When the cast was announced for Woody Allen’s latest film, there was one particular reason to cheer: the inclusion of Bruce Willis. Few one-time megastars have a filmography as spotty as Mr. Willis, who’s been sleepwalking his way through straight-to-DVD cheapies and lesser Die Hard sequels for years now—but who has shown, in films from Moonrise Kingdom to 12 Monkeys to Nobody’s Fool to Pulp Fiction, that when he has a good script and a good director and actually bothers to give a shit, he’s capable of incredible work. A Woody Allen movie (current rough patch notwithstanding) would certainly seem that kind of opportunity.
Alas, it’s not happening. Deadline initially, exclusively reported Willis had “dropped out” of the as-yet-untitled Allen picture, blaming the departure on scheduling: “Willis’ plan to work with Allen was hobbled by his other plan to take the Broadway stage in the adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller and movie classic Misery.” But it’s increasingly sounding like Deadline may’ve been duped by a star’s PR machine (get out, you say); photos of Willis on Allen’s set, nattily attired in period garb, have surfaced, and if you think Allen’s producers and Willis’s people would have let him shoot scenes before anyone realized that, d’oh, he has to go do that Broadway play, well then I’ve got some land in Florida I’d like to sell you.
Industry scuttlebutt has it that Willis was let go, which certainly isn’t an unprecedented move for Mr. Allen. He famously dismissed Michael Keaton from The Purple Rose of Cairo ten days into production, starting over with Jeff Daniels as the male lead; he also recast Emily Lloyd with Juliette Lewis for his 1992 film Husbands and Wives. And for 1987’s September, he replaced Christopher Walken with Sam Shepard a few days into shooting—then after the film was completed, scrapped the whole thing and started over, recasting Maureen O’Sullivan with Elaine Stritch, Shepard with Sam Waterston, Denholm Elliot with Jack Warden, and moving Elliot into Charles Durning’s role.
On reflection, matching up Willis with Allen probably wasn’t a great idea after all. If Willis needs a strong director to guide him into a good performance (and all evidence seems to indicate as much), he probably wouldn’t find it in the notoriously hands-off Allen. “I’ve worked with tremendous people,” he’s said, “and I don’t direct them a lot. I try to speak to them as infrequently as possible, you know.” His reasons are simple: “I don’t see the point in hiring a great actor… and then hovering over them and bothering them. They have a good instinct for what they do. They read the part. If they have any questions, they ask me. Very often they don’t ask me anything. They understand what it is. They do it, and they do it very well.”
And his explanation for why he let Keaton go from Purple Rose may well prove applicable here, since this film, like that one, is a period piece. “Michael Keaton was right out of the 1980s, not the 1930s,” he said. “I’d look at dailies and he was fine, but you get no sense of a 1930s movie star from him; he was just too hip.”