“The Player” (1992) – Himself
Willis is one of the many stars who make brief cameos in Robert Altman’s Hollywood-skewering classic, and he probably only has a minute or two of screen time in total. But his cameo is the funniest in the film. He appears in the film’s movie-within-a-movie, a death penalty drama starring Julia Roberts as a wrongfully convicted woman who, at the last second, gets a Hollywood ending of Willis running onto the scene, shooting the gas chamber window and rescuing Roberts, explaining his lateness with “Traffic was a bitch.” It’s a great scene because Willis plays it completely straight, never winking to the camera (something he’s guilty of in some of his own movies), which makes the film’s idiotic cop-out seem all the more plausible.
“Pulp Fiction” (1994) – Butch Coolidge
Willis got real indie cred and a much-needed career revival with Quentin Tarantino’s post-modernist cultural touchstone. As Butch, a boxer who pisses off a mobster (Ving Rhames) by winning a fight he was supposed to throw, Willis retains that cocky charm he cultivated in “Moonlighting” and “Die Hard,” but there’s an added sense of melancholy and brutish sensitivity in his work here. What’s most remarkable about his performance, given Willis and Tarantino’s shared love for the hyperverbal, is how much of his work consists of Butch silently thinking, especially in a late scene where he seems home free and quietly realizes that he can’t leave the man who tried to kill him to be brutalizes…but that he should also have the best (read: coolest) possible weapon to save him.
“Nobody’s Fool” (1994) – Carl Roebuck
The same year Willis co-starred in “Pulp Fiction” (and starred in the hilariously overwrought “Color of Night” and the much hated “North”), he had a small supporting role in the Paul Newman vehicle “Nobody’s Fool” as the philandering husband of Newman’s love interest (Melanie Griffith). Given his superstar status and the chance to appear next to one of the all-time greats of screen acting, there’s a temptation to overplay Carl’s loutish nature and make him an over-the-top creep. Instead, Willis wisely plays Carl not as a monster but just an everyday jerk and lets Newman carry most of their scenes together. It’s solid supporting work, and proof that he can cede the spotlight when he needs to.
Another brief but memorable appearance, Willis has one of the better scenes in Richard Linklater’s uneven muckraking drama. Hamburger chain marketing director Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) starts to get a conscience about the health conditions in the meatpacking plants, and he meets with the chain’s executive VP (Willis). It’s another bit of smart underplaying by Willis, who comes off as sinister not by leering and angrily demanding that Kinnear end his investigation, but by admitting that there’s a problem but that he doesn’t much care about it, treating all of Kinnear’s concerns as a mild nuisance rather than a threat. He’s a perfect symbol for a shady business: too successful and too rich to be bothered.
Still, Willis’s funniest cameo comes from Barry Levinson’s underrated Hollywood satire “What Just Happened.” Playing “himself” (but taking cue from a real incident involving Alec Baldwin on the set of “The Edge”), Willis shows up for his latest movie with a full beard and throws a tantrum in a dressing room when he’s told he has to shave it. Willis plays himself like a self-important “serious actor” gone amok, ranting about artistic integrity and about the absurdity of the markets needing to see his face for a film to be a hit. It’s a welcome bit of self-parody from an actor whose difficult on-set reputation now precedes him.
This modest indie, about a high school reporter/aspiring journalist who uncovers a big story about stolen SATs, isn’t exactly essential viewing, earning unflattering comparisons to “Brick” without managing to escape accusations of gimmickry. It does feature a strong comic performance from Willis as Principal Kirkpatrick, a gruff drill sergeant of an administrator who seems more concerned about the proliferation of gum-chewing in the school than any real problems. When a character asks why he’s landed in detention, Willis responds by jamming his finger in the kid’s mouth and pulling out a wad of gum as if the kid were hiding cocaine. Better still: Willis singing a pro-America song in front of the student body as a way to boost school spirit.
“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) – Captain Sharp
Willis’ best indie performance – his best work since the original “Die Hard,” really – comes from his collaboration with Wes Anderson. Like Bill Murray in “Rushmore” before him, Willis dials down his usual smartass behavior to play one of Anderson’s lonely, broken adults, a police officer in the middle of an affair that he knows isn’t going to last. It’s a great, melancholy turn, as well as his most empathetic work in years as a man who recognizes that Jared Gilman’s troubled kid is getting a raw deal and that all he needs is a little guidance and understanding. A late scene with Gilman in Willis’ trailer, where he’s the first adult to really listen to the kid, shows Willis as open as he’s ever been on screen. Here’s hoping he teams up with Anderson again – or with another director who’ll push him to be more vulnerable – sooner than later.