Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Bruce Willis in "Twelve Monkeys" (1995)

Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Bruce Willis as James Cole
Film: Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actor category (1995):
-Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) *Winner
-Richard Dreyfuss (Mr. Holland's Opus)
-Anthony Hopkins (Nixon)
-Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking)
-Massimo Troisi (Il Postino)

Most action stars don't get associated with Oscar nominations for a variety of reasons. They're either more reliant on physical stunt performing (though that didn't stop them from giving Leonardo DiCaprio a trophy) or stuck in generic material. It would take quite the effort to see Jason Statham or Dwayne Johnson get a legitimate acting nomination. However, there is a class that also somehow crossover - most recently with Sylvester Stallone and his Oscar-nominated role in Creed. However, there are few cases that are likely as compelling and confusing as that of Bruce Willis. This is not because he is subject to mediocre franchises like the best of them, but because there were way too many times when he should've gotten a chance to be accepted as an Oscar nominee. He may seem bland with bland material, but you have to remember him in the 90's specifically to understand what I mean.

I am talking about this interesting period post-Die Hard where he became taken seriously as an actor. In the span of a few years, he released: Death Becomes Her, Pulp Fiction, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, The Fifth Element, and The Sixth Sense to name just a few highlights. He wasn't just a genre actor. He was jumping back and forth between genres with such a dizzying precision that it's hard to see him fail. Still, if I had to choose one performance that likely deserved to mark some Oscar acclaim, it is director Terry Gilliams' sci-fi classic Twelve Monkeys - a film that landed Brad Pitt his first Oscar in a memorable, eccentric supporting role that is as comedic and kooky as the best of Gilliam. However, Willis' lack of overacting remains one of the film's most underrated pieces, and which was potentially even more impressive in hindsight.

The story is quintessential time travel hokum in which Willis must uncover clues to a political radical's plan to destroy the world. This involves jumping around through time and meeting the radical (Pitt) at various points throughout his life. He is in insane asylums, have friends with power, and that's before things begin to make sense. Willis also is accompanied by Kathryn (Madeiline Stowe), who meets him at a weird time and tries to understand his goal. Willis works for the government and finds satisfaction in mundane things. It could be that travelling through eras without an identity has rattled him to his core. It could be the dismay that occasionally overwhelms him as the plan begins to make sense. It's a high wire act, and one that Gilliam has rarely pulled off as well - or accessible - as this. Still, the film's two Oscar nominations went to Pitt and Best Costume Design. Albeit, both were very much earned. However, Willis remains the unsung hero, both literally and figuratively.

Much like Edward G. Robinson, most audiences knew what to expect from Willis by 1995. He was the witty action guy who managed to work with some fine up and coming auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and M. Night Shyamalan. He was the embodiment of male cool in ways that the bulky Arnold Schwarzenegger or the slurring Stallone couldn't deliver upon. He was an every man, and despite starting outside of action cinema, he became synonymous with it thanks to Die Hard and his ability to make any line of dialogue pop. Like Robinson, it is possible for Willis to skid by in a film and deliver a half-decent performance, or at least he used to depending on your assessment of his current career. Still, it's one of those things that get taken for granted. While some actors were continually draped with nominations, he was the young kid who couldn't. Sure, box office glory is a nice alternative. But in The Runner-Ups, it's about noticing talent not recognized.

So while it would be easy to suggest The Sixth Sense or Pulp Fiction for a more logical highlight, why go with Twelve Monkeys? For starters, Gilliams' films have a solid track record of being recognized at The Oscars as recently as The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in 2009. He has had his own share of iconic performances, including Pitt and Robin Williams in The Fisher King. However, I don't think that he has made a film as noteworthy to the zeitgeist as Twelve Monkeys. Yes, Brazil is far and away his biggest accomplishment, but Twelve Monkeys is accessible in ways that he normally isn't. He's eccentric and playful while at times being too creative with things. His films are a highlight of what sci-fi should be, but that also means that it's sometimes a mess.

That is where Willis comes into the equation. You need to ground the wackiness with a sense of "normalcy" as it were. While it is obstensibly a sci-fi film, it updates the neo-noir genre as well by turning the protagonist into a more nauseous Humphrey Bogart, with a few clever moments to boot. He exists as a spectator of a world that is on the brink of madness. It's his job not to fall for it while reporting back to his leaders with every morsel of information. He is the observant type that makes the whole movie work. Without Willis, the film is essentially Pitt mugging it up for the camera. It isn't a bad thing, but Gilliam was smart to go with a wacky detective story that is its own kaleidoscope of ideas. The further you twist it, the more that it's hard to believe that it works. Again, Willis does impressive work through and through.

In hindsight, it isn't his most iconic role nor is it likely the underrated gem. However, it is a film that emphasizes what made him great. Yes, The Sixth Sense saw him play a different faux-detective with an even more haunting story. Yet I think that having to balance him alongside the insanity that is a Gilliam film is even more impressive. If Pitt got recognized for his energy, then Willis should've gotten something for his restraint. As tough as it is to suggest that sci-fi acting is as regularly nominated as any other field, it is a hive mind for some of cinema's most overlooked and ambitious aspects. Yes, these films clean up in technical, but it doesn't seem right to largely ignore them in the fields that everyone more generally cares about. I don't know that Twelve Monkeys is the logical runaway favorite, but it's definitely a classic worthy of its attention - as surprising as some of it may be.

With each passing year and a dozen more forgettable straight-to-video entries, Willis looks less and less likely to have an updated piece past, say, Looper. Even then, he's an interesting case for this category when he does perfect a role. He is confident and witty in ways that make for compelling cinema. There's no denying that he's a movie star whose best work is great. The issue, like most actors with very impressive runs, is that it's hard to even fathom a legacy nomination when there's nothing worth considering. Maybe he will get that moment soon. After all, he was pretty good in Moonrise Kingdom. Still, it's strange to think that for a man whose 90's has a resume that strong, that he has yet to get an Oscar nomination for anything. Like Robinson, he may be "doomed" to just be the character actor who made movies better. It's a fine honor to have, but what about recognizing it with an award?

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