I’ve always wonder what we miss out on when action stars don’t transition into different roles with age. The studio would seem to want Sly Stallone back as a septuagenarian Rambo far more than audiences do. Rather than sign on for another prestige drama like Magnolia or gonzo comedy like Tropic Thunder, Tom Cruise would rather risk life and limb — and expose a production team to COVID-19 — to shoot another Mission: Impossible. And then you have Bruce Willis, whose IMDb page is a record of steroidal homicide. The movies all bleed together: Hard Kill. First Kill. Death Wish. Out of Death. Die Hard (various). The Siege. American Siege. Hell, there’s a movie on there called Acts of Violence, perhaps a sort of career thesis statement.
Anyway, Willis is entrenched as a Hollywood tough guy — maybe the toughest bald guy who has yet to join the Fast and the Furious franchise — and one has to imagine that being typecast this way for a few decades does something to your personality. Could you start to believe you’re invincible, or, ahem, “unbreakable”? Or a lone wolf, walking his own path? Or just very, very important, and therefore exempt from the rules and etiquette by which society maintains order?
Ah, there it is. After riding out much of the pandemic to date with ex-wife Demi Moore and their adult children in Idaho, Bruce tried shopping maskless in a pharmacy in the current epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, and chose to leave rather than comply with the employees and customers telling him to cover his mouth and nose. Which would have been easy enough with the bandana around his neck. Did he bounce out of embarrassment, rather than stubbornness? Hard to see why, given that he’d have to issue a quick pseudo-apology for the incident, calling it “an error in judgment” and adding: “Be safe out there everyone and let’s continue to mask up.” Surely it would have been easier, and more effective PR, to simply… do that himself, in person.
Almost a year ago now, when the first lockdowns went into effect, celebrities mounted a deeply irritating, tone-deaf campaign to assure us that we were “all in this together.” Even at the time, the phoniness of the sentiment was unmistakable: rich entertainers were sitting around their luxurious homes and looking to kill time while millions faced unemployment, eviction and hunger. That Willis thought, if only momentarily, he was not subject to the health precautions that have prevented many more infections and deaths, is a glimpse into the real mindset of the elite, which continually fails to account for how success confers the privileges of money and status but not, say, natural resistance to a highly infectious disease. Before Willis was shamed for being unmasked, he might not have considered that it’s for the protection of others as well as his own cinematically mythologized body. He set himself apart from our collective effort.
While the actor has known Republican leanings, and was celebrated by right-wing virus skeptics for this meek protest, I doubt there’s anything more ideological at play here than the attitude of his specific stardom. When you’re the perennial, hard-boiled hero of the film industry’s shoot-em-up-and-jump-out-of-the-explosion genre, you don’t bother with what everyone else is doing on set: That’s not a rugged leading man’s concern. They have their miserable little duties, and you are there to shine.
But maybe, over these months of canceled concerts, disrupted TV series and delayed movies, we have come to understand how fragile and arbitrary a hold the famous faces have on us. Nobody was starstruck to see Bruce Willis at Rite Aid — they were mad, in fact, that they had the opportunity to recognize him at all. Whenever this crisis is “over,” he and his peers may find their clout diminished by the refusal to quit flexing it for a while.