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Bruce Willis' diagnosis shows people don't know what others, particularly celebrities, are going through, experts say

Willis decided to halt his acting career of more than four decades after a recent diagnosis of aphasia, his family said.
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Shortly after his family announced that the legendary actor Bruce Willis had been diagnosed with aphasia, filmmaker and actor Kevin Smith took to Twitter to share a career regret.

Smith, who had repeatedly criticized Willis, 67, while he was working on the 2010 film “Cop Out,” apologized for his harsh comments.

Willis “loved to act and sing and the loss of that has to be devastating for him,” Smith tweeted last week, adding that he felt bad for his "petty complaints from 2010. So sorry to BW and his family.”

Smith, who declined a request for follow-up comment, wasn't the only one reflecting on the news about Willis. A day after the family’s announcement, the foundation in charge of the Razzie Awards, which recognizes the year’s worst films and performances, rescinded the satirical award it had created poking fun at Willis, saying it was no longer appropriate.

Comedy Central Roast Of Bruce Willis - Red Carpet
Bruce Willis attends "The Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis" at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, Calif. on Jul. 14, 2018.Rich Fury / Getty Images file

Some pop culture experts say Willis’ decision to step away from his career after the aphasia diagnosis was a stark reminder that people never actually know what others, particularly celebrities and public figures, are going through.

"We are given all kinds of information from celebrities in the age of the internet, but it is always a limited and small slice of the total picture," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "We have an illusion of knowing celebrities intimately, but that's just what it is: an illusion."

We are given all kinds of information from celebrities in the age of the internet, but it is always a limited and small slice of the total picture

-Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University

Susan Mackey-Kallis, a communications professor at Villanova University who studies pop culture and film analysis, said the illusion is formed often because "people develop a parasocial relationship with celebrities because we have access to all this information about them through our social media and laptops and phones," adding, "But in reality, we only know what that celebrity or their PR agent wants us to know.”

When the perceived image of a celebrity is shattered by something momentous — whether it’s a brain "disorder like aphasia, a criminal charge, a lawsuit or an action like a slap” — there is an "element of surprise" that "pulls audience members up short and reminds us that celebrities are people, too," Mackey-Kallis said.

These ruptures in reality, she said, can sometimes make people “go back and correct the record,” particularly when society at large is re-examining its relationship with celebrity-obsessed culture, according to Mackey-Kallis.

Thompson echoed those thoughts.

"When people learn of something unfortunate, especially for celebrities with large platforms, they may then feel contrite and apologize," he said.

Regardless of people's intentions, Thompson said, Willis' absence in front of the camera will be felt across Hollywood.

"Bruce Willis has made a significant contribution to American entertainment," Thompson said. "We should remember that he now deserves empathy, but he also has a significant legacy as a performer."