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Is Bruce Willis a Great Movie Star or a Great Actor?

Is Bruce Willis the biggest American movie star of his generation without an Oscar nomination? He’s definitely a movie star: To date, his films have grossed a shade over $3 billion, an amount that puts him squarely on the all-time top earners list without the benefit of participation in a long-running fantasy or superhero franchise. (Yes, you’re very clever, Unbreakable is a superhero movie, and Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and shut up).

And yet, unlike generational peers such as Tom Cruise and Nicolas Cage, Willis has never really been an art film guy. Glance at his filmography, and you can count the brand-name auteurs on one hand (or one fist made with your toes): Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan, Robert Zemeckis … does Terry Gilliam count? Forget about comparing Willis to Daniel Day-Lewis. Even next to fellow Expendables like Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and Sylvester Stallone, consolidated prestige seems to have passed him by.

One of the reasons that Willis has by and large missed out on actorly recognition—notwithstanding the Emmy he won for cucking Ross on Friends—is that he doesn’t necessarily have a lot of range, a criticism that’s been levied (fairly or not) at stolid alpha-male leading men from Gary Cooper to Ryan Gosling. Willis has done his share of quiet glaring onscreen, and probably played a few too many cops for his own (or anyone’s) good, but it would be a mischaracterization to peg him simply as the strong, silent type. When he first emerged as a star in the 1980s, it was by cultivating a persona slightly closer to the one Burt Reynolds had created a decade earlier, splitting the difference between a man of action and a bemused, wisecracking observer. What makes Willis so great as

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