The family of beloved actor Bruce Willis announced this week that the star would be retiring because of the mental condition aphasia. According to the LA Times, Willis has been in cognitive decline for some time, even as he has continued to work on a series of increasingly shoddy low-budget films. The Times reported that Willis was struggling to remember his lines, and in one incident kept firing a prop gun on the wrong cue.
It's not clear exactly why Willis continued to work despite growing incapacity. But it certainly raises questions about who was benefiting.
We tend to think of celebrities as free and empowered; Willis’ most famous role is as an action hero in Die Hard where he defeats a skyscraper full of miscreants while emitting a cowboy yodel. Actors and musicians are doing fulfilling, individual work for which they are celebrated and beloved. Compared to data entry clerks or Wal-Mart greeters or garbage collectors, or even compared to mid-tier freelance writers, they seem self-actualized, happy, and well-compensated. They are doing what they want; they get paid a lot. That doesn’t seem like alienated labor.
And it’s true that rich famous actors have a lot to be grateful for. But even rich famous actors are still workers, and workers can be exploited.
It's possible that Willis wanted to continue working as long as possible, and simply didn’t want to recognize his own growing limitations. But it’s undeniable that many people had an investment in keeping him in front of the cameras. Willis was paid $2 million for 2 days of work on some of his recent low-budget outings, the Times reported. His name boosted numerous crappy projects, ensuring international distribution for movies from companies Emmett/Furla Oasis and 308 Entertainment Inc. His agents at Creative Artists Agency continued to receive paydays as long as he kept performing.
As with other laboring people, celebrity workers don’t just make money for themselves. They make money for other people: capitalist investors, middle-men, and even other workers, like Adam Huel Potter, who served as Willis’ prompter on many of his recent projects. That means many people around the celebrity have a powerful interest in controlling their work and even in controlling their lives.
In the 50s and 60s, singers like Motown’s Mary Wells and Atlantic’s Ruth Brown were systematically denied royalties on their recordings. Black artists at the time had little recourse, since most courts in the period would never decide in favor of a Black worker suing white label owners. Wells didn’t have money to pay for cancer treatments before she died.
There have been numerous more recent examples in the music industry of high-profile artists who struggle to lay claim to the money they make. In 2020, Anita Baker asked fans not to stream her music because her label refused to return control of her masters to her as required by law after 35 years (she finally obtained them in 2021.) More dramatically, pop star Britney Spears was placed under mental health conservatorship by her family for 13 years. That allowed them to regulate where and when she performed and even whether she could have a child. Though this was supposed to be for her own safety, her family obviously had an interest in controlling her tens of millions in assets.
These examples are dramatic because celebrities are recognizable and their work is seen as uniquely theirs. How can someone else own Anita Baker’s voice, or Bruce Willis’ performance? But it’s hardly unusual for employers and capitalists to disregard worker health, or to leverage disparities caused by racism or illness for their own profit.
British Airways, for example, used the COVID pandemic as cover for firing and rehiring 30,000 workers, reducing their pay and benefits. Businesses still have the legal right to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage. Black-white wage gaps now are worse than they were in 2000, 20 years ago.
Bruce Willis has a lot of money and a lot of freedom. He’s not who you think of when you think about exploited workers. But with the latest revelations about Willis, it’s clear that even the most successful workers may be vulnerable given the right circumstances. And if action hero Bruce Willis can lose control of his labor, that doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.