This week sees the release of “Hyde Park On Hudson,” the biopic of FDR that, despite a prestige-heavy cast and seemingly nakedly chasing the success of “The King’s Speech,” isn’t riding as big a wave as we might’ve expected after premireing on the fall festival circuit in September. It may yet become a popular hit, but it looks unlikely to fulfill the purpose it was seemingly created for — to finally win Bill Murray, one of our most beloved actors, an Oscar.
After breaking out on “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1970s, Murray become one of the biggest stars of the ’80s and ’90s, and in the latter part of his career, found new creative possibilities, thanks to the patronage of indie filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola. After working with the latter, he was tipped by many for the Best Actor prize in 2004 for “Lost In Translation,” but was beat out by Sean Penn in “Mystic River.”
Still, Murray has continued to match to the beat of his own drum. He’s famously picky about his projects and hard to contact (he doesn’t have an agent, with a legendary 1-800 number said to be the best way to interest him in a project), and yet, he’s retained a meticulous and diverse range of roles over the years, rarely, if ever, giving a bad performance. While “Hyde Park On Hudson” is far from his best film, the actor puts in a fine turn, and is set for an exciting 2013, with Roman Coppola‘s “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III,” Wes Anderson‘s “The Grand Budapest Hotel“ and George Clooney‘s “The Monuments Men“ all lined up. So, to commemorate the release of the actor’s latest film, and in the hope of more greatness to come, we’ve picked out five of our favorite Murray performances from over the years.
Many of Murray’s early roles have dated somewhat poorly, but “Ghostbusters” still feels as fresh as a daisy. The first stone-cold classic in the Murray oeuvre (“Tootsie” is worth a mention, but is something of a minor part for the actor, at least for this list), and still, 25 years on, it’s his biggest hit and the gold-standard of effects-driven comedies. And as much as anything else, this is down to the chemistry between the actors. Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd had been working together for years by this point, and they feel like the three essential parts in a machine (although having said that, the underwritten, token nature of Ernie Hudson‘s character is the film’s major flaw). Murray is clearly the MVP, effortlessly swinging between bone-dry delivery and flat-out silliness, but when the time comes to step up and face the supernatural baddies, he’s believable as an ass-kicker of the deceased. Of course, the question of a second sequel (the less said about “Ghostbusters II” the better, and thankfully Murray himself feels the same) is one that’s haunted Murray for most of the last twenty years, and, while we share the actor’s feelings about it potentially being a cash-in, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t get a little thrill when he strapped on the backpack again in “Zombieland” a few years ago. Sony is finally moving ahead on the project without him, and it’s a testament to how great he is in the original that we’ve really got very little interest in a Murray-free “Ghostbusters.”
“Groundhog Day” (1993)
Is it even possible to make a perfect film? Harold Ramis comes very close with “Groundhog Day.” Some might argue that it’s too sentimental, but the screenplay is impossibly tight, packed with belly laughs, ingenious, profound and like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” surprisingly dark in places. If somehow you’ve never seen the movie, it finds Murray playing a bitter weatherman who gets caught in an endless time loop on the titular day, until he figures out what he needs to fix in his life to move on. It’s sharp and funny stuff, and while Ramis has never really done anything as good since, he does very strong work here, filling the supporting cast with terrific comic actors from Chris Elliot to Steven Tobolowsky (and even a young, still-terrifying Michael Shannon) and never letting the pace flag. But really, try to imagine this with Steve Martin or Tom Hanks (who were both considered) in the lead. They might have been fine, but it’s Murray that makes it soar. The other actors were allegedly ruled out because Ramis considered them “too nice,” and one can see why. The movie doesn’t work without Murray at his cynical best, but he also manages to sell the character’s transformation in a totally believable way. So, while “Groundhog Day” isn’t quite perfect, it comes damn near close.
It really must be noted — because perhaps it isn’t entirely obvious to some — that there is a distinct before and after period for Murray and his career, and it’s obviously delineated by Wes Anderson‘s “Rushmore.” Sure, it marks the beginning of Murray’s turn as a dramatic actor (if you ignore 1984’s “The Razor’s Edge,” and most do), which perhaps unleashed the tidal wave of soul and pathos we were heretofore unaware that he possessed, but in rewatching his old films there’s a remarkable shift in quality, both in his performances and in the caliber of the films. In writing this feature it became clear to us that while Murray was always a fine comedic actor, he’s almost never looked back since his first Anderson collaboration, and it’s something for which we’re eternally grateful to the filmmaker. Anyone who says “Rushmore” is not Wes Anderson’s best film bar none should have their head examined, and Murray is instrumental in balancing the melancholy dolor and the bittersweet comedy that makes this film an autumnal modern classic. While always admired, Murray gained new-found thespian respect (plus his first significant award-season plaudits) for his forlorn and humanizing turn as the lonely and self-loathing millionaire Herman Blume, who falls into a love triangle with a 15-year-old prep school boy (Jason Schwartzman, in a career-making role) and schoolteacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). Blume is both shameless and petty, and yet a genuine friend to this ambitious, yet always-underachieving teen. They’re made for one another and Murray’s soulful and hilarious turn as the aging steel magnate evinced a quiet inner ache that’s remarkably watchable, and one for the ages.
“Lost In Translation” (2003)
Just over 25 years after he made his debut on “Saturday Night Live,” Murray finally received his first Oscar nomination. While he may not have taken the loss to Sean Penn gracefully, the nod was more than well-deserved. Director Sofia Coppola wrote the role of a movie star in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial, who begins a friendship with a newly-married young woman (Scarlett Johansson), and for Murray himself, and he’s never been better. He just about pulls the film’s more culturally insensitive moments back from the brink, while remaining consistently funny throughout (Coppola really knows how to use Murray to a tee — it’s a shame they haven’t yet reteamed). Most importantly, it’s Murray’s performance that balances the central relationship out; with another actor in the part, it might have seemed inappropriate, even creepy, but there’s a lovely quality to Bob Harris that prevents this. Instead, it mostly seems platonic, even paternal, on his side at least. Along with “Rushmore,” it seems to mark Murray’s entry into the third act of his career, and what an entrance it was.
“Broken Flowers” (2006)
Most people prefer the wry, sarcastic Murray, but we have a soft spot for the melancholy loner version that populates low-key independent films like this Jim Jarmusch-helmed gem. As the center of the “Broken Flowers” universe, it’s possible Murray’s never been sadder. A former bachelor now living in solitude, save for nosey visits from his amateur detective neighbor, Murray’s Don Johnston decides to pry himself from his couch upon receiving a letter informing him that his son, whom he’s never known about, is coming his way. His sudden, rushed journey isn’t made as a last-ditch effort to find intimacy, or to repair broken bonds, but a task undertaken through fear. Unable to confront his past, and ignorant about whatever potential future he might have, he goes through the motions in a stubbornly oblivious search for his son’s mother. Once Johnston realizes that, even at their worst, each former paramour has lived a much fuller life than his, around loved ones of their own, he searches for a survival instinct his character doesn’t possess, in the process allowing a flood of interior emotions to rise to the surface. It’s a deeply lovely turn, arguably undervalued by many fans of the actor and overshadowed by his work with Coppola and Anderson, but certainly one of his very finest.