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Jeff Simon: Was no one looking out for the best interests of Bruce Willis?

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Bruce Willis

In this Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, file photo, Bruce Willis attends the "Motherless Brooklyn" premiere during the 57th New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall in New York. 

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I have liked Bruce Willis since I first laid eyes on the TV series "Moonlighting" back in the day.

I like what he does onscreen to look loose, improvisational and, at the same time, capable of great paradoxical stillness.

I was even once able to coax him out of industrial silence about his worsening relationship with Cybill Shepherd toward the end of "Moonlighting" during a publicity event for Norman Jewison's film "In Country" at a Toronto Film Festival.

It was during a standard publicity soiree. Seven or eight members of the press sat at a round table firing questions at Willis about the film that was based on Bobbie Ann Mason's acclaimed novel about a troubled Vietnam vet in Kentucky.

Before the interview session we were all sternly advised by coastal publicists that there were to be no questions about "Moonlighting" or, especially Shepherd, despite the blizzard of media speculation everywhere about their mutual disenchantment.

The warning struck me as ridiculous. When a newspaper is spending money sending correspondents to events for crucial access to TV and movie people, it was idiotic to have a correspondent unable to probe one of the major stories of the day with one of the principals.

So I begged Willis' pardon and asked him, on behalf of the table, to comment on all the speculation that the "Moonlighting" set was less than paradise on Earth.

Not only was Willis not upset at the question, he complimented me on my politeness and had a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he happily answered my question. Yes, it was no fun by this time. And not only that, he stoutly maintained he was never again going to star in a weekly TV show if he could help it.

And so he hasn't. Guest star – on "Friends"? Sure. But a weekly hour of TV? No way. He was fleeing for his artistic and spiritual life to movies.

Whereupon he quickly became one of our heavyweight wiseacre action movie stars. I've liked him immensely over the years – not just in "Die Hard" and other action blockbusters but in a heartening, steady stream of smaller, gutsier movies that were, in part, only being made because Willis said yes to being in them.

When Quentin Tarantino came calling with the script for "Pulp Fiction," Willis said yes to it. When then-little known M. Night Shyamalan asked him to make "The Sixth Sense," Willis smartly said yes.

"The Player," "Color of Night," "Nobody's Fool," "12 Monkeys," "Breakfast of Champions," "Sin City," "Moonlight Kingdom" – those are just a few of the smaller, ambitious movies that benefited from Willis showing up just to be in them, even if they didn't have "blockbuster" written all over them.

I was one of the few critics who liked the roundly deplored "Hudson Hawk," a wicked improvisational parody of an action blockbuster in which Willis and co-conspirator Danny Aiello seem to be having the time of their lives hacking around despite a film budget larger than the gross national product of Paraguay.

What's important to remember is that, by and large, the most despised films out in Hollywood are those whose wretched reputations are directly related to their budgets – "Heaven's Gate," for instance, or "Ishtar" – those whose budgets ballooned perilously while somebody somewhere was suspected of runaway self-indulgence. In the world of movie propriety, they were loathed primarily for the money they wasted.

Two small problems there: 1) not every such loathed film turns out, on delivery, to be bad, no matter how bad the vibes were during shooting. One of the most famous films ever to shrug off a foul advance reputation was one of the most honored, admired and successful films in the history of motion pictures: "The Godfather," whose daily rushes convinced big-shot executives that neither Francis Ford Coppola nor cinematographer Gordon Willis knew what they were doing.

The other problem, of course, is that if money is being wasted, it's not our money after all. I'm sorry that the studio that made "Hudson Hawk" took a bath but for the life of me I couldn't help grinning from ear to ear when Willis and Danny Aiello hacked around onscreen and seemed to be having a fine old time at the expense of a would-be box office behemoth.

That's the thing about Bruce Willis films, whether he's the subject of on-set arrogant gossip or the fellow who could make Roy Rogers' "yippie-kie-yay" into a merrily obscene transplanted barroom refrain in "Die Hard." That's what people in the audience love about Willis: He's always got an edge to him, whether he's chortling with Aiello or delivering lines with a sweet, gentle softness that few of his contemporaries could come close to.

He's just not an action movie puppet. He's still the guy who started as a New Jersey bartender and off-Broadway actor and passionate blues harmonica player when he was on the way to box office megastardom.

To discover now, with his publicized difficulties with aphasia, that he recently appeared in 22 bad films in four years is beyond tragic. It was outrageous and a little infuriating. When I read the story in the Los Angeles Times that detailed the superstar abuse, I was horrified.

Who, I wondered, is watching out for this guy, if he lacked the wherewithal to do so himself?

Aphasia, the little-known disease, has drastically deprived him of language and even a minute-by-minute sense of where he is in his own life. And yet his people right and left were saying yes to movies that were going nowhere.

We're not talking about promising movies like "Pulp Fiction" or "The Sixth Sense" here; we're talking about subway cars to oblivion like "Trauma Center," "Hard Kill," "Out of Death" and "Midnight in the Switchgrass."

Was he, in his malady, being cynically and contemptuously exploited for his star value? Or was he providing, in his decline, for his heirs? Or, putting the best face on it, was he lending his support to young hopefuls in the business?

There was, it seems, no way after a while for people not to see cruel exploitation of a major star in steep medical decline.

Willis and his people, thank heaven, put a stop to it last week.

They admitted what so many people already knew, that he was having terrible difficulties with aphasia – the disease finally and officially named publicly. No longer was he just the focus of a lot of public gossip.

Willis had, as his daughter Rumer put it, "stepped away" from making movies. To underscore the unanimity of it all in his camp, every story has emphasized that both of his wives (famously, at one point, including Demi Moore) and sets of children are on board with it. There is now a merciful surcease from the story.

In the case of another famously edgy actor who's renowned for making too many throwaway movies seemingly just for the sake of someone being able to throw his name above the title, we have come up with what seems to be an unequivocally happy plateau if not an end.

That star is Nicolas Cage, famous nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and a man whose well-known spendthrift extravagance had led to tax troubles and a great many films just for the salary of films that went direct to video.

The happy development there is the film "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" in which Cage plays, yes, Nicolas Cage, movie actor, in order to rescue his wife and daughter from an evil drug lord.

Sight unseen, it all sounds like those modern meta-masterpieces from writer Charlie Kaufman, of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" fame.

Advance word from the South by Southwest Festival is very good indeed. When actors have spent so much time throwing themselves into questionable work, they deserve an occasional answer that sounds very much like a resounding "yes."

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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