It’s funny. When I undertook this article I didn’t actually realize that I was a Bill Murray fan. But as I went through his filmography, the evidence was impossible to refute. It’s something that kind of snuck up on me.
I mean, look, I’ve seen maybe two dozen episodes of Saturday Night Live in my entire life, so I was neither predisposed toward him nor against him in the movies — and Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Stripes were just not my cup of tea. (Don’t feel slighted, Mr. Murray, I didn’t really like Woody Allen’s films much until Love and Death.) I guess the first place I actually noticed him was as Bill Murray the K in the TV film The Rutles: All You Need is Cash in 1978, which is hardly a major role. Of course, in 1984 it became impossible not to see Ghostbusters. Here everything seemed to come together — not in the least because of Murray’s Dr. Peter Venkman. Venkman gave Murray more range and established the idea that he, however improbably, qualified as a leading man.
For me, however, it’s that other 1984 Murray vehicle — his adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge — that is the more interesting film. It certainly was less successful, however. Viewed as a misfire and dismissed in some quarters as a “vanity picture,” it’s actually a credible version of the book, either despite or because of the fact that the character of Larry Darrell has been somewhat “Murrayfied.” That was probably inescapable since Murray co-wrote the screenplay with director John Byrum, but the fact is that Murray captures something in his performance that the more traditional leading man would lack. Compare the film to the 1946 version with Tyrone Power and you see that while Power has the “path to enlightenment” theme of the book down (maybe too well), there’s no sense of repressed anger or genuine disillusionment to his approach. Murray nails both aspects and comes across as far more human.
As far as Murray in the realm of the unorthodox leading man role is concerned, that came into full flower with Groundhog Day in 1993 where he parlayed that aspect from Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II into something wholly original. Nearly everything works here, from the chemistry with Andie MacDowell to Murray’s ability to make his transformation from an egotistic and unpleasant character to a real person believable. The fact that he pulls this off without ever losing his edge or his comedic center is even more remarkable. Part of it is in the writing and the film’s unusual rethinking of the romantic comedy in terms that manage to blend the fantastic with the real. (One of the movie’s secrets lies in its realization that repeating the same day over and over is not just good for a few laughs — it’s also somewhat nightmarish.) But try, if you can, to imagine Groundhog Day with anyone other than Bill Murray. It just doesn’t work.
No look at Murray’s career is complete without at least pausing to admire his outrageous personification of Bunny Breckinridge in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which was made the following year. This is a supporting part and about as far as you can get from a romantic lead. Bizarre as the character is (and as the man himself was in real life), Murray rarely stresses the flamboyance of the openly gay character. Rather, he plays him with poise and detached amusement, taking the events of the film in stride. In fact, he seems to be the only character in the film who’s in touch with reality and realizes the complete absurdity of Ed Wood’s (Johnny Depp) vision of himself as a great filmmaker and the sheer lunacy of a movie like Plan 9 from Outer Space. This also could be said to be the point where Murray started to veer out of the mainstream.
That break hit its stride when Murray teamed up for the first time with Wes Anderson in 1998 for Rushmore. There’s a tendency to view this original collaboration between the two as the best of the lot. I’m not sure I agree with that, because in a sense, all of Murray’s Anderson films are in a similar key and all of them attest to the fact that both Anderson and Murray are able to mine both the reality and the pain of the characters that lie just below their deadpan surface. In this regard, I tend to lean toward their 2004 collaboration The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou as the ultimate expression (at least so far) of that concept. But I wouldn’t trade a single one of the films, not even Murray’s brief bit as the harried businessman who misses the train in The Darjeeling Limited.
This isn’t meant to short other Murray performances by any means. Let’s at least briefly consider the role that immediately followed Rushmore, that of the disturbed ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw in Tim Robbins’ underappreciated 1999 film Cradle Will Rock. Here Murray takes a role that could have been little more than a villain part — a red-baiting malcontent who uses the left-leaning Federal Theatre Project as a personal scapegoat for his own problems — and turns it into a tragic portrait of a conflicted man who can’t deal with the passing of time and his place in the world. It’s a stunning turn, not in the least because Murray makes both the man and his dummy (“I prefer the word puppet”) real characters. It also lays the foundation for his later work which focuses on characters who are growing old but still trying to find their place in life.
Of course, I realize that I’ve given short shrift to some key films, notably Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (I admit to liking Murray, but not the film so much) and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, but then it’s simply not possible to do justice to Bill Murray’s career in the confines of this space. But I do want to look at his most recent film Get Low, which has just come out on DVD. This is a movie that might be viewed mostly as a vehicle for Robert Duvall, but in all honesty, I think Murray not only holds his own against Duvall, he actually makes his portrayal of the cynical, money-hungry mortician Frank Quinn the more interesting character. The film may craft a mystery around the Duvall character, but Murray crafts an even better mystery around his own. There’s not much surprise in the trajectory of Duvall’s Felix Bush, but Murray keeps you guessing where Quinn will end up in the proceedings. That’s no small accomplishment.
In the end, Bill Murray’s ability to change with the years, his willingness to go with art/indie titles, and his pursuit of roles that actually interest him have made him one of our most durable and likable movie stars. These things have also made him virtually bullet-proof. And, yes, they’ve made me an unapologetic fan. I realize that I only have to see Murray appear on the screen — consider Zombieland — and I feel better about the film. I smile just to see him. Hell, I even like him enough that I’m willing to overlook those Garfield movies I sat through. Now that is the mark of a true fan.