Bill Murray: The Great Obnoxious One
In 1988, Bill Murray told an interviewer for Irish America magazine: “I’m just an obnoxious guy who can make it appear charming.” He was probably trying to be self-deprecating, but it’s hard to disagree with that statement - few screen actors can so brilliantly turn being a bit of a bastard into a desirable character trait.
The more of a jerk Bill Murray is in a movie, the more we love him. Over the past four decades he has honed his distinctive deadpan style, creating various shades of Bill Murray-ness. For while he may not have the greatest acting range, he’s second to none when it comes to playing Bill Murray.
There are other actors who have thrived with a misanthropic, egotistical onscreen persona. Perhaps the greatest was W.C. Fields, but his characters were always befuddled, drunk, set-upon, or hen-pecked. Bill Murray brings with it a sense of aloof cool - he’s a b*st*rd that people would pay money to have a few beers with.
Part of that appeal is his idiosyncratic public life. There is a whole website devoted to stories of Murray playfully trolling unsuspecting citizens to the amusement of everyone present, especially himself. These brief encounters are often followed by the now-famous line “No-one will ever believe you.”
After finding fame on Saturday Night Live during the ‘70s, Murray became a Hollywood star in the ‘80s and ‘90s, although he earned a reputation for being difficult to work with. He entered a new phase of his career after starring in Wes Anderson’s sophomore feature, Rushmore. The partnership endured, and ten films later Murray has a role in the Texan auteur’s latest, The French Dispatch.
Let’s take a look at some of the key performances of Murray’s career so far.
Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, 1980
Murray made a few film appearances before this early iconic role in Harold Ramis’ raucous golf comedy, playing a moronic greenskeeper who wages war against a wily gopher. He plays squarely to the stoner crowd with numerous weed-related jokes, and the part really showcases his talent for improvisation. He reputedly made up two of Spackler’s best addled monologues on the spot - one about being a “Cinderella Boy” who wins the Masters, the other about caddying for the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas.
Spackler’s wacky mumblings play well against the comic styles of Caddyshack’s other two stars, Rodney Dangerfield and Chevy Chase. Dangerfield is a riot as Al Czervik, the crass nouveau riche millionaire who ruffles feathers at the hoity-toity golf club, while Chase is equal smarm and charm as Ty Webb, the irreverent playboy golf prodigy who’s so good he doesn’t bother to keep score.
Chase and Murray came to blows a few years earlier on Saturday Night Live, but they settled their differences enough to contribute one of the film’s funniest scenes, when Webb asks to “play through” after his miscued shot crashes through the window of Spackler’s shack. It was the only scene the pair have shared on film, and it’s a classic.
Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, 1984
Dan Aykroyd is an enthusiastic believer in the paranormal, and he envisaged a project starring himself and his Blues Brothers partner John Belushi as a duo battling mischievous spirits. When Belushi died of an accidental drug overdose, he turned to another of his old SNL pals instead - Bill Murray.
Other actors were in the frame for a while, including Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Steve Guttenberg, and Chevy Chase. The film would probably have still been a hit with any of those attached, but it is Murray’s performance that makes it the rewatchable classic it is today.
Venkman, the de-facto leader of the Ghostbusters, views science as a way of dodging responsibility and picking up girls. He acts as a superb audience surrogate as the supernatural action unfolds. Venkman is so deeply skeptical that he trumps our potential skepticism, often reacting disbelievingly in the way we probably would in that situation. His unwillingness to do any work and sarcastic asides stand in comedic contrast to the puppy dog enthusiasm of Ray (Aykroyd) and Egon (Harold Ramis). The result is comedy gold.
Frank Cross in Scrooged, 1988
After Ghostbusters became a global pop culture moment and his passion project The Razor’s Edge crashed and burned, Murray took a few years out, apart from a small role as a masochistic dental patient in The Little Shop of Horrors.
His next major role was as the cynical, cold-hearted, selfish, egotistical TV exec Frank Cross in Scrooged, Richard Donner’s glossy update of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Murray’s self-regarding persona must have seemed like the perfect fit for a modern-day Scrooge, but the end results were mixed.
Murray and Donner were at loggerheads about how Cross should be portrayed, and the actor was unhappy on the shoot. It shows in the performance - usually so loose and self-assured, his rantings and ravings are notably forced in some scenes. Murray is at his acerbic best early on when the film establishes what a horrible guy Cross is, but the redemptive arc is strained and joyless. Some critics thought that his wild improvised speech demanding love and good cheer at the end of the movie was like an onscreen breakdown, and it’s awkward viewing to say the least.
Scrooged did well at the box office, but it is dark, sprawling, messy, and mean-spirited, even as it’s trying to plug Cross’s festive change of heart.
Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, 1993
After going through the motions reprising his role as Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters II, making his directorial debut with the criminally underrated Quick Change, and playing opposite Richard Dreyfuss in What about Bob? Murray arrived at one of the greatest roles of his career to date, in one of the greatest comedies of all time.
As with Venkman, Murray completely personifies the selfish, smug TV weatherman Phil Connors, dispatched by the network to cover the Groundhog Day celebrations in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania with his slobby cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) and chirpy new producer Rita (Andie McDowell). His commitment to making Phil so insufferable makes his eventual catharsis all the more hilarious and rewarding - the film shares similarities with It’s a Wonderful Life, but Connors is the anti-George Bailey. When he realises that he’s stuck in a time loop, his initial reaction is to exploit it, and eventually resorts to multiple suicide attempts before it occurs to him to try being a good person instead.
Working with his old pal Harold Ramis again (although the pair fell out during the making of the film), Murray is far more at ease here, and the detailed screenplay gives him plenty of opportunity to work through a wide range of emotions before his eventual redemption.
The film was a hit, and its title has become one of those filmic terms that have entered the common lexicon - even people who have never seen the movie can be heard describing something as like Groundhog Day to describe something gruelling and repetitive. The film has also inspired a wide range of theological discussion, comparing Phil’s experience to everything from Christianity (Phil as Christ) to Buddhism.
Bunny Breckinridge in Ed Wood, 1994
Murray can also excel in supporting roles, and he gave one of the warmest and most underrated performances of his career in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s affectionate biopic of cult filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. As part of a terrific cast including Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones, and Patricia Arquette, Murray shines as Bunny Breckinridge, the forlorn wannabe transsexual who finds himself part of Wood’s ragtag troupe of actors.
While he has a few signature moments - Breckinridge giving a pep talk to a group of transvestites auditioning for a part, the disastrous tale of his aborted trip to Mexico for a sex change op - the real joy in the performance is watching Murray’s reactions as other people are speaking. For an actor who usually relishes grandstanding in the limelight, the unexpected subtlety is delicious.
Ernie McCracken in Kingpin, 1996
Rocky Balboa went up against Ivan Drago, while Danny LaRusso faced off against John Kreese’s sinister Cobra Kai. Nothing spices up a good underdog story like a truly great antagonist, and Kingpin has one of the best.
Murray plays Ernie McCracken, the loathsome nemesis of Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), a former state bowling champ who met with a nasty accident after Big Ern double-crossed him out of sheer spite. Skip to the present day, and Munson is a washed-up loser with an unconvincing rubber bowling hand who sees another shot at the big time in the naive Amish bowling prodigy Ishmael (Randy Quaid). The pair hit the road to compete for a million-dollar purse bowling tournament in Reno, but inevitably their route to the prize crosses with McCracken’s…
Ernie McCracken is one of Murray’s greatest comic creations, a man so venal, treacherous and self-absorbed that he has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And he’s absolutely brilliant. Murray clearly relishes playing the part of the uber-douchebag with the wild combover that gets more out of control the more outrageous Murray gets, and it’s a thing of joy whenever he’s onscreen. Kingpin, falling between the Farrelly Brother’s better known hits Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, is one of the most underrated comedies of the ‘90s, and Murray completely walks away with the movie.
Herman Blume in Rushmore, 1998
Wes Anderson and Rushmore came along at just the right time for Murray. His career was at its lowest ebb after headlining two box office stinkers, Larger than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little, and he needed a change of direction.
Anderson and co-screenwriter Owen Wilson wrote the part of Herman Blume, a sad sack middle-aged millionaire industrialist who hates his life, specifically for Murray. When the script made its way to the actor, he liked it so much that he agreed to work to scale, reportedly pocketing only $9000 for the film.
It was worth it. Rushmore marked the start of the second phase of Murray’s career, where he toned down the wise-guy smarm and became an elder statesman of the indie circuit, playing older, wiser, mournful men with a more soulful deadpan delivery.
Rushmore was Anderson’s follow up to Bottle Rocket and the film where he really started to nail down the distinctive style so familiar to fans and movie buffs today. Jason Schwartzman played Max Fischer, an overly-ambitious student at the prodigious Rushmore Academy where his eagerness is sorely matched by his academic talents. Already in danger of getting kicked out due to poor grades, things get worse when he develops a crush on widowed teacher Rosemary (Olivia Williams). When Max’s friend Herman Blume also falls for Rosemary, the pair descend into a bitter game of tit-for-tat as they fight for her affections.
Murray was a revelation as Blume, displaying a more wounded, mature side to his screen persona. The deadpan here was based on sadness and regret, and it just made sense. Blume felt like the kind of guy Peter Venkman might have become if the charm stopped working and the desperation set in. His performance is fantastic, and can be seen as a dry run for…
Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, 2003
A man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, sitting on a hotel bed in a kimono - this was the image that kept Sofia Coppola, pushing her screenplay based on her own experiences adrift in Tokyo, in pursuit of the ever-more reclusive Murray.
Finally she got her man, and Bill Murray received his first and only Oscar nomination for his efforts. It was touch and go for a while - Murray only made his usual vague verbal agreement, and Coppola committed a large chunk of her $4 million budget to securing his services. Luckily for her, and everyone else, he kept to his word and showed up for the shoot in Tokyo.
With the Japanese metropolis cast as an electronic dreamscape in the background, Murray is perfectly cast as Bob Harris, a fading movie star in town for a seven-figure payday promoting some local hooch. Rattling around his hotel, he finds kinship with the similarly melancholy and displaced Charlotte, played by then 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson. Somehow, the growing affection between the pair avoids being creepy despite their age difference, culminating in that now famous unheard whisper at the film’s bittersweet denouement.
Bill Murray in Zombieland, 2009
Murray gave a flyby cameo appearance in Zombieland as himself, and in some ways it neatly encapsulates the entire enigma of the Bill Murray cult. Having survived the zombie apocalypse by holing up in his mansion made up as a zombie, watch him as Woody Harrelson’s character starts gushing about being such a huge fan. He’s superficially trying to be humble, but his patent insincerity shines through - his reactions say “sure, I know I’m supposed to go through the motions by acting grateful, but yeah, you’re right, I am the best.”
It’s the Bill Murray mystique in a nutshell - always playing himself, but at the same time completely unknowable. Is the smugness a mask for humility, or vice versa? Or can you continue removing layers of his personality to keep finding the same thing underneath, like a Bill Murray matryoshka doll? I suspect that even if you got close enough to the real person to find out, he’d just look at you with that quizzical, mocking expression and say, “No-one will ever believe you.”
What is your favourite Bill Murray performance? Let us know! His latest film, The French Dispatch, is currently at cinemas.