America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
By Dan Geddes
Movie actors have enormous impact on mass society. They are some of the most influential personalities whom we admire and even model our behavior after. In this sense, marquee movie actors have become heroes in our time. Millions of people consciously imitate their favorite actors and try to act as they would in real-life situations.
Bill Murray developed his own unique style as a comic actor: wry, smart, hipper-than-thou, ironic, sarcastic, and easy to underestimate. He was not classically handsome, but had a comic's confidence in his own unrivalled hipness. In his early career he’s cool, aloof, un-idealistic, fun-loving, anti-pomposity and anti-order; in his later career, he’s often a top dog, a rich man, but fallen and sad.
Murray entered the national stage as Chevy Chase’s replacement on Saturday Night Live in 1977. Chase had been the star that epoch-making first season of Saturday Night Live, but had jumped ship for Hollywood after one season (resulting in Foul Play (1978) with Goldie Hawn, one of Chase’s better movies).
It took Murray time to win over Chase’s admirers, but Murray eventually won over a much greater audience than Chase, first on Saturday Night Live, and later as a Hollywood star.
His early movie roles gave him the chance to show that hipness always wins (in the movies anyway). He was the smart-ass who not only gets away with it, but triumphs and prospers (as in Stripes and Ghostbusters). He appears invincible, because, like many movie heroes, he knows he will win in the end and so do we. And he wins despite being a smart-ass, just like other classic comic personas such as Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny or Woody Allen. To be a smart-ass and get away with it is an enticing fantasy. In real life, the smart-ass is often crushed by his encounters with the conventional world (corporate life), where irony is not always appreciated.
Murray’s persona has developed over the years. He usually played his own brand of wise-ass in movies from Meatballs through Groundhog Day (a much admired classic that showed his wider range). As he aged he started playing middle-aged men suffused with world weariness (Lost in Translation) and often cuckolded in his Wes Anderson roles Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and—probably—in The Life Aquatic.
Murray, like all major actors, carries his accumulated audience goodwill with him from picture to picture. Directors who cast an actor like Murray realize the social capital they bring along. Because it’s Bill Murray, so many things do not need to be explained. This made him an interesting choice in a movie like Lost in Translation, where he was cast as a middle-age actor weary with success. In Coffee and Cigarettes Murray’s greatness is acknowledged, as a character addresses him as “Bill Mother Fucking Murray.”
He probably is the greatest comic actor of the 1980s and 1990s and is still going strong.
The first phase of Murray’s movie career (1979-1984) included movies such as Meatballs, Caddyshack, Where the Buffalo Roam, Stripes and climaxed with Ghostbusters, a blockbuster that launched Murray into the ranks of A-list actors.
Meatballs was a fitting (if low-budget) debut for Murray. His character is funny and quirky, but he’s also a sympathetic and understanding mentor with teenagers. It showed his empathetic side, which he often reveals, even if it is usually mixed with sarcasm.
Caddyshack (1980) is still remembered with nostalgic fondness by millions. It’s a funny, but uneven movie, a loose series of sketches. Rodney Dangerfield’s (Al Czervik) is probably the funniest character in the movie. Chevy Chase plays a suave playboy millionaire, the romantic lead. Danny Noonan (Michael O'Keefe) is funny and well-cast as the young caddy.
Bill Murray does a lot with Carl the groundskeeper, but it’s a supporting role. He doesn’t interact with other characters too much (other than the gopher of course) and to smoke a bong with Chase (and “cannonball it”). In Caddyshack he's a goofy loser. At the time it led to another boost in his popularity.
Where the Buffalo Roam is little remembered today. I saw it on cable TV in the mid-1980s, but hadn’t even read Hunter S. Thompson, so I can’t comment on it.
The first half of Stripes is probably the pinnacle of Murray’s early career. Murray is at his funniest; his comic persona is realized. In reality, it’s a totally crazy idea for a hipster to join the army, but it’s a good premise for a movie, as many earlier army comedies had shown. In Stripes, Murray shows himself to be a leader of men, a top dog. He talks his buddy Russell (Harold Ramis) into joining the army. He is the lead opposition in the platoon against tough Sergeant Hulka. And yet after Hulka’s injury, Murray is able to drill his battalion into shape for the big parade and win them a deployment in Italy for the new Winnebago-like assault vehicle that dominates the second half of the movie (which isn't that funny, but shows Murray as the unlikely confident hero).
Stripes established Murray as the comic persona that could handle any situation, to turn lemons into lemonade with his practical intelligence, while still smirking at the brass the whole time. He’s upwardly mobile, not just a bum cab driver.
In her review of Stripes, Pauline Kael wrote of Murray:
He seemed like something out of a swamp [on Saturday Night Live]—cold-blooded yet sweaty. Was he a wimp trying to be a bully—was his obnoxiousness a wimp's revenge? He seemed like the shiftiest of comics, and I didn't see how the smug, dislikeable aspects of his personality could resolve in a comic persona. Yet the more I saw of him the funnier he became. He's a master of show-business insincerity. His shifty aspects haven't resolved; they may be his essence. Part of him is always hiding, and there's a wild strain loose inside the doughy handsomeness which saves him from predictability. He looks capable of anything, yet he isn't threatening: he'd just do something crazy. Murray seems enormously likeable now—the more so, maybe, because he has been wearing his suave put-on expressions so long that he has no way to be straight without appearing even phonier. (Taking It All In, 225).
Murray learned to somehow let the audience inside his head without ever breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. He lets you in on the joke at the expense of his antagonist without winking at you exactly.
Murray’s small role (almost a cameo) in Tootsie, as Dustin Hoffman’s playwright roommate, is also a real gem, and showed he could perform well with high caliber actors. Murray's improvisations stole scenes in one of the funniest movies of its time.
Ghostbusters was a huge hit at the box office, the highest grossing comedy up to that time by some standards. Ghostbusters is a weird mix of playful special effects, humor, comedy and horror (some of the creatures they fight are creepy; and the building is the Dakota from Rosemary’s Baby fame, as well as where John Lennon lived and was shot). Watching it now, it has some great comedic moments (the Sta-puff marshmallow man, “This man has no dick,”), surprisingly good production values (especially if you remembered Murray from Meatballs and Caddyshack), and a (once-catchy) theme song. But it’s not really light-hearted and funny. Young kids like the special effects and the ghosts, but it feels a bit too scary and mature for kids under 10.
Even as a fourteen year old, I sensed something too “Hollywood” about Ghostbusters; I didn’t like it as much as Stripes (which I watched around thirty times on cable television in the early 1980s). Ghostbusters felt too reliant on special effects and spookiness. The Sigourney Weaver character serves as Murray’s romantic interest as well as the damsel-in-distress turned to evil creature, but the performance itself doesn’t make an impact. I guess that the Sigourney Weaver character is supposed to be sexy in some scenes? Rick Moranis, as a nerd who seems cooler once he’s turned evil, is funny in a supporting role. Ackroyd and Ramis let Murray get almost all the laughs. The fourth Ghostbuster, Winston (Ernie Hudson), was a part originally written for Eddie Murphy.
We expected Murray to act like top dog (after his Stripes appearance), so his command of various situations, like the mayor’s office during the crisis after all the ghosts escape (“Dog and cats living together!”) is classic Murray. Screenwriter Dan Ackroyd originally wrote this role for John Belushi, who died of a drug overdose before the movie was made. So Murray stepped in to replace him and turned it into a career role. After Ghostbusters Murray became one of the best-paid actors in Hollywood.
And here Murray’s career turns. He completed a serious film, an adaptation of “The Razor’s Edge,” which disappointed audiences at the time (it was filmed before Ghostbusters, but not released until after). And so relatively few people have seen it or remember it. Audiences weren’t ready to see Murray play a serious role right after Ghostbusters.
Then he took several years off from movie making. He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and got married. It seemed strange at the time. “Where is Bill Murray?”
So when Murray disappeared after Ghostbusters, I almost gave up on Murray. I was glad to hear he was back in movies with What About Bob? and Scrooged, but I was starting college around that time, and no longer kept up with new releases during those years.
I had heard about Groundhog Day, but somehow hadn’t seen it. And it sounded to high concept to me, even though I after I saw it years later I loved it. Murray showed he had more dramatic range. Being stuck in a time loop finally breaks down Murray's sarcastic persona and turns him into a genuine human being who is pursuing excellence in each moment, despite the superficial futility of it all.
Bill Murray’s Wes Anderson Roles
Murray’s career took another turn with the minor miracle of Rushmore.
Mr. Blume in Rushmore seemed like the perfect Murray role for the next phase of his career. He was no longer a young, tough hot-shot as in Scrooged or Groundhog Day. Mr. Blume carries his wealth easily, yet he’s still down-to-earth enough that young Max Fischer could become his best friend. He’s still a smart-ass, but he’s definitely world-weary. And he’s a cuckold. You can see how despite his charm that his family would also stop taking him seriously.
The Blume-Fischer relationship is at the heart of Rushmore and it would define Murray’s career thereafter. It seems an echo of the Bill Murray – Wes Anderson friendship. Murray has since appeared in every Anderson movie (and so in all Anderson films except the first, Bottle Rocket).
Raleigh St. Clair in The Royal Tenenbaums is a weak role, however. Murray’s interview of Dudley echoes his Rorschach test psychological interview with the pretty young woman at the start of Ghostbusters. Murray has little to do in Tenenbaums. He is cuckolded. His best moment is when he asks for a cigarette in the hospital waiting room and walks out.
The Life Aquatic is Murray’s only lead in a Wes Anderson movie. Many see it as one of Anderson’s weaker efforts (SPOILER ALERTS!). I quite like it, especially for Murray’s performance. Murray plays a Jacques Cousteau-like filmmaker who issues Team Zissou caps and stationary to his crew. This is a guy who understands how to brand himself. There are many great Murray moments in The Life Aquatic.
The problem is that there are some jarring incidents in the movie, such as Team Zissou’s daring raid on the pirate’s headquarters to rescue the bank stooge, as well as the accidental death of Owen Wilson’s character in the helicopter accident. For him to die because Zissou couldn’t be bothered to get the helicopter fixed is very unsettling. How are we supposed to like him after that? Is that what the movie is about?
I forgive the movie these flaws. This is Murray as an aging celebrity, but still having fun with it. In The Life Aquatic he is a relatively content aging celebrity who appreciates what he has. He knows he’s a spoiled brat. But it takes that kind of chutzpah to get his movies made. Without his dynamic spark there would be nothing for Team Zissou. No adventures. Just their boring ordinary lives.
Murray's roles in the latest three Wes Anderson movies are smaller and less effective. Murray’s role in Darjeeling Limited seems like only a bizarre cameo to me. Murray is a businessman running to catch the train. It seems like it’s supposed to mean something, but I’m not sure what. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Murray plays Badger. He has some good moments here. His voice is coming through, but it's still a small role. In Moonrise Kingdom, Murray plays yet another cuckolded middle-age man, but not for laughs, just to exude his special brand of weariness.
Murray's career cuts an impressive path from his early improv days on Second City and Saturday Night Live into an A list movie star, and oft-described "greatest comic actor of his generation." Murray's impressive filmography now includes impressive dramatic roles such as in Lost in Translation and recently Hyde Park on the Hudson.
How many people have tried to model their own comic persona after Bill Murray's? He's a toad who has some inner spark that appeals to us in an unusually intimate way. Murray discovered new ways to connect with the audience that many subsequent comic actors have attempted to mimic with varying success.