The news this week that Bruce Willis has been diagnosed with aphasia and is stepping away from acting prompted an outpouring of affection and reflection from the film business and the viewing public alike. With his family stating publicly that Willis’ cognitive abilities are severely impacted by the disorder – which affects the brain’s language center and a person’s ability to understand and express speech – it seems likely that the Hollywood icon, who turned 67 this month, will not be out in the limelight again, the better to spend his remaining time with those closest to him, with as much dignity as possible. The public response has been akin to grief, with people trying to express the impact of his performances while they can. Die Hard seems a trivial pick at first glance for this, but it is the series most people have most widely seen of his, and reflects the loss of his particular brand of star power quite well.
I could ask you to name a quick John McClane quote off the top of your head, but before the question is even finished you have the answer, don’t you? A catchphrase of cowboy profanity, “yippee ki-yay motherfucker” in Die Hard is Bruce Willis’ on-screen persona as many viewers would most like to think of him; gruff, tough, defiant – rough around the edges, a bit silly, a bit sexy. It’s a line that’s stuck for a reason; in the golden age of the action hero one-liner, Willis nails the delivery; serving John’s role as the fly in the ointment, the pain in the ass – rubber-bouncing Hans Gruber’s cowboy crack back at him, quick-thinking if not quick-witted. When we think of the villains in our lives, do we want to give them a sociopathic pun like James Bond, or do we want to tell them to get fucked, as John basically does? It’s a pure Planet Hollywood line, Willis’ “I’ll be back” moment. It’s not the first line I think of when I think of that performance, though.
That comes when John, bleeding, battered, breathless, drags himself to one of the bathrooms of Nakatomi Plaza and gets Sgt. Al Powell on the walkie-talkie. Picking shattered glass from his crimson feet, he tells Al to find his wife Holly, no matter what, and to apologise to her for not being supportive when her career took off. There’s no wink, no charm, nor meathead gritted teeth, just Bruce Willis’ voice quivering as he wells up.
“Tell her…that she’s the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times…she never heard me say ‘I’m sorry.’ I want you to tell her that, Al.
“Tell her that John said he was sorry.”
It’s a humility that you weren’t guaranteed in your ubermensch action stars then, and if anything less so now. John McClane is a fuck up, and he knows it – he knows it when he smacks his head against the wall after a fight with Holly and he knows it when he’s bleeding out alone, the odds stacked against him forty storeys high. That crack in John’s voice is consistent across the performance throughout Die Hard, not just a ready-for-my-close-up waterworks turn. When John berates himself for not stopping a murder (“then you’d be dead too asshole”), when he shrieks down the phone at no one coming to save him (“no shit lady does it sound like I’m ordering a fucking pizza!??”, he’s every bit the everyman that the audience so strongly identified with.
He’s panicked. And when he relays his apology to Al, he’s beaten, his voice small. There’s no quips here, just a sad man who knows that even if he somehow makes it out of Nakatomi alive, his marriage is by no means safe. When ‘the wife’ is so flat in these movies, an object, an item, John finally seeing Holly’s perspective, and centering her needs, is a step rarely seen in the action genre. And it’s Willis who sells it so thoroughly, his hang-dog expression, trailaway voice, a visible vulnerability that bubbled up in all of his best roles.
As quietly sad characters like those seen in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Willis showed he’s far from just yelling big dumb fun lines. Even in the over the top action of The Last Boy Scout, he’s a perfect fit for Shane Black’s tragicomic tough talk, a lost and miserable guy who can never snark at someone else as hard as he can at himself. In Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, he’s soft spoken, gentle, primed for the world to let him down, but even further beneath that, hopeful. His own screen persona, beefed up or brow beaten, has always been of the dog kicked while it’s down, sad, confused, but ready to bite back. That context informs even the delightfully dumb drama of a yippee ki-yay.
The snark or snarl response of acutely stressed action heroes is standard now, and it’s easy to see Willis as a poster-child for that. In truth though his best performances were always more nuanced, those wiseguy behaviours served as a front for characters who were not far beyond the surface, or directly on it, were lonely, or desperate, or depressed.
When Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel fill a screen, contractually obligated not to look weak, or Chris Pratt and Ryan Reynolds shrug off every setback with a “…well that happened”, it’s all worlds away from the performances that viewers connected to in Willis, the poor schmuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It’s been sad to watch Willis in recent years, trading in his star power in a succession of DTV shoot em ups, the actor’s equivalent of a cash-for-gold shop. Sad because plenty have gotten their yucks in just for him appearing in these movies sight-unseen, just like they did with debt-strewn Nic Cage, now beloved again, and just like they’ll do again with somebody else once the news of Willis’ retirement settles. And sad because Willis’ agency in these appearances is hard to pin down, with rumours of his decline long-running and now confirmed, the natural question is for long was the actor in a position to make informed decisions about working on these sets. Exploitation reigns in Hollywood, and those on screen and off deserve better than to be taken advantage of, always. It’s about the right people asking those questions though, and the people in the best positions to get the best answers; the actionable ones, not the lurid ones.
The hope is that Willis can manage his condition as best he can, that he is supported and surrounded by those who have his best interests at heart. The hope is that the man still with us gets the care and consideration that should come alongside the recent outpour of affection, rather than speculation or further exploitation. He’s an actor who’s heard thousands say a thousand times that they love him. The star, and all those in our lives who will be gone too soon before too long, deserve to hear true openness, emotion and honesty from us, while we can still tell them.