Bill Murray. Billy, the Murricane. Bill fucking Murray. The man is a bona fide institution and a hero to gadfly layabouts, eccentric humorists and mayhem enthusiasts alike. We would follow him to the ends of the earth (even up to Canada for TIFF’s Bill Murray Day), not because he actually has the answers but because he’s the one having the most fun without them. With nearly forty years of filmography trailing behind him (discounting the 1973 short “The Hat Act”), Murray has a plethora of roles (and we don’t use the “p” word lightly) with performances that stand the test of time to varying heights.
While it’s easy to get carried away with the larger-than-life persona (as seen in every single one of his oft-costumed appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman”) and the media’s perennial “Bill Murray is doing something wacky” beat (cleaning dishes at a Scottish student flat party, karaoke-ing with a group of strangers, pushing someone into a Venetian lap pool with none other than George Clooney, etc.), William James Murray is an actor-entertainer first and foremost. And he’s a mortal, too. For each “Ghostbusters” he’s also got a “Garfield” (which we will not be going into as the franchise has become a dead horse of critic-fueled bemoaning and Coen brothers lore).
With his latest vehicle “St. Vincent” out in theaters, we’re taking a look at the great man’s best and worst lead performances. Now before you scroll down and bemoan the lack of “Caddyshack” or “Space Jam,” this piece is looking at lead roles more specifically because of the nature of this weekend’s release. As our own Eric Kohn wrote in his TIFF review, “St. Vincent” is “a movie that owes its appeal to [Murray’s] talent,” and the film’s publicity machine seems to agree, with Murray features clogging your newsfeed and The Weinstein Company releasing that really chill Bob Dylan clip. In the immortal words of Dr. Peter Venkman, “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”… Let’s begin.
John Winger, “Stripes”
“You look like a typical low-life character to me,” taxi driver John Winger’s fare chirps to him from the backseat. And she’s not wrong, Winger is a schlub, not quite Carl Spackler level but still far from the clean-cut go-getter of the yuppy early ’80s. He’s sloppy, irreverent, sleeps until noon, but has that good ol’ irascible Murray spark. Within the first few scenes, John loses his job, girlfriend, apartment, but not his booming self-esteem (a trait Murray cultivated on SNL through characters like Nick “The Lounge Singer” Winters). Following the footsteps of “Private Benjamin,” he enlists in the army with peer-pressured buddy Harold Ramis and joins a ragtag bunch including John Candy and Judge Reinhold. Whereas in “Meatballs” Murray is the authority, albeit unorthodox and of summer camp sorts, here he is the misfit who rallies his platoon, charms the visiting General, and wins the girl while maintaining his Devil-may-care, let’s just have fun air. Through that untouchable attitude (one Murray would maintain or subvert in roles to come), he becomes the ultimate, more relatable, more palpable authority, beating out the infrared, shouty drill sergeant by a long mile. To take a metaphor heavily, this performance plants the seeds for the better parts of his filmography.
Dr. Peter Venkman, “Ghostbusters”
When you need someone to replace the late great John Belushi, who you gonna call? Bill Murray. “Ghostbusters” is one of the most iconic films of all time, certainly the most popular sci-fi-comedy, and that’s thanks in large part to Murray’s performance. Jokey, womanizing, steadily irreverent, Venkman is a character pushed to greatness through responding to setbacks (another Murray character to lose his job) with unbridled verve. Teaming up with the brain of Ramis’s Egon Spengler and the heart of Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz, Murray’s Venkman is the courage, nay the nerve, of the Ghostbusters founding trio. As lackadaisical as he is in his pursuit of ghosts, Venkman is dogged in that of women, flirting with Sigourney Weaver’s Dana through many rebuffs and one episode of Zuul possession, and against the establishment, telling the mayor that ETA rep Walter Peck has no dick (the retort reportedly being an ad-lib). To make it to the climax (and defeat the evil forces that be, including the Stay Puft marshmallow man), Venkman works within a team (a now-quartet with the addition of Ernie Hudson’s Winston Ziddemore) and that’s where we see Murray’s glimmer of hearted-humanity shine through the jade, with the shout of “No one steps on a church in my town!” and the cross-streams of the Ghostbusters’ proton packs.
Phil Connors, “Groundhog Day”
“I am a god, I’m not the God, I don’t think,” a bedraggled Phil states wearily to love interest Rita (Andie MacDowell). Not even bitter Punxsutawney diner coffee can get him out of this funk. The even bitter-er Pittsburgh weatherman is stuck with the same day on repeat ad apparent infinitum. Like most of the Murray milieu, Phil is brash and obnoxious, but unlike a lot of ’em, he has a real mean streak, one that few but Murray and the likes of Cary Grant (:Suspicion,” “Notorious,” etc.) could pull off. For most of the movie, Phil is somewhere he doesn’t want to be and let’s everyone know it, bringing a damper to the optimistic albeit chilly February 2nd morn. As he comes to grips with the existential Bermuda triangle, his main prerogative is to have fun and get laid, by any cheap means necessary (poor Nancy “sounds like a chipmunk when she’s excited” Taylor). Still bored, he turns his attentions on the oh-so-pleasant, wispy, daydreamy Rita, and after tripping into love at her, molds himself into her ideal day-by-day. Creepy, very creepy. But Murray pulls it off, managing head-first magnetism in all sectors of Phil’s metaphysical journey: the sardonic, the depressing, the showboat, the earnest. While Phil leaps into piano lessons and reciting French poetry to win over Rita, we were with him long before we come to realize. Going from a grumpy camel hair-coated icemeister to a heart-melting romantic lead is no easy feat, especially with that hairline, but Murray’s gung-ho performance catapults him even further into our hearts.
Bob Harris, “Lost in Translation”
Swilling some whiskey, chatting up a comely bored housewife, wearing a tuxedo in a hotel bar. Sound familiar? Well, on the surface, Bob Harris is the perfect role for Bill Murray, in that at-imitating-life way, with each self-deprecating word dripping with that sad clown self-hate. But what actually makes Bob stand out as something other than a showbiz lampoon or a has-been sadsack is the pure, raw, under-the-snazz emotion Murray brings to the character. With much of Sofia Coppola’s work, and near zip of Murray’s to that date, the power isn’t in how things are said, but in how things aren’t said. Take the karaoke scene, he kids at Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), mouthing the word “special” back at her spunky rendition of The Pretenders’ “Brass Pocket.” Then when the mic comes to him, he musters a flat, unspokenly heartbreaking rendition of Blondie’s “More Than This,” with a voice crack at “You know there’s nothing.” They share a cig in the bar’s smoking room, Charlotte leans her pink bob on Bob’s shoulder and his neck stays ostriched up with the unexpected intimacy. Under the silences and caught gazes, Bob and Charlotte reach an unspoken, inaudible in their final scene, plane of connection. Murray’s world-wise, brassy affectations draw you into Bob Harris as a character, but it’s his un-mouthable humanity that resonates with the audience, and earned Murray that Oscar nom.
Steve Zissou, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”
This was a tough call. Between Murray’s two Wes Anderson-directed leading roles, Steve Zissou squeaks past Herman Blume, mainly because “The Life Aquatic” is reliant on Murray’s deadpan and “Rushmore” is Jason Schwartzman’s film. Combining the off-kilter leadership of his earlier roles and a wizened, subtler, nearly non-reactive performing style, Murray’s Steve Zissou is a commander that bolsters both confidence and disquiet amongst his crew. While filming the documentary of his vengeful search for the “Jaguar shark,” Zissou is a Captain Ahab-like figure by way of Andersonian twee and Jacques Cousteau sensibility. He takes on boarding pirates while dressed only in short swim trunks and color-coordinated robe with the matter-of-factness of ordering a pizza. A ridiculous figure with a grin-inducing red beanie, Murray weighs him down with a flat delivery and squeezes the bare humanity out of that skintight silver wetsuit. Even with a burgeoning rivalry between himself and his possible son (Owen Wilson) over an attractive, far-pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett), Zissou never falls into the tawdry and Murray maintains a chilled head, far above soap opera yet still capturing the near-unbearable tenseness of the situation. Through a few smirks and long eyed glances, Murray gives just enough emotion to move the scales from unfeeling to pent-up without imploding out of the Anderson universe.
Larry Darrell, “The Razor’s Edge”
“The Razor’s Edge” has a spot forever within the world of pub trivia, not for awards or acclaim but because it only got greenlit after Murray agreed to make “Ghostbusters.” Yes, this adaptation of the classic W. Somerset Maugham novel (the 1946 film version starring Tyrone Power) was Murray’s first big passion project, one that bombed so badly it would take him four years to headline a film again, that being the Christmas classic “Scrooged” (not included above solely because its performance overlaps with “Groundhog Day”). Taking his first dramatic role a bit too seriously (after a caricature take on Hunter S. Thompson in “Where The Buffalos Roam”), Murray stifles his characteristic spark to give a drah-matic performance, or as Roger Ebert put it more eloquently, Murray “plays the hero as if fate is a comedian and he is the straight man.” Lacking the charm needed to win us over to his earnestness, Murray’s Larry Darrell arrives D.O.A. with little room for resuscitation in spite of the film being 128 minutes long.
Frank Milo, “Mad Dog and Glory”
In another case of “playing against type,” Murray plays mob heavy Frank Milo against Robert De Niro’s meek crime scene photographer “Mad Dog” and Uma Thurman’s lent-out-by-the-mob-for-companionship bartender Glory. Affecting a by-the-book wiseguy accent, Murray’s performance is stagnant, barely filling the proverbial pinstripes and spats. From the outset, he just doesn’t belong in the role and doesn’t have enough leeway with the material to make it his own. During one of the lowlights of Murray’s onscreen career, Milo can’t even muster a genuine laugh from a crowd of yes men cronies, with a set cringed by mob-themed observational comedy. When paired up with De Niro, however squeamish and mild-mannered, you can’t help but compare Milo to Jimmy Conway, with the former found wanting and the unevenly toned film even more so.
Jack Corcoran, “Larger Than Life”
Bill Murray and an elephant travel cross-country. This should be the greatest performance art of all time, but nope, instead it’s prime ’90s schlock. (Remember “Operation Dumbo Drop”? Those weren’t the days.) Nobody’s perfect, but Murray’s Jack Corcoran is his second closest to phoning it in, which is beat out slightly by “Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.” The crime of this performance could be explained away by the material, but we’ll go a step further and say that this is one of his few films where his “bored” persona falls dull into just being plain boring, even with a circus-trained elephant sidekick. He delivers lines with neither his characteristic too-the-walls enthusiasm or later-in-career humanized deadpan, and this film just falls into a funky nothingness of misplaced nostalgia and fuzzed up VHS’s.
Wallace Ritchie, “The Man Who Knew Too Little”
On the other end of the Murray spectrum, we’ve got “The Man Who Knew Too Little.” His Wallace Ritchie is mugging too hard, treading into cartoonish, buffoonish territory, way past the cult classicism of his dentist patient in “Little Shop of Horrors” and the earnest intensity of “What About Bob?” The premise is funny enough — a man unwittingly bumbles his way into international espionage. But unfortunately his eyes get a bit too wide, though nothing can quite rival Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows, and Wallace is just too dumb for Murray. Yes, there’s loads of physical comedy, and Murray is an ace at that, but with this film, think less Pink Panther and more the Steve Martin reboots. While promoting the film, Murray even half-jokingly offered a money back guarantee and we’re left wondering whether anyone actually took him up on it.