The Vulgar Thespians, by David Bax
When Die Hard was released into theaters, I was five years old. When Pulp Fiction debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, I was eleven. In Bruce Willis’ roughly 35-year career in movies, the space of six years is not that significant. But, to my young mind, it was huge. You see, I don’t remember Die Hard coming out. I saw the film a few years later, still probably too young, when my dad said, “Don’t tell your mom I let you watch this” and only got uncomfortable at the brief moment near the beginning where a woman appears with bare breasts.
But I definitely remember Pulp Fiction coming out. I doubt I knew the word “cineaste” yet but, whatever it was, I was a budding one of those. While everyone was packing their families into the van to go see Forrest Gump, I secretly yearned to see this violent movie I’d been hearing about that literally had audiences passing out during a scene with a needle plunged into someone’s chest. I finally got to see it, over a year later, when I spent the night at a friend’s house. The friend didn’t care to watch it but his older sister had rented it and, once my lame buddy fell asleep, I opened the Blockbuster case and popped it in the VCR. I watched it twice, staying up till dawn.
But back to Bruce Willis. Not being old enough to remember a time before Die Hard, I had no notion of a world in which Bruce Willis was not a major movie star. Seeing him in Pulp Fiction gave me the first of a type of experience common to all movie buffs: It was the first time an A-lister suddenly became cooler to me by appearing in an independent or offbeat or low-budget or just plain cool movie.
It happens all the time now. It was probably the rise in profile of independent movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, culminating in Pulp Fiction, that led to the normalization of the practice. We still take note, though (some of us in more boneheaded ways than others). And the past ten years has given us a new spin on the formula. Now we praise movie actors for taking roles on hip television shows.
A couple of years ago, a new term entered the lexicon. Directors who traded in big-budget and/or genre fare but maintained a distinctive stamp on their work started being referred to as “vulgar auteurs.” It’s good to show respect for these artists but do we have a similar designation for actors who are great in almost exclusively mainstream films? Sure, we call them movie stars but that’s a tad reductive and condescending. What about “vulgar thespians”?
Film critic (and friend of our podcast) Amy Nicholson struck a blow for the vulgar thespian by writing a book about Tom Cruise that was published by Cahiers du Cinema. But there’s so much more work to be done. Sure, everyone loves The Rock (uh, I mean, Dwayne Johnson) but where’s his book? Reese Witherspoon has literally never been bad in a movie but we only give her props for it when she goes raw in something like Wild.
And let’s not pretend there’s not a gender factor in this. Sure, it’s acceptable to love Robert Downey, Jr., who’s great but gets through most of his movies just by smirking and leaning on things. But you know who else is cool? Sandra Bullock. You’d have to be a real stick in the mud not to want to hang out with Sandra Bullock. Where’s her cred?
So let’s give it up for the vulgar thespians. Let’s all admit that, even if Focus turns out to be a pile of garbage next week, it won’t be because Will Smith wasn’t great in it. And let’s devote a little more conversation, thought and ink to the ladies and gentlemen who elevate schlock (like, oh, say, RED or 16 Blocks or Hostage) and who keep the tradition of the great stars alive.
Except for Harrison Ford. That guy’s a snooze.