Motion pictures have long been a safe haven for men of few words, most particularly westerns Gary Cooper said next to nothing in High Noon


Hard-working, reliable and charismatic, Bruce Willis is one of the highest-paid actors in motion picture history. But in his new movie 16 Blocks, Willis may have now become the highest paid actor, on a dollars-per-word basis, ever. Willis practically says nothing in this engaging, if predictable, tale of a dirty cop who belatedly decides to clean up his act. Occasionally he makes a phone call; occasionally he issues a threat; occasionally he mutters a few words about man’s inhumanity to man. But mostly he just broods. Since Willis routinely commands $20m a picture, his performance in 16 Blocks is the biggest payday anyone has earned for not saying anything since Marlee Matlin won a 1987 Academy Award for her debut as a mute in Children Of A Lesser God.

Willis’s taciturnity, from the spectator’s point of view, is somewhat offputting because Mos Def, his garrulous co-star, just will not shut up. Ceaselessly running his mouth about the upscale bakery he wishes to open in Portland, Oregon, Def has about 40 times as many lines as Willis, all delivered in an unbearably grating lisp. In some ways 16 Blocks resembles buddy movies like Midnight Run and Trains, Planes And Automobiles, both of which pair a maddening motor-mouth with a strong, silent type who only speaks when he is spoken to. But it has been years since I have seen a film in which a major star not only doesn’t demand all the best lines, but doesn’t seem to demand any lines at all. It suggests that Willis was either deliberately going for the record for most dollars per word, or had just suffered through a brutal root canal.

n discussing the history of well-remunerated male terseness, it is essential to distinguish between films in which movie stars don’t say much because they’re not in the film very long, and those where:

Actors don’t say a whole lot because they don’t appear to have a whole lot to say (Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain).

Actors are being deliberately uncommunicative because stoicism goes with the territory (Gary Cooper in High Noon).

Actors keep a lid on it because of severe cultural taboos against loquaciousness (Max Von Sydow in The Seventh Seal).

Actors clam up because their English needs work (Jet Li in Unleashed, Cradle 2 The Grave, or anything).

Actors bite their tongue because they are pouting, insane, or both (Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now).

Famous instances of films where actors received a staggering level of reimbursement for very little verbalising include Jaws IV, where Michael Caine, seemingly intent on buying a house in Switzerland, briefly appears, makes a few supercilious remarks, and then wanders off, and Superman, where Marlon Brando was paid the then-princely sum of $1.5m to babble a few words about the decline and fall of the Kryptonian Empire during perhaps three minutes of on-camera work. A famous anecdote that is probably not true but ought to be has the famously churlish superstar turning up on the set and behaving with uncharacteristic courtesy to the men, and delivering bouquets of flowers to the women. Asked by the press whether this startling gallantry was an indication that he had turned over a new leaf, Brando replied: “No, but at these rates, the least I can do is be civil.”

Motion pictures have long been a safe haven for men of few words, most particularly westerns. Gary Cooper said next to nothing in High Noon, and even less in The Garden Of Evil, one of the great overlooked horse operas. The peerless character actor Ben Johnson made scores of films during his lengthy career and only said about 137 words in any of them. Neither Steve McQueen nor Yul Brynner had a whole lot to say in The Magnificent Seven, but they were absolute blabberpusses compared to the laconic Charles Bronson and the zip-lipped James Coburn. Bronson enjoyed a supplementary career in France, where in films such as Rider On The Rain he was deliberately given very few lines because he couldn’t actually speak French, and had to learn his lines phonetically. And no one was ever more deliberately uncommunicative than Bronson’s harmonica-playing man of mystery in Sergio Leone’s immortal Once Upon A Time In The West.

It is not necessary for an actor to say much in a motion picture if he has a truly dominating personality, plays a terrifying monster, or is Austrian. Jack Palance, the most famous gunslinger of them all in Shane, keeps a tight lid on things, only occasionally opening his pie-hole to snarl something totally uncalled-for. Boris Karloff, as Frankenstein, mostly grunted his way through a long series of horror movies. Burt Lancaster in Valdez Is Coming plays things maddeningly close to the vest, letting his twinkling eyes and blazing guns do his talking for him. Getting Gene Hackman to say anything in Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant The Conversation was like pulling teeth. And Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly got the job done with minimal word play in Terminator, as did Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo series.

But ne

ver in the course of human events have more people paid more money to watch one actor say so few words in so many movies than has been the case with Clint Eastwood. Anything but a gasbag in the seminal classics A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Eastwood brought the art of brooding reticence to astounding new heights in such films as The Outlaw Josie Wales, High Plains Drifter, Cogan’s Bluff, Hang ‘Em High and Pale Rider.

Eastwood’s famous disinclination to vocalise made perfect sense in the context of these movies. But by casting himself as a tight-lipped DJ in Play Misty For Me – his maiden voyage as a director – Eastwood was literally throwing down the gauntlet, saying: “I don’t care if DJs do get paid to run their mouths all night. I’m not that kind of DJ.”

In recent times, the one actor who has delivered the most memorable performance without resorting to much in the way of verbiage is James Caviezel in The Passion Of The Christ. Partially because the film’s dialogue is in Aramaic, motivating the actor to keep the verbal lifting to an absolute minimum, but mostly because Christ probably didn’t have a whole lot to say other than “Ouf!” Or “Hey! Didn’t anyone ever tell you that hurts?” during his real-life Passion, the actor mostly grunts or gasps his way through Mel Gibson’s controversial film. Without question, Caviezel now holds the record for most-dollars-per-Aramaic-word in motion picture history, unlikely to be eclipsed any time soon.

It is one of the ironies of motion picture history that a genre that started out with silent films has now come full circle, with talkies where the protagonist doesn’t talk. It remains to be seen whether Willis’s studied reticence in 16 Blocks is an aberration, or whether it will now become a cornerstone of his acting style. Whatever, here’s hoping his example encourages others to do likewise. If I never had to hear Orlando Bloom or Leonardo DiCaprio say another word, I could live with that.

Joe Queenan

by Movies

Previous articleBronson rarely emoted or even changed his expression, and when he did speak, his voice was a reedy whisper
Next articleBen Johnson was cowboy to his core, and he is the only man to win both a World Champion Steer Roping title and an Oscar


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here