I was not surprised when Bruce Willis’ daughter announced this week that he was “stepping away” from acting because of what she called “aphasia.” For actors, that can be a convenient technical term for “I can’t remember my lines, and it’s not my fault,” but in Willis’s case—he’s only 67—many believe it may mean more, like that he is suffering from the after-effects of a stroke or head injury. The reason I was not surprised by the announcement is that the “Die Hard” superstar’s movie appearances have been embarrassing to him and painful to watch for at least 3 years, and there was no discernible reason, other than the fact that he appeared to be not fully engaged.
During the pandemic, when my wife and I were forced to watch far more movies we had never heard of than we wanted to, we quickly learned to avoid any Willis movie of recent vintage, and there are a lot of them. It was puzzling: Willis would be named up front as one of the stars, but he frequently had nothing to do. He looked okay, except that the spark was gone, and Bruce Willis’s spark is most of his justification for being on screen. He showed no energy, moved slowly, seldom changed expression, and delivered his lines flatly. It was suspicious. And it wasn’t our imagination. One tweeting movie fan wrote in February,
While I wasn’t paying attention Bruce Willis became the king of crappy, low budget, direct to video action films. 32 of them since 2014. Apparently he gets most of the film’s budget to show up for a day or two of filming then they build the rest of the movie around that. Nice.
“The Razzies,” which give out awards for bad films and bad acting, even created a special Bruce Willis category the same month.
Willis has been given a special category called ‘Worst Bruce Willis Performance in a 2021 movie’ after releasing eight films – namely American Siege, Apex, Cosmic Sin, Deadlock, Fortress, Midnight In The Switchgrass, Out Of Death and Survive The Game.
What was going on here?
Rumer Willis, Bruce’s daughter with Demi Moore, wrote on Instagram,
To Bruce’s amazing supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities. As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him. This is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion and support.
Very quickly, reports started coming out from Hollywood that Willis’ condition was old news. The LA Times wrote:
According to those who have worked with the elder Willis on his recent films, the actor has been exhibiting signs of decline in recent years. In interviews with The Times this month, nearly two dozen people who were on set with the actor expressed concern about Willis’ well-being.
These individuals questioned whether the actor was fully aware of his surroundings on set, where he was often paid $2 million for two days of work, according to documents viewed by The Times. Filmmakers described heart-wrenching scenes as the beloved “Pulp Fiction” star grappled with his loss of mental acuity and an inability to remember his dialogue. An actor who traveled with Willis would feed the star his lines through an earpiece, known in the industry as an “earwig,” according to several sources. Most action scenes, particularly those that involved choreographed gunfire, were filmed using a body double as a substitute for Willis…
Willis’ longtime management team — including a powerhouse group of agents at the Creative Artists Agency — made sure that his film shoots were limited to two days. The actor’s contracts stipulated that he was not to work more than eight hours a day, but he often stayed for only four, according to production sources.
Jesse V. Johnson who directed a low-budget film starring Willis last April said he confronted the star’s handlers about the actor’s condition. “They stated that he was happy to be there, but that it would be best if we could finish shooting him by lunch and let him go early,” Johnson told the Times. But crew members on the film recalled Willis saying at one point, “I know why you’re here, and I know why you’re here, but why am I here?”
Even this depressing account isn’t entirely candid. The producers of major films obviously weren’t hiring Willis, though the producers of B (C and D) films still felt his name was worth paying for. But there had to have been an unspoken (and unreported) understanding that no significant or challenging project could risk relying on him, and there must have been incidents that precipitated that conclusion. Everyone in the industry, which thrives on gossip, had to know that Willis had something seriously wrong with him.
Yet the movies kept on coming. At the time of Rumer’s announcement, Willis had eight movies in pre-production, according to IMDB. I have never seen that many movies by a single actor on the runway simultaneously. That’s a throwback to the Thirties.
So what IS going on here? It’s definitely not good:
- Hollywood has been misleading movie goers and Willis fans into watching films with his name on them when he is no longer capable of delivering the kinds of performances that made them want to see him.
- Producers have also been trying to maximize whatever they can squeeze out of what’s left of the actor as quickly as possible, before there isn’t anything left.
- Willis’s agents and family have been complicit in this, keeping the actor working while knowing full well that with every minute he was on screen, he would be tearing down a reputation it had taken decades to build. Why? For money, of course.
- Was Willis a willing, informed and fully empowered participant in his own exploitation, or was he being manipulated and abused at a time when he didn’t have the ability to say “No”? If it was the former, than the actor was part of an unprofessional con.
If it was the latter, he is the victim of elder abuse.