Bruce Willis could well be the new Cary Grant - and I'm not joking

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The Independent Culture

Film Studies:

About a month ago, I was doing one of those TV shows where pundits give their picks for the Oscars. The subject had turned to The Sixth Sense, and everyone was saying what a nice surprise it had been. The voices were agreeing over the terrific actor the kid was, Joel Haley Osment. It was my turn, as far as turns apply in that sort of wrestling, and I heard myself say, "Some year soon we're going to be saying, 'Who would have thought Bruce Willis could do that?' But I won't be surprised, because I'm telling you now."

On television, you never know what you're going to say. (That's probably why Gore Vidal says being on TV is one of the two things everyone should never say no to. The other is having sex.) Anyway, I was taken aback by what I said - almost as if Bruce had been channeling me - but then I thought about it, and I felt, absolutely! Bruce Willis could be as good as Cary Grant. If you think that's fanciful, see some of the things the press said about Grant when he was Bruce's age, 45 - which was in 1949, by the way, the year he made I Was A Male War Bride.

My thoughts were nudged only this week, as I turned to the most recent American episodes of Friends. There was a great oooh! of surprise from the audience as Ross's new girl friend (she's still in college) appeared with her father. It was Bruce, with a crisp sandy-coloured hairpiece. He was stern about his little girl being involved with a grown man (if that's how Ross strikes you), but within 30 minutes he was smooching with Rachel. Willis is on the show for three weeks, and his threatening grin is going to make sure all the regulars start acting more seriously.

You have to wonder why Bruce needed to do Friends. Is he really in money trouble now that Planet Hollywood has gone bust? Does the recent silence over Bruce and Demi suggest that lawyers are about to come out of the closet? Or could it be that Bruce has that thing for working, and that while they were making The Whole Nine Yards recently, his co-star Matthew Perry turned to him and said, "Drop by Friends some time"?

There wasn't much else to do on The Whole Nine Yards - in which a gangster moves in next door to a nerd (you can guess which is which). It's one of those movies - like Armageddon, the Die Hards and Last Man Standing - in which Bruce does little except blink at the explosions and try to dispel the clouds of smoke with droll one-liners. It's easier to creep up on acting if half the audience reckons you're an idiot, while the rest calls you Brucey.

The other thing that set me thinking was the recent revival of the old TV series, Moonlighting, in which Bruce and Cybill Shepherd ran a kind of screwball detective agency. The series was conceived and often written by Glenn Gordon Caron, and it's what made Bruce a star. No wonder! You can see now, in hindsight, how his lazy, cocksure, self-mocking manner was calculated to get under Cybill's smooth skin. In a modest way, they bicker at each other like Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. In real life, as reported in Shepherd's recent memoir, she found Bruce alternately a pain in the neck and ... irresistible. That's what shows still, on the screen: Bruce was so much less experienced an actor than Cybill, but so sure of how to play stylish comedy.

Of course, being able to play adult comedy today can mean a short career. So Bruce found hairpieces and angry attitudes, and paid his dues in he-man action films. But steadily over the years, he's been ready to take small roles in interesting projects: his killable husband in Mortal Thoughts; his weeping gangster in Billy Bathgate; the hero of the wry film within the film in The Player; the boxer in love in Pulp Fiction; trying to pin Paul Newman down in Nobody's Fool; and the hero in Twelve Monkeys, which isn't a small part, but something not many stars would have risked.

If you doubt me still, go back and take another look at The Sixth Sense. This time, the surprise falls into place so you watch in a different way, adding up the subtle ways in which Bruce is half-alive or not quite there. It's a different film, the second time around - his.

But it's a smart actor who can trust to some viewers being clever enough to see a suspense story twice. So, keep watching. What will the turning point be? I don't know, and I doubt he does. But it could be with a comedy where the laughter veils a dark past. And when the veil falls, and you've got naked Bruce - give him the statue. Five years. I'm betting.

'The Whole Nine Yards' (15) opens on 19 May.