A man of action also can make an artful gesture

MEMO TO: Bruce Willis

FROM: Peter Bart

FORGIVE ME IF THIS COLUMN seems a bit awkward, Bruce, but, you see, I’m not in the habit of tipping my hat to a movie star — especially at this moment in history when every star in town seems to be demanding $20 million as his price for accepting a role. At the risk of sounding rude, that seems like an absurd amount of money — it’s downright vulgar. I remember when you first started tossing around incendiary devices in “Die Hard,” Bruce, and, candidly, I never figured you for $20 million. I was wrong — you have several such offers on the table, I am told.

So you win my plaudits, Bruce — not for joining the $20 million club, but for starting an entirely different type of in-group. Time and again, while other stars keep whining about being typecast and pigeonholed, you’ve put yourself on the line by accepting offbeat roles at sharply reduced prices. Your delightful tour de force in “Pulp Fiction” was the most celebrated of these acting escapades, but you also played supporting roles in “Four Rooms,” “Death Becomes Her” and “Nobody’s Fool,” among others.

HENCE, BESIDES BEING THE UBIQUITOUS fish-out-of-water action hero, you’ve also been a nebbish plastic surgeon, a shellshocked Vietnam vet and a crooked boxer on the lam. And not only do you seem to be enjoying yourself, but it’s also enhanced your career. Studios haven’t stereotyped you; they actually think of you as an actor!

Meanwhile, your agent, Arnold Rifkin of William Morris, has not only not been blocking your strategy, fearful of blowing off some fat commissions, but has actually been encouraging these capers.

“I think a movie star has a responsibility to make good things happen,” Rifkin says matter-of-factly. “When you reach that level of success, it becomes a question of commitment to one’s craft. I think it’s an absolutely terrific idea.”

To say the least, Rifkin’s opinions are not exactly universally accepted.

Most top agents and managers in this town are dead set against Willis-style price-cutting on several grounds:

If their star bombs in a small role, they’re afraid it will cause major career damage. The “cut-rate” fee may then actually stick. Most of all, agents fear being second-guessed by other agents, especially now that client-swiping has become a Hollywood obsession.

Hence, prodded by their brain trusts, most stars continue to hold out for exorbitant fees as they march sullenly from one bad role to the next. It’s no mere accident that some of the biggest turkeys of late boast considerable star power — Julia Roberts’ “Mary Reilly” will be a huge money loser, not to mention other vehicles starring the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Demi Moore and Denzel Washington.

It’s getting scary out there, Bruce, and you know it better than most; after all, you, too, have lived through the likes of “Hudson Hawk,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “North.”

Given the failure of so many superstar vehicles, will the spending spree abate? If anything, the wind seems to be blowing strongly in the other direction. Nicolas Cage’s reward for getting totally swacked in “Leaving Las Vegas” is that his price has doubled from $3 million to $6 million. Robert De Niro, who seems to be in a new picture every couple of months, suddenly is demanding $14 million-$16 million for his next role. The ubiquitous John Travolta has seen his price soar from $ 150,000 (“Pulp Fiction”) to $ 18 million. Kurt Russell and Wesley Snipes have become $10 million actors. Demi Moore and Julia Roberts have hit the $ 2 million mark, and Sandra Bullock, who was paid $250,000 for “The Net,” now asks $10.5 million. And George Clooney will get a $10 million payday when he becomes the next Batman.

Meanwhile, what are you up to, Bruce? The way I hear it, your total upfront pay for “Pulp Fiction,” “Four Rooms” and “12 Monkeys” combined for under $1 million. That’s not exactly philanthropy, but, by the standards of your profession, it comes close.

HERE AND THERE, A FEW ACTORS ARE following suit, of course. Jack Nicholson did “The Crossing Guard” for scale out of friendship to Sean Penn, who directed it. It goes without saying that Nicholson will receive far less money from his 15% stake of the gross receipts than he did from his famous supporting role in “Terms of Endearment.”

A couple of other stars also have worked for sharply reduced prices, but mainly to jumpstart their directing careers — e.g., Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves” and Mel Gibson in “The Man Without a Face.” But that’s far different from what you’ve been up to, Bruce. You’ve actually put yourself on the line for your craft — acting. And as a result, you’ve helped some pretty good movies get made that, were it not for you, might have fallen by the wayside.

As I said at the outset, tipping my hat to a movie star doesn’t come easily to me. But there’s always a first.

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