Here’s the thing: I think Bruce Willis is a pretty good actor. I know a lot of people don’t agree with that. At the very least, I believe I can make the case that in the right kind of role, he can be an enormously effective actor. If you have a minute, I can list a number of examples to support that opinion.
I have a pretty good idea of the kinds of characters Willis can excel at playing. I’ve also seen the film Misery a half-dozen or so times, over the course of the past twenty-six years. When you put together a list of the best Stephen King films of all time, you better give preference over to King’s tale (with William Goldman penning both the stage and screenplay) of a writer and a lunatic fan getting to know one another in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. It remains one of King’s most allegorical novels of all time. On its own terms, the film is astonishingly well-preserved. It may well be the best movie Rob Reiner will ever direct. Certainly, it is a classic example of how to create and build tension, as well as how to make the most of a story that essentially gets all of its strength from just two characters.
I can’t imagine the story of a popular writer being held hostage by a psychotic fan ever going out of style. It makes perfect sense that someone would see the Broadway potential of the story. It definitely makes sense that someone would see Laurie Metcalf as ideal for the role of Annie (played by Kathy Bates in the 1990 film, which she also won a Best Actress Oscar for). It even makes sense that someone would see Willis as Paul Sheldon, the writer. To play Paul, an actor needs to slowly, but surely, build to the point of knowing without question that their life is in grave danger. Their growing terror, as they come to understand who Annie is, and what she is capable of, has to be so potent, the audience is ready to scream. We want to become so invested in Paul’s predicament, we are overwhelmed with the suffocating rage at not being able to get him as far away from Annie as possible. Because we can’t. Paul’s injuries from a car accident have him trapped in bed. That bed is in a house that is run by a woman so profoundly entrenched in her deep, misguided love for Paul (and his best-selling series of novels about a heroine named Misery Chastain, she’s perfectly willing to kill. As we learn fairly early on, she’s even willing to kill Paul, if the situation calls for it.
Can Willis play a character like that? In a film, probably. Willis made his film career on the strength of an obscure little action flick called Die Hard, which depicted one of the most vulnerable, believable good guys of the 80s. Even in the 2010s, which has seen the man phone it in on more than one occasion, you can find examples of his knack for playing characters who are quite aware of how mortal they really are. If Misery was remade in film form tomorrow, and you put Bruce Willis in the role of Paul, you would have a good chance at getting a great performance from him. Maybe.
However, on stage at the Broadhurst Theater, Willis playing this character was not quite as provoking as I believe it could have been.
Granted, this was the first time I had seen a Broadway play. I can also only speak for the one performance I saw, crushed into my seat for a middle-of-the-week afternoon performance. I’ve also read a few other reviews of Misery on Broadway. The consensus seems to agree with me. There was something seriously, strangely lacking in Willis’ performance. Things did pick up for him towards the end, particularly in terms of conveying the appropriate responses to some of Annie’s more severe, savage acts (like the infamous sledgehammer scene). It isn’t enough. You are still forced to sit through a play whose male lead struggles with combining delivery and reaction.
It’s not completely fair to compare Willis to James Caan, who played Paul exceptionally well in the 1990 movie, but it’s kind of hard not to. If nothing else, Willis could have perhaps studied how brilliantly Caan depicted Paul’s mounting horror at his situation. I’m guessing he didn’t. Willis frequently reacted to Laurie Metcalf’s line readings with bizarre indifference, even distraction. More than once, it seemed as though Willis was trying very hard to remember his next line. Although it has been a few decades since Willis last worked as a stage actor, it was hard to shake the feeling that I was watching an actor who had never worked in theater before. I had the notion repeatedly that I was watching the first preview for the show. Except that I wasn’t. Misery had been on Broadway for a few weeks at that point. If Willis wasn’t going to get it when I was there, then it’s unlikely that he’s going to figure things out before the show closes in the near future.
Misery features inspired casting. It’s just a shame that Willis couldn’t return the inspiration in kind.
You won’t say that about Laurie Metcalf. Going back to Roseanne, Metcalf has spent much of her career playing eccentrics, lonely hearts, and low-key misfits. One of the greatest challenges to playing someone like Annie Wilkes is to remember that for all of her textbook examples of mental illness, she is still a human being. We have to hate and pity her in equal amounts. Any actress who plays her has to keep both of those meters running, while still giving us a terrifying, engrossing bogeyperson. Metcalf not only met all of these requirements, but she was directly responsible for most of Willis’ best moments. Annie is most certainly the star of this show, but we still need to get behind Paul on some level. Metcalf seemed to keep this in mind. Her generosity on stage caught my attention over and over again. The most impressive thing about that generosity was in the way it didn’t keep her from giving us an Annie wholly different from the one that netted Kathy Bates an Oscar.
From start to finish, she was nothing short of breathtaking. At one moment, she was hilarious, almost likable. On a dime, she could switch to the considerable darkness that rises significantly and ebbs only slightly within Annie’s mind. Even with an audience filled to capacity with people who had seen the movie, Metcalf gave us a degree of fierce, unshakable uncertainty in her performance. She maintained a flawless definition of unpredictable. I’m not terribly surprised, although I am impressed that she was able to find so many small, powerful ways of making Annie her own.
If you ever watch a performance from this production, I can promise you that you will remain mesmerized through its entire 90 minute run. It’s going to be due to Laurie Metcalf being the fantastic, generally underappreciated actress she has always been. It is unfortunate indeed that her work in film and television rarely gives her much to do these days. As Misery proves, she is one of the best in her field. In terms of seeing a show on Broadway for the first time, I’ll go to the end of time with the belief that nothing else available at that moment could have topped her work in Misery.
There is a little more to Misery. The play also presented a beautiful stage (the revolving mechanism that shifts the scene from outdoors to indoors were ingenious), striking atmosphere, and good supporting work from Leon Addison Brown. There was more than enough to make me feel as though I hadn’t wasted the eighty bucks my ticket ran me. As for Willis, it’s entirely possible that stage acting just isn’t his thing. Then again, there are very brief windows of time in Misery that suggest Willis could have done so much more with the role. As it stands, he tried his best, but he just couldn’t seem to settle on something that could deal in essential consistency.
However, since everything else in Misery is pretty much perfect, you’re not going to notice Willis too much. That sounds strange, considering how much he is in the play. What it really comes down to is the fact that for the most part, Willis is astonishingly average. Put one average element into a play in which everything else is well above-average. You’ll be left with something that if nothing else, should keep you entertained.
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