Sunday, February 01, 2015

31 Days of Oscar Blogathon -- Oscar Snubs

Bruce Willis reminds me of Cary Grant.

Now hear me out!

Both have impeccable timing and are highly adept with rapid fire dialog. Each moves with unexpected grace. Both disappear completely into character and make acting look easy. And, no matter how much success they enjoyed at the box office, neither got much love from Oscar in the competitive category.*

In his entire 34 year career, Grant received 
two lonely Oscar nominations 
and didn't win either time.

Bruce has been making movies for 28 years 
and has received nary a one.

I can think of two roles that could easily have placed Bruce Willis in the running for an Oscar. Both of these performances contributed enormously to the artistic and commercial success of their films, and both of these movies were nominated for Best Picture. And yet no nomination for Bruce.

1994. Pulp Fiction. Butch Coolidge. When Pulp Fiction was made and originally promoted, Bruce Willis was its only star. Travolta's career was still moribund. Samuel L. Jackson was not yet a household name. Uma Thurman was a celebrity with a pretty face but not a serious actress. Bruce Willis was the Emmy winner (Moonlighting) who'd left TV and become an action star of the first magnitude with Die Hard and The Last Boy Scout.

It's a chopper, Baby, and Zed's dead
We now know Pulp Fiction as a major success and a cultural touchstone. But at the time, a non-linear narrative soaked with kinky sex, illicit drugs and lots of blood was a very risky choice for a star. If not for Bruce Willis' early and enthusiastic participation, Tarantino would have had a much harder time getting financing and distribution.

As Butch, Bruce plays a boxer with an elastic moral code who -- instead of throwing the match, as gangster Marsellus paid him to do -- actually kills his opponent.

And that is one of the more savory and explicable things that happens to Butch. How to describe what goes on in the basement of Maynard's pawn shop, where Butch has an unforgettable encounter with Marsellus, Zed and The Gimp? It's ugly, it's horrifying and yet somehow Bruce still makes it funny at times.

Like when the bloody Butch wordlessly works his way through the pawn shop, trying to find the right weapon to avenge/liberate Marsellus. Hammer? Bat? Chain saw? He looks up catches sight of the katana. It's love at first sight. He breathlessly takes it down and removes it from its sheath, sensuously enjoying the the very feel of it in his hands. (Please don't make me report what happens next.)

He's as believable when he's brutal as he is when he's tender. His lover, Fabienne, is staggeringly obtuse yet he's endlessly patient with her. Think of when he asks her whether she got her favorite blueberry pancakes for breakfast, or explains that no, he didn't get his cracked rib from giving her "oral pleasure," or when he reassures her it's not her fault that she left his most treasured possession -- his father's watch -- behind. As Butch, Bruce Willis gives a virtuoso performance.

While Pulp Fiction got seven Oscar nominations, Bruce's daring yet unerringly authentic turn got overlooked. Seen today, Bruce is every bit as good as the nominated John Travolta. But imagining what it was like to watch Pulp Fiction 20 years ago, Travolta may have seemed like the revelation. It would have been a thrill to have him back, doing the twist with his joie de vivre in tact, while it was easy to take Bruce Willis for granted in 1994 since he had been working steadily, almost frenetically, in front of the cameras for the past decade.

Along with Travolta, the nominees for Best Actor that year were:
•  Winner Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump)
•  Paul Newman for his charming and subtle turn in Nobody's Fool (where he was supported by Mr. Willis)
•  Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption
•  Nigel Hawthorne for The Madness of King George.

I haven't seen Hawthorne's performance, so I have nothing to say about it, but I can see bumping Morgan Freeman for Bruce. I'm not sure Freeman's wasn't a supporting role and perhaps he was in the wrong category.

1999. The Sixth Sense. Dr. Malcolm Crowe. Even though by the end of the 90s we knew him best as a wise-cracking action hero, we never doubt for a moment that he's a soft-spoken, compassionate psychologist devoted to children. His domestic scenes with screen wife Anna are touching in their longing and diffidence. He captures that feeling we've each had when we feel like we're standing on the shore, watching someone we love float farther and farther away.

Most of all, I love his scenes with Haley Joel Osment. Dr. Crowe addresses young Cole Sear with respect and patience but never an ounce of condescension. When Cole shares his secrets with the psychiatrist, beginning with "small" ones about being bullied and leading up to the big reveal that gave us an unforgettable tagline ("I see dead people"), Willis is a compassionate stand-in for the audience. He's hearing it. He's absorbing it. He's shocked by the revelations and at the same time impressed by his young patient's courage and decency. Osment never received such glowing reviews again, and I wonder if it's because he never again found himself paired with an actor as sensitive and attuned to a child actor.

At the Oscars, The Sixth Sense earned six nominations, but Bruce came up empty. The Best Actor category that year ended up being a horse race between far showier performances: Denzel Washington in Hurricane and ultimate winner Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. The other three nominees -- Russell Crowe in The Insider, Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story and Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown -- were all from smaller, artier movies and I suspect that Bruce was hurt by his massive commercial success in Armageddon and The Fifth Element the previous year.

It's too bad he was damned for his box office performance, because he used the clout it gave him wisely. Before working with Bruce, M. Night Shyamalan had even fewer credits than pre-Pulp Tarantino. Yet Bruce, fresh off two of his biggest hits, snapped at the opportunity to work with this virtual unknown, ensuring that The Sixth Sense got financing and a wide release. As Yogi Berra would say, "It's like deja vu all over again."

Other missed opportunities for Oscar glory. Here are two lesser seen Willis performances that have an enduring spot in my heart:

•  In Country. (1989). Emmet Smith. This movie was a box office dud when Bruce was a very hot property, so I never expected him to be rewarded with a nomination. Yet he's very moving in his most passive performance as a Vietnam veteran, now content to waste his days drinking beer on the porch and eating in front of the TV.  In his way, he's very devoted to his niece, Sam, whose father was killed "in country"  before she was born. He helps Sam learn about the father she never knew, and in the process teaches us all a little about the boys we as a nation sent overseas in the 1960s and 1970s.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Captain Sharp is an ironically named law enforcement officer who only shares one thing with the quick-witted NY cop in Die Hard, and that is Bruce Willis. Blond, balding and frankly fifty, Captain Sharp is always the last to know anything that goes on in the small and quirky New England town writer/director Wes Anderson created. Sharp may not know much, but he realizes how dim he is, and that self-awareness enables him to be more sensitive to the (very) young runaway lovers he apprehends.

*Yes, Grant was given an honorary Oscar in 1970. I predict the same thing will happen to Bruce. About 15 awards seasons from now, when he's 75, he'll step out onstage in a tux and and give us one his perfect little smirks as he accepts a statuette representing his Lifetime Achievement in film.

Read more about the Academy Awards through the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon! Here are the topics:

February 2-3 THE ACTORS!
February 9-10 OSCAR SNUBS!
February 16-17 THE CRAFTS! (Music, Costumes, Cinematography, Writing, etc.)

... And here are the hubs:

Once Upon a Screen 
Outspoken and Freckled
Paula's Cinema Club

I encourage you to check them out.

Fire up the DVR for 31 Days of Oscar on TCM. Here is the schedule. 


  1. I agree that Bruce should have been nominated for Pulp Fiction! I've said it for years.

  2. You make very strong arguments. The Academy's neglect of Willis, particularly in those roles, will someday be legendary, just like Myrna Loy and Edward G. Robinson's dearth of nominations. The man is in good company.

  3. Very solid choices that were neglected, and a few that are surprising but seem right as well. It's tough to say some one else should have been bumped but it's also sad that good work missed a chance for special attention.

  4. You know, I never thought of either of these snubs, but I can see your point. He was very good in both. I don't think he beats Freeman's performance (which should have won), but I actually think Hanks's Forrest Gump should have been axed:)

  5. You know, I never thought of either of these snubs, but I can see your point. He was very good in both. I don't think he beats Freeman's performance (which should have won), but I actually think Hanks's Forrest Gump should have been axed:

  6. Compelling arguments! At first I thought "SHE LOST IT," but not at all off the wall! Terrific entry to our event. Thank you so much for participating!


  7. I love that you chose somebody contemporary, the scenario you outline at the end wouldn't surprise me. It seems the more effortless and/or natural the performance, the less it's rewarded.


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