ending for the story of the unlikely movie star who rocketed to the top of the world.

Bruce Willis in Moonlighting, Sixth Sense, Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, Moonrise Kingdom, and Looper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Buena Vista Pictures, Focus Features, Alan Markfield/Looper, ABC Photo Archives, Miramax, and 20th Century Fox.

Early in Wire Room, a low-budget thriller released straight to on-demand services for Labor Day weekend, two police officers discuss their surly boss, Shane Mueller, who’s just stalked out of the office. “He used to be one of the coolest agents around,” one says glumly. “Fun loving, charming, one of the best. Now he’s just making his last few months so he can collect his pension and move on.”

I felt a sad shiver when I heard these words, because Shane Mueller is played by Bruce Willis. Willis has become infamous in the past few years for the dozens of paycheck roles, glorified cameos really, he’s taken in straight-to-video action dreck like, well, Wire Room. An article in the Los Angeles Times this spring made clear that Willis was suffering from serious cognitive decline: Directors and crew told stories of a confused Willis being fed his lines through an earpiece, shooting for the minimum possible number of days so that his name above the title might attract investors. As that story was being reported, Willis’ family revealed that his acting career was over. He was suffering from aphasia, they said, a condition that affects speech and language cognition.

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Retirement or no, though, Bruce Willis still had movies in the can, so Bruce Willis still has movies coming out. Willis is barely in Wire Room, the fourth since the announcement, whose actual star is the Entourage meathead Kevin Dillon. Willis participates in one stilted conversation at the beginning of the film, fires off a few rounds in a climactic gunfight, and is notably unconscious in the part of the movie where the villain explains himself to the hero. Once it would have been Willis trading banter with the sheriff gone bad. Now it’s Kevin Dillon in that showdown, while Bruce Willis lies peacefully snoozing in the corner.

Sometime this year, or maybe the next, Bruce Willis’ final movie will be released, almost certainly to minimal press attention and even less audience interest. To someone who grew up in the 1990s, this seems impossible. Tinseltown is usually very good at paying tribute to its bygone stars. But it seems entirely likely that Willis will miss the entire Hollywood lionization machine in the final years or decades of his life: no career achievement awards, no late-life Oscar nomination for a surprising indie, no wave from the balcony at the Kennedy Center. From 1988 to the end of the millennium, no one made bigger hits, flopped bigger flops, and grinned more shit-eating grins. He used to be one of the coolest movie stars around. It feels painfully unfair to watch his work end with this kind of whimper.

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But behind him he leaves a fascinating cinematic record. To look back at Bruce Willis’ career is to see a man who became a megastar in an instant and spent the following decades torn: searching for ways to complicate his persona, retreating to what was familiar. There’s nothing to see in a movie like Wire Room, no hint of the Willis who commanded $20 million per movie and, ever so briefly, deserved every penny. But you don’t need to watch Wire Room when you can watch so many other movies.

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It’s hard to explain, today, when Julia Roberts stars in a streaming series on Starz, the barrier the culture used to erect between television and movies. Once upon a time it was a commonplace that even the biggest TV star really wanted to do movies. But everyone knew that what made an actor successful in the lesser art form of TV rarely translated to film, the top dog of American visual culture. When someone like Tom Hanks made it, it was notable, considering all the Scott Baios and Ted Dansons and David Carusos who could never quite achieve the movie stardom their agents had promised them.

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So when Bruce Willis, the 33-year-old star of the hit ABC dramedy Moonlighting, appeared in 1988’s Die Hard, audiences weren’t quite prepared for what they were going to get. It was an action movie, yes. It had explosions and helicopters and a big tall building, just like in the trailer. But the movie begins, basically, as a domestic drama: John McClane, New York cop, is bewildered and lost in a swanky L.A. party, until he finds his estranged wife, Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia. They’ve been apart for months, and at their reunion, their love for each other shows through. But then John can’t help but complain that she’s not using her married name, and Holly can’t help but get upset at how he hasn’t supported her career, and soon they’re bickering, and after she leaves the office, he bangs his head against the wall. “That was great, John,” he mutters. “Good job. Very mature.”

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This interaction is the emotional core of this entire movie, the surprising heart inside a big, explosive thrill ride. The scene, deftly written and acted with perfect affection and irritation by Willis and Bedelia, tells us everything we need to know about this couple, and give us a surprising reason to root for John McClane once the terrorists take over Nakatomi Tower: We don’t want that to be the last conversation John and Holly ever have. They deserve better.

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That scene is paid off many, many fistfights and dead terrorists later. McClane, battered and bleeding from his bare feet, talks to his L.A. cop buddy Al. If things don’t work out, he asks, could Al tell Holly that she’s the best thing that ever happened to a bum like him. He should have been more supportive. “She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times,” he confides, “but she never heard me say ‘I’m sorry.’ ” John McClane isn’t just funny, tough, sexy, and brave. Is he a feminist?! OK, OK, maybe not yet. But he’s learning. He’s learning to be better.

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Rewatching Die Hard, I couldn’t stop laughing at the muttered monologue Willis keeps going through nearly the entire film. John McClane wasn’t a stone-faced action hero, a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger, stoically, and even robotically, blowing enemies away, calm in the face of danger. Each escape is a hasty, panicked improvisation that only just works. “What are you doing, John?!” he groans as he’s about to throw himself off the roof, firehose tied around his waist. Each shattered window or burst of machine-gun fire provokes from John McClane an astonished “Jesus Christ!” or “Goddammit!”—the same as it would from us. He was a hero, but he wasn’t a superhero. When the glass cut him, he bled. In his heroics, as in his relationship with Holly, Die Hard gave Bruce Willis room to grow.

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Die Hard earned $140 million and made Willis a superstar. It’s hard to think of an equivalent performance in a blockbuster debut, one as immensely charismatic and surprising as this one. In classic Hollywood fashion, Willis followed Die Hard not only with a 1990 sequel but with a project meant to establish his bona fides as a prestige actor. The Bonfire of the Vanities placed Willis in the role of a callow, alcoholic reporter and opened with a bravura single-take scene of Willis navigating every strata of New York society. Willis, despite being probably the best-cast of the film’s stars, seemed not quite up to the challenge. Listening now to Julie Salamon’s podcast about the making of the film, The Devil’s Candy, it’s remarkable how self-protective Willis is in interviews, as if already preparing himself for the failure to come. Bonfire was a legendary disaster, the first of several fiascos Willis made in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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1992’s Death Becomes Her, Willis’ first real attempt at a big-screen comedy (not counting the Look Who’s Talking films, for which he voiced the baby), wasn’t a bomb, but mainstream critics and audiences didn’t initially embrace it. Watching it now in light of the film’s cult status among queer viewers, it’s fascinating to compare the character the film thinks is its hero—schlubby plastic surgeon Ernest Menville (Willis), who belatedly discovers his conscience—with the characters those who appreciated the film actually loved: the bitchy, vain duo of immortal corpses played by Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Gaping shotgun wounds and broken necks aside, Streep and Hawn are delightfully, gruesomely alive, while Willis is overmatched, unable to raise his low-key persona to the campy pitch the material requires. He seemed to have learned from the experience: Though he was often very funny in his films, Willis rarely made straight comedies after Death Becomes Her. His only real attempts were 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards and its 2004 sequel, lifeless mob-coms built around Matthew Perry, who was trying to make his own leap to the big screen, with Willis sleepwalking through his supporting role as a hit man.

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In 1994, Willis appeared in what might be—and I’m amazed to say this, in light of his prodigious output in the past decade—his most inexplicable movie. The thriller Color of Night stars Willis as Bill Capa, a brooding psychotherapist who retreats to Los Angeles after his patient kills herself before his eyes. What did Willis think this film would give him? He exhibits zero charm, and is entirely unconvincing as an empathetic therapist. Meanwhile, all around him, absurd caricatures of psychiatric patients enact a brainless plot that depends on an audience not recognizing that one actor is playing multiple roles in unconvincing makeup. Color of Night bombed but became something of a home-video hit thanks to its many sex scenes featuring Willis and (it must be said, the much younger) Jane March.

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Yet in its failures, Color of Night still represents something crucial about Willis’ career. In the early ’90s, Willis was still starring in Die Hard sequels and other movies that played to his perceived strengths. Some of those movies (The Last Boy Scout) succeeded; others (Hudson Hawk) flopped. But even as he continued wisecracking his way through action scenes, he was trying to figure out what else his stardom could encompass. Maybe Bonfire meant he wasn’t, for now, an Oscar-movie star. But maybe he could be a sex symbol. Willis isn’t good in Color of Night, but he throws everything he’s got into those sex scenes. It’s not an accident the movie was a hit on VHS.

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Whatever credibility Willis lost from yet another high-profile bomb was recaptured by his appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction the same year. Willis played Butch, a boxer who double-crosses a crime lord and (just barely) lives to tell the tale. Tarantino made great use of Willis’ mug, which appears chiseled from rock, much as Robert Rodriguez later would in Sin City. In comparison to Die Hard, it’s striking how retrograde Butch seems in the film’s action scenes, all glowers and grimaces. But Tarantino also lets Willis be sweet and silly: His pillow talk with the winsome Fabienne gets almost as much screen time as his showdowns with Vincent Vega, Marsellus Wallace, and the despicable Zed.

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Willis wasn’t the reclamation project in Pulp Fiction. That was John Travolta, who at the time was so uncool he had to show his face in the Look Who’s Talking movies, while Willis only had to record voice-overs. And his performance wasn’t the most acclaimed in the film: Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman all received Oscar nominations, while Willis did not. But rewatching the movie, it’s his third of the movie’s trilogy of interlocking stories that provokes the most pure moviegoing delight, and which feels the most, well, pulp. Butch has simple goals: to retrieve his watch, to pick up his girlfriend, and to get out of town. Like John McClane, he finds that circumstance can be kind and it can be cruel. But if he remains resolute, circumstance will eventually place in his hands the right weapon. Now he has a samurai sword. Ho-ho-ho.

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In 1997, Willis attempted another left turn. He signed on to produce and star in Broadway Brawler, directed by the Oscar-winning actress and documentarian Lee Grant. Described as a romantic comedy in the style of Jerry Maguire, Brawler seemed like an attempt to return to Willis’ Moonlighting roots, with the actor playing a retired hockey enforcer who falls for Maura Tierney. But 20 days into shooting, Willis shut the movie down, firing Grant and her husband, Willis’ co-producer. “One minute you’re going great—and the next minute, some kind of whim can destroy it,” Grant told Variety. “It was like a tornado.”

“Bruce was telling other actors how to act,” the movie’s fired cinematographer told the L.A. Times. Rumors swirled about Willis demanding more screen time and more close-ups. By now these were familiar stories of Willis, on-set diva, a star run amok. (Salamon’s book about Bonfire contains plenty more.) And now Disney, which was financing Broadway Brawler through a subsidiary, was out a reported $17 million for a movie that was never going to be finished. Willis signed a three-picture deal with Disney as a way of avoiding litigation and agreed to star in the first for $3 million. (The difference between that and his usual $20 million fee would in effect pay Disney back.) That movie ended up being one of the biggest, loudest hits of Willis’ career: 1998’s Armageddon.

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In Armageddon, Willis plays Harry Stamper, leader of a ragtag gang of deep-core drillers who are recruited to save the Earth from an oncoming asteroid. He’s introduced chasing Ben Affleck around an oil platform with a shotgun for the crime of sleeping with Stamper’s grown daughter.* Like road signs, Armageddon’s characters are all designed to be legible at a glance; each performer has a brief moment to establish some defining trait before the big explosions start. Willis is the troublemaker who’s also a traditionalist, the wild card who’s forever protective of his guys. The role requires little from Willis other than to show up with his blue-collar cred, shout orders, and, occasionally, look soulfully into the distance.

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But the second movie in the Disney deal was entirely different, and pointed to a possible new direction for Willis’ career. M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 breakout The Sixth Sense presented a Willis audiences hadn’t really seen before: mournful, watchful, and haunted. Curiously, the Willis character that Dr. Malcolm Crowe most closely resembles is Color of Night’s Dr. Capa, a therapist grappling with the trauma of a patient he couldn’t help. But this time the grief feels earned, in part because the movie gives him a relationship we care about, with his wife (Olivia Williams), who seems just as estranged from her husband as Holly McClane was from John. After the shooting that opens the movie, we want Malcolm to find his way back to her, and we’re desperate for him to redeem himself, to find a way to help the boy we see him counseling—Cole, who sees dead people.

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The Sixth Sense, of course, is built on misdirection, and while Shyamalan’s script is remarkably clever, it’s easy to imagine it going wrong with another actor at its center. The persona Willis built over 10-plus years of blockbusters serves Shyamalan’s purposes: We’re so used to seeing him as a hero that we never even imagine the possibility he’s the movie’s victim—the character to whom the movie happens. Even when he redeems himself as a therapist, finding the key to helping little Cole—what the dead people want is not to scare Cole but to ask for his assistance—Malcolm, who doesn’t know he’s one of the dead people, is being carefully positioned on the rug that’s about to be pulled. The Sixth Sense’s famous final reveal forces audiences to reconsider not only all they’ve just seen, but in a way all they know about Willis’ career up to then.

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It’s been more than 20 years since The Sixth Sense, and Willis’ career never quite followed that performance up. He played action hero in the Red and Expendables franchises, in the latter depressingly posing alongside the ’80s action figures he once seemed like a better version of. He’s made his 40-plus cheapie trillers, which surely paid the bills but also served in recent years, as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz has pointed out, to hide his cognitive impairment with his late-career characters’ defining trait: He could be “Silent Bruce,” the hero of few words, in for a couple of cleverly edited scenes and out before you notice something’s wrong.

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The final Die Hard movie, 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard, shows how miscast latter-day Bruce Willis was as the character who first made him famous. The movie’s dull Russian espionage plot, which has none of the conceptual flair of the original, isn’t the only thing that feels pulled straight from Willis’ straight-to-video career. Though there’s no evidence he was already suffering from aphasia when the film was shot, Die Hard 5 seems now like a case study in the perils of building a star vehicle around a star in whom you have no faith. Like Wire Room, A Good Day to Die Hard rarely puts its lead in a two-shot with his fellow actors and feels painstakingly edited, with every other character delivering information and Willis delivering little but warmed-over witticisms. (“Whoa, Nijinsky! I just got off the plane!”) But unlike Wire Room, A Good Day to Die Hard requires Bruce Willis to appear through its entire length. The result feels both exploitative and thoroughly unsatisfying. And it’s bizarre to watch a star once famous—infamous!—for imposing his will upon a movie set, sometimes far beyond what seems appropriate, reduced to an object of manipulation, moved through a movie like a chess piece.

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I prefer to remember late-career Willis through his two final satisfying performances, both from 2012. In Moonrise Kingdom—from this generation’s best repurposer of on-screen personas, Wes Anderson—Willis plays a sad-sack island police officer faced with a troubled kid. (The kid doesn’t see dead people, but he still needs someone to listen to him.) In Rian Johnson’s Looper, which feels like a spiritual sequel to Butch’s story from Pulp Fiction, Willis plays a grizzled hero who will do whatever it takes to save the woman he loves. But Looper also gives Willis a chance to crack wise, across a diner table from his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “I don’t want to talk about time travel shit,” he says. “We’re gonna be here all day, making diagrams with straws.”

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By the end of Moonrise Kingdom, Willis has climbed a clock tower in a hurricane to rescue the boy, but it’s not action-movie heroism that gets the job done—it’s a willingness to open his heart. By the end of Looper, Willis has been improvisatory and implacable; he’s been funny and heroic; he’s killed scores without a thought but also agonized over the death of a single child. And then he disappears—winks out of existence. These are the kinds of endings that might play over a career-achievement montage. They’re the endings I choose when I think of the career of this unusual star, a balding, thirtysomething guy from Jersey who rocketed to the top of the world. Not the slow fade-out he himself chose—or that was chosen for him—but a triumph and a twist, endings as witty, warm, and unexpected as the best of Willis’ performances.

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In Die Hard, Hans Gruber tells John McClane he shouldn’t consider himself some kind of John Wayne, walking off into the sunset with Grace Kelly. “That was Gary Cooper, asshole,” Willis replies, referring to High Noon. Willis, reportedly a fan of old Westerns, knew both those actors well, and even modeled aspects of his best performances on theirs. But he was his own kind of actor, a thoroughly modern star for the end of the last century: steeped in irony, tarnished by fame, frustrated by his limitations, and capable—every once in a while—of pulling something miraculous out of nowhere. John McClane had nothing, and then he had a machine gun, and then he had the whole damn building. Yippee-ki-yay.

Correction, Sept. 8, 2022: This story originally misidentified the type of gun with which Bruce Willis chases Ben Affleck around in Armageddon. It is a shotgun, not a rifle.

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