Whipping Boys

We all know them. We all pick on them. They are the movie "whipping boys," the actors or actresses who serve as the source of complaints for critics, journalists, and cinephiles everywhere. Their names include Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van-Damme, Steven Seagal, and, of course, Keanu Reeves. Many on this list are whipping boys for good reasons. I hate to pick on Keanu. No I don't, What am I saying? While it pains me that he lands roles that could go to actors with talent (or at least a pulse, or more than one expression), life would be so boring without him. But some are on the list for the wrong reasons, whether they be bad career choices, common misperceptions, or just that slamming them becomes fashionable. So let's take these actors off the list:

1. Bruce Willis - Claiming that an actor making $20 million per film gets no respect is difficult, but accurate in this case. In the 80s Willis was grouped with Stallone and Schwarzenegger as a mindless action hero. That perception has changed somewhat, but not enough. The Sixth Sense received Oscar nominations for Picture, Direction, and Screenplay. Co-stars Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette also snagged nominations, but not Willis, even though his understated performance held the film together. Willis has frequently chosen his projects poorly (Bonfire of the Vanities, Striking Distance, Color of Night, Armageddon), and does not posses the greatest range. But in Die Hard and his other action films he projected a vulnerability and a blue-collar sensibility that enabled audiences to identify him, which you cannot say about many other action stars. Willis has taken chances with movies such as In Country and Pulp Fiction (which was no sure thing when it opened). He has also been willing to shed his heroic image and play the villain in films such as Mortal Thoughts, The Jackal, and The Siege. These films may have justifiably bombed, but Willis should be recognized for taking risks. Many stars don't settle for lesser billing and salary like Willis did to work with Dustin Hoffman in Billy Bathgate and Paul Newman in Nobody's Fool. It's time he get some credit.

2. William Shatner - A friend of mine called Shatner "the master of the unnecessary pause." You will see Shatner's face in the dictionary next to the word "ham" and he has an ego the size of most states. He has become a self-parody of late, with his Priceline ads and hosting beauty pageants. Many of his performances on the original "Star Trek" are filled with the bombast that we now associate with the actor. But others, on closer examination, show a depth and range that you would not expect. In the classic "Twilight Zone" episode "Terror at 10,000 Feet" (the one where he sees a monster on the wing of a plane) Shatner is simply magnificent, letting you see, through his expressions, his character's fear and self-doubt. In the Star Trek films, Shatner seemed more natural as an older and reflective James T. Kirk who was less sure of himself than before. Star Trek: Generations, while a mediocre film overall, showcased Shatner at his finest in his swan song as Captain Kirk. His swagger was gone as he showed Kirk's restlessness and questioning of his own life. Aging has brought out Shatner's best. Just don't let him direct.

3. Roger Moore - OK, so he's not Sean Connery. Roger Moore will forever suffer from that comparison. Granted, Moore did not have the toughness or the element of danger that Connery brought to the James Bond films. Moore was also unfairly blamed for some of the more outlandish plots of the 70s Bond films, which drifted away from the Cold War-centered themes of the 60s. But let's look at the facts. The Bond franchise lasted through twelve years and seven films with Moore as 007. He must have been doing something right. He took a role made famous by Connery and made it his own -- no small feat. Moore imbued Bond with wit, intelligence and guile. He brought an air of amusement to the role. Perhaps even more than Connery, Moore understood that James Bond should enjoy being James Bond. Without that sense of fun, you end up with Timothy Dalton.

4. Mark Hamill - No human being associated with the Star Wars franchise has been slammed more than Mark Hamill. (Jar-Jar Binks doesn't count. He's computer-generated.) Even die-hard Star Wars fans will praise everything else about the series and trash poor Mark Hamill. When asked to explain, these Hamill-bashers will often cite his whining in the first Star Wars film ("But I was going to Tashi station to pick up some power converters!!!") Hamill's lackluster post-Star Wars career would seem to validate those who believe he was a drag on the franchise. But Hamill owned the role of Luke Skywalker. He gave it vitality and life and was the perfect choice for the part. Luke is supposed to be a little whiny at first because he's an immature kid. As the series progresses, Luke matures and so does Hamill's performance, most notably in Luke's confrontations with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Hamill's qualities may not have translated to other roles in the same way. That, coupled with the inevitable typecasting, may explain why Hamill now does primarily voice work for animation (although he was hilarious in a Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back cameo). Hamill's more recent career (or lack of it) should not take away from what he accomplished.

Adam Spector
October 25, 2001

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