Bill Murray is one of the finest comedic talents this country has seen since he burst onto the scene on Saturday Night Live in 1977. Over the last 36 years, he has charmed us, made us laugh and shown us his more dramatic side in his film work. The bulk of his work has been a resounding success while a few film…not so much (Wild Things, anyone?). Nonetheless, Murray is widely regarded as comedic gold and it’s hard to argue with that. In fact, his oeuvre is proof positive that this state is indeed on point.
Here are a handful of his performances and appearances that have added many pleasurable moments to my life:
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) “Delirium” – himself
While Murray only appears in one vignette in this film, it is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. That he’s in it with The RZA and The GZA from The Wu Tang Clan (the finest hip-hop group of all-time) makes it all the better. Playing a caffeine junkie, Murray is admonished by the MCs for drinking straight out of the coffee pot while smoking a cigarette – over the top Murray at his finest. That he is able to hold his own onscreen with RZA and GZA is a testament to his talent. Not that they are supremely talented actors, but coming from completely different worlds can stress the connection made. None of that here. Getting to hear Murray called by his full name every time he’s addressed is fucking hilarious. This film came out in 2003 when Murray was starting to break the comedic shell and go for more quirkier and dramatic roles. Lost in Translation, which will be addressed shortly, came out that same year. Working with director Jim Jarmusch in this film as well as 2005’s Broken Flowers upped his street cred tremendously, not to mention his work with Wes Anderson.
Here’s the entire vignette:
Lost in Translation (2003) – Bob Harris
Lost in Translation was Murray‘s first real dramatic role since The Razor’s Edge in 1984 aside from his turn as Polonius in Hamlet (although he did have a small part in The Cradle Will Rock) and it was this performance that looked as if it would net Murray an Academy Award. Alas, the voters in the Academy chose to the award to Sean Penn‘s overwrought and heavy-handed performance in the vastly overrated Mystic River instead. Sigh. It’s in this role that we see Murray deliver the full range of his talent, something that is touched on in Groundhog Day as he tries to woo Andie MacDowell‘s character. Moments of loneliness, poignancy and longing are peppered with his signature comedy and Murray really brings to life Bob Harris, his deeply flawed alter-ego. Here’s an example:
That Murray was able to pull this performance off is testament to his ability as an actor, although big ups go to both Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Coppola for their parts in the process as well – no way he is able to do this without them. I frequently imagine him in real life lamenting getting paid seven figures for doing a commercial when he should be doing a play like his character Bob Harris does. The filming of the commercial he’s in Japan to film is priceless and one of the better scenes in the film:
I know a lot of people decry this film for being too slow and boring, but this was the piece of the puzzle that was missing in Murray‘s filmography. He shows here what a full talent he really is. I will also say that his version of Elvis Costello‘s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” is pretty top-notch. This guy can do it all.
Here is the trailer:
Kingpin (1996) – Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken
The most low-brow film on this list (it is a Farrelly Brothers film after all), Kingpin has Murray playing his most loathable character of all-time. A scumbag professional bowler with a killer combover that would make Gene Keady envious, Big Ern McCracken is Roy Munson’s (Woody Harrelson) nemesis. McCracken is responsible for getting Munson into a situation that cost him his right bowling hand and his promising career as a young bowler. Since that day, Munson planned revenge, but the much-loved-by-the-public McCracken proves to be a difficult nut to crack.
Finally, Big Ern is above the law!
That McCracken is so awful is an interesting role for Murray because he never redeems himself like his characters in Scrooged or Groundhog Day. You hate him as much at the end as the first time you meet him. Murray really sells it well, though….all while drinking Tanqueray and Tab.
However, this is vintage Murray and worthy of mention among the fun roles he’s played. While this movie is the typical gross-out affair you’d expect from the Farrellys, Murray cuts above all of it and is able to play the perfect villain. That said, this is a fun movie to watch if you’re looking for mindless entertainment.
Here is the trailer:
You can watch the entire film here:
Ghostbusters (1984) – Dr. Peter Venkman
I doubt that I need to elaborate much on Ghostbusters as it has remained an American comedic/sci-fi centerpiece since it was released in 1984. The premise is three paranormal activity professors (Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd) get kicked out of the university in which they work and start their own apparition removal and storage business. When Dr. Venkman’s girlfriend, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), gets possessed by the demon Zuul and announces the coming of Gozer, shit really hits the fan. The Ghostbusters, with new addition Winston (Ernie Hudson), must save humanity and specifically New York City from destruction and domination by Gozer.
All right! This chick is TOAST!
Outside of Caddyshack, this may well be Murray‘s signature role. This movie endures, largely due to Murray, to this day. My own children love this movie and both think Venkman is the best character because he’s so funny. They particularly like it when he gets slimed:
Even in his rarefied profession, Venkman seems to have issues figuring out what to do with Dana/Zuul. As we see at the beginning of the film, Venkman doesn’t put much effort into his job. This passive attitude carries over into his interaction with Zuul, which is among the funniest parts of the entire film. His delivery is perfection and you can see where doing stand-up at Second City in Chicago and working on Saturday Night Live aided him in his comedic film career so well.
I, for one, am glad that Murray is stone-walling the production of a third Ghostbusters movie. To me, trotting the four ‘Busters out again is as sad an attempt to cash in as Lucas and Spielberg doing yet another Indiana Jones film. Please. Stop.
For those of you who have been under a rock for the past 30 years, here’s the trailer:
Groundhog Day (1993) – Phil Connors
Groundhog Day is one of the better screenplays written in the last 20 years and Murray‘s performance as Phil Conners does that script serious justice.The premise of Groundhog Day is a loathsome Pittsburgh television weatherman gets sent to Punxsatawney, Pennsylvsania, on February 2 to cover the annual Groundhog Day ceremony where Punxsatawney Phil (name is a coincidence?) either sees or doesn’t see his shadow predicting the length of what remains of winter. His terrible attitude, general rudeness and overall disdain for his fellow man, especially of those who reside in Punxsatawney, are the likely cause of karma to catch up to him. When he wakes up the next day, he realizes he’s repeating Groundhog Day again. And this happens again, and again, and again, and again. As he desperately tries to break the cycle, he resorts to extreme behavior at first using his dilemma to exploit the circumstances then falls into deep depression trying to kill himself to end the cycle…to no avail.
Seriously, if I have to hear “I Got You Babe” ever again…
In what I can only imagine was a difficult shoot having to do the same scene multiple times but varying actions and dialogue ever so slightly, Murray shines. Witnessing his transformation from grumpy prima donna to a well-intentioned, thoughtful man is pure joy, one of the few times I accept a happy ending in a film. I have to ask myself, would I enjoy the ending to this film if it wasn’t Murray in the Phil Conners role? Likely not, especially since I truly detest Andie MacDowell, or better known as She-Who-Can-Ruin-a-Movie-with-the-Delivery-of-Two-Lines (“Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed”). This is a fun movie which is open to interpretation.
Here’s the trailer:
Stripes (1981) – John Winger
Stripes is one of my favorite Murray films, although not necessarily his best. He plays John Winger, a slacker cab driver who has nothing going for him. His best friend Russell (frequent collaborator Harold Ramis) falls into this camp as well. They both decide that they need a change in their lives, so they decide to join the Army. Winger’s general smartassness immediately gets him in trouble with Drill Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates), but also endears himself to the rest of the platoon.
After finishing their basic training on their own when Sgt. Hulka is injured, Winger and company are selected for the top secret EM-50/Urban Assault Vehicle (read: Winnebago) project in Europe. When Winger and Russell and their two MP girlfriends (Sean Young and P.J. Soles) take the EM-50 for a spin through West Germany, the rest of the platoon are forced to go after them. When they accidentally end up in communist Czechoslovakia, the platoon are captured leaving Winger and his posse to come to the rescue.
That’s the fact, Jack!
Murray‘s snarkiness is off the charts in Stripes and that’s one of the things that I love best about his characters, and John Winger is no exception. Even though he can be such a shithead, you can’t help but love him. Murray is fortunate to be surrounded by other great actors to play off of – John Candy, Judge Reinhold and John Larroquette – with perhaps my favorite ancillary character, Francis “Psycho” Soyer (Conrad Dunn) who has perhaps the most memorable monologue of the film. This film is fun and what Murray‘s early work was all about. It’s dated because of the fall of the Soviet Union, but gives a glimpse into tensions back in the Cold War…with a comedic spin.
Here’s the trailer:
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Steve Zissou
As Murray has gotten older, he played more crotchety and curmudgeonly characters. Steve Zissou is no exception. A once famous ocean explorer/filmmaker a la Jacques Cousteau has hit bottom when his friend Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel) is eaten by a rare jaguar shark. He then motivates his team to track and kill the shark, filming the escapade. When he is about to embark, his producer tells him he has no money for the film. He is saved financially by a son, Ned (Owen Wilson) whom he fathered many years before but never reached out to. As they set out on the journey, they encounter many obstacles – Zissou’s ego, attack by pirates, mutiny by their interns and a feud between Ned and Zissou’s chief of staff Klaus (hilariously played by Willem Dafoe).
Team Zissou discussing the plan.
The whole quest is also being covered by Oceanographic Explorer journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) for an article on Steve, who falls for her. The only problem is (well, besides that he’s married) is his son Ned has also taken to her, despite her being pregnant with another man’s child. So a lot is at stake with this journey – not only Steve’s personal quest, but also his professional reputation, is under the microscope. So when shit blows up like The Godfather, he steps and tries to right the wrongs that can only be attributed to his poor leadership.
Steve with his ship, The Belafonte.
Steve is another Murray character who isn’t likeable. At all. But Murray somehow gets us to root for him to complete his quest for the jaguar shark, despite being responsible for Ned’s death, the implosion of his team and the bond stooge (Bud Cort) being kidnapped by the pirates. As I noted above, had this been another actor, would we have done so? That’s the mystique that Murray brings with him. As a man who seems like he’s just another one of the guys and very approachable, we tend to identify with him and therefore take his side despite our misgivings about Zissou. This is a shrewd move on director Wes Anderson‘s part. As in most roles where Murray plays a bastard, he does redeem himself. The scene where they finally encounter the elusive jaguar shark is very touching:
I firmly believe 2003-2005 was the golden age of the Murray dramatic comedy with Lost in Translation, Life Aquatic and Broken Flowers. I truly hope that Wes Anderson chooses to use Murray better in any future films. His characters seem like such a throwaways in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom, especially given the robustness of the performances in both this film and Rushmore.
Here’s the trailer:
Caddyshack (1980) – Carl Spackler
This one is a no-brainer and the role that may be most closely associated with Murray. The reason is he’s fucking hilarious in this movie. Playing Karl Spackler, Murray channels the inbred golf course maintenance worker in a performance that is exaggerated, over-the-top and plainly outrageous – all of which makes the movie better. In a film that has about as many quotable moments as any film in history, it’s Murray/Karl who steal the show, which says quite a bit with comedy heavyweights like Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield also starring. Whether it’s his diatribe about caddying for the Dalai Lama or the Cinderella Story or he and Ty Webb doing cannonballs, it’s hard to deny the humor of these scenes and the value Murray adds to them.
You wore green so you could hide. I don’t blame you – you’re a tramp!
This movie is so much fun, if a little dated. It’s certainly worth the watch if you’ve never seen it and are a Murray fan. Be the ball.
Here’s the trailer:
Rushmore (1998) – Herman Blume
I’m sure folks are tired of me writing about Rushmore, but it’s hard for me to deny what a damn fine film it is. I’ve highlighted just about every aspect of this film – opening scene, ending scene, usage of Faces’ “Ooh La La”, best Wes Anderson film, etc., – but never touched on Murray‘s performance as Herman Blume with any substance. I think it is his role that has been most deserving of accolades and awards. I also think it is his most surprising performance as well.
I’m a little bit lonely these days…
Murray‘s performance as the steel magnate is filled with surprises – at times it’s comedic, others melancholic, depressive and some full of life. Herman Blume is a fully realized character where flaws abound, but not so many that we can’t empathize with him or his series of plights that crop up throughout the film. Even though his arc is secondary or even tertiary with regards to screen time, it’s no less important. His journey is as important as Max’s and Miss Cross’ as they are all intertwined. His introduction is key to setting up the character and Murray knocks it out of the park (clip runs a little long giving us the introduction to Max Fischer as well):
What rich person tells less fortunate kids to take dead aim on other rich kids and to take them down? This is one reason I love this character, and by extension Bill Murray, so much. As I’ve stated multiple times in this post, without Murray in the role, I just don’t think that this character or this film is as effective as it is. It really is an exquisite performance.
Here’s the trailer:
Since brevity isn’t exactly my strong suit, I think I’ll limit this list to ten. His role as Hunter S. Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam could easily slide onto this list. He doesn’t play the role as insane as Johnny Depp did in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the performance is still quite good. NIXON!The film is uneven to say the least, but it is worth a watch if for only the hotel room scene.
Another that could find its way onto this list is Tripper from Meatballs. While the film plays a little corny these days, Murray is really great in the mentor role at Camp North Star. And as far as I’m concerned, any film that features David Naughton‘s “Makin’ It” and Chris Makepeace‘s sweet hair is pretty badass.
So there you have it – Bill Murray‘s finest. I hope that Murray mixes his roles in the future as he now seems to be gravitating towards more dramatic fare. He does well when he spreads his wings and there is always a comedic angle to the roles he takes, but I miss the pure comedies he’s done in the past. I guess in the end, it just doesn’t matter. Keep doing you, Bill.
What’s your favorite Murray role or performance?
P.S. Thanks for the cameo in Zombieland. Quite amusing.