Saturday, May 19, 2007

In Praise Of Bruce

At a recent press screening of SPIDER-MAN 3, a friend of mine overheard the one and the only Rex Reed say to one of his cronies, "When will the Sam Raimi fans realize what a fucking awful actor Bruce Campbell is?" Now, as far as I'm concerned that's a real "consider the source" kinda quote, especially when you consider how Bruce Campbell's cameo is easily one of that film's highlights. It's especially funny if you know Bruce and his work, but even if you don't, it's still a great scene; the audience I saw the film with certainly thought so. But Reed's boneheaded observation does remind me that Bruce Campbell has been, and probably always will be, something of an acquired taste. After all, he'd be a heck of a lot more popular if he wasn't, wouldn't he?

The thing about Bruce is, while he can do straight drama, and do it well, he's also incredibly wonderful at being goofy. But not Steve Martin kinda goofy, but genuinely goofy in a way that most actors who don't have his movie star good looks are supposed to be. How many actors do you know of who are willing to hit himselves over the head with dinner plates because of a possessed hand or play a 70 year-old Elvis Presley fighting a soul-sucking mummy through an old folk's home? You don't see George Clooney doing that, do you? And he's snarky. I mean, no one does snarky like Bruce Campbell does ("Well hello, Mr. Fancy Pants!") Bruce also takes risks, but he doesn't take the kind of risks Al Pacino does, like submerging himself deep inside his character. No, the kind of risk that Bruce takes is a different one, but one just as courageous: He isn't afraid to look like an idiot. A lot of the characters he plays may be heroes, but they're heroes who are just as prone to screw-up as anyone else is. This a huge part of his charm and one of the reasons he's so beloved. Honestly, why aren't there more actors out there like him?

I've been a Bruce Campbell fan for about 20 years now, starting with a Saturday matinee screening of EVIL DEAD 2 in March of '87 that I will never forget. While I have recounted the experience in a previous post, I still look upon that performance as an absolute marvel, one of the greatest comedic performances in movie history. ARMY OF DARKNESS, the follow-up to EVIL DEAD 2, had an equally hysterically funny Bruce performance (and some of the most quoteable dialog in movie history), but that previous film is the one that made Bruce "Bruce" and may still be his defining moment. But not long after ARMY Bruce had the good fortune to land the TV series THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR. and to those Rex Reed-types who don't think that Bruce can act, I tell you check out a few episodes of this show and you'll see that the guy had true star potential. Bruce could probably could have coasted on the popularity of the EVIL DEAD films for the rest of his career, but the fans of those films followed him over to BRISCO COUNTY and that's a big part of what's endeared him to so many of them. He branched out and proved to his audience (and a new audience, as well) that their love for Bruce was well-founded and would not be wasted. It was a quality show that Bruce was great in, and even though it never got beyond a cult following, you can look at those episodes now and still have a lot of fun with it.

Since then, Bruce has bounced around from one project to the next (ELLEN, JACK OF ALL TRADES, lots of TV shows and bit parts in big movies), but every so often he got a nice, juicy part that could show him off to good advantage. One of these was Josh Becker's little-seen heist movie RUNNING TIME, a well-made, tight little thriller that not only contains one of Bruce's best performances, but is also a gimmick movie that works, the gimmick in question being that the film is shot in a series of long, continuous take, not unlike Hitchcock's ROPE. Bruce is the film's lead and proves his stuff not just through an intense performance but also because he's in every damn scene (and every damn shot) of the entire film. Then there was BUBBA HO-TEP, probably still Bruce's finest overall performance, and one that earned him a lot more critical respect than he's ever received. I wasn't a big fan of the movie itself (too slowly paced), but with Bruce on screen (especially when teamed with Ossie Davis) at almost every moment it got by based on the strength of the performances alone. The fact that it brought more Bruce Campbell fans to the table is the icing on the cake.

One of the most interesting things about Bruce is the interaction he has with his fans, which is pretty constant and widespread. I doubt you'll find an actor who works so hard to reach out to his audience personally with many personal appearences, interviews and signings. I had the pleasure to do some PR work on a Bruce Campbell project a few years ago and the best thing about it was taking a meeting with Bruce and a later conference call with the man himself. (I was especially pleased to do this job because it scored me major points with a beautiful, intelligent girl who I liked very much who was actually really impressed by this. Unfortunately, I wasn't in a rock band and covered in tatoos, so that was the end of that story.) No one sells Bruce Campbell better than Bruce himself and when he commits to something (especially a home-grown project like this one), he throws himself into it 100%. While he made sure that he still found time for family and other business, his commitment never waivered and he would listen to every idea and suggestion you came to him with. He never complained and did everything that had to be done (which would often include signing for hours on end) because it was part of the job but also because it was in his character to do so. Here is a guy who has not only made a good living for himself as an actor, but he's also made a name for himself doing so and these tours and personals appearences were one of the reasons why. Pretty much all of Bruce's fans have his autograph or their pictures taken with him and they all love him for that. You really don't find a lot of actors out there who have the kind of fan loyalty that he does and it's because Bruce has earned it. The fact that he isn't a bigger star is a bit disconcerting, but those of us who know him and love him treasure him, and what's cool is that he knows that and appreciates it. He's a very classy guy.