Happy Birthday, Bill Murray: 10 Great Roles

September 21, 2014

To many people, not just film lovers, Bill Murray has become somewhat of an enigma. Over the last 40 years, the actor has embodied countless, highly-quotable characters with a signature dry presence, but at some point he transferred that presence off of the screen. Ask anyone born in the last two decades, Murray has become his own form of folklore with repeatedly circulated stories of showing up at house parties, buying people rounds of drinks or stealing someone’s french fry, whispering, “No one will believe you.” Except it would not be that hard to believe because Bill Murray does give unexpected speeches at bachelor parties, and Bill Murray does show up dancing with strangers in a South Carolina living room.

This cross between lore and evident truth is something the comedy legend is clearly well aware of, but taking a look through his filmography, there is no question that Bill Murray has always been highly self-aware. This is how he’s crafted his key roles and come to have the unique presence he continues to hold. Here are 10 examples of Bill Murray’s rich legacy.



10. Caddyshack

Starting with this Harold Ramis classic is important because the role of Carl Spackler, perpetually wacked out groundskeeper of the golf course, was essentially written on the spot by Murray for himself. The initial script for Caddyshack did not call for the ridiculous gopher of which the film is almost too known for now, but because of Bill Murray’s improvised antics, the plot thread was born and his character was granted much more screen time. The most notable example of how this paid off so well actually has nothing to do with the gopher, but involves a very awkward visit from Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) to Spackler’s garage living quarters, where the famous behind-the-scenes haze of pot smoke is realized on screen and the two have the freedom to riff beautifully.



9. Get Low

More than anything else, the piece of his performance that Bill Murray has mastered, and can make his casting nearly essential, is his delivery. This is something that will likely come up at least once with every role we discuss, but its key to point out in a general sense because it is what allows for Murray to be convincing as everything from a ruthlessly demeaning suit in Scrooged, Polonius in Hamlet and even, to a more meta extent, as Garfield. His contribution to Get Low is basically comic relief, but the kind that is Bill Murray’s real forte. As a funeral home director, Frank Quinn (Murray) is the go-to man for Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), who wants to throw himself a funeral before his actual passing. Trying to run a successful business in a small town means that Quinn is naturally biting his time waiting for people to die. Few people could express that desire with the earnest truth that Murray does, making the viewer understand the morbid desire completely and without question.



8. Ed Wood

Some of the more adventurous uses of Bill Murray’s range came from filmmakers who knew where to carefully place him in the supporting cast. This is somewhat at play in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, yet Murray’s presence there is almost novelty. His delivery finds itself on a thin line between interesting interpretation and just Bill Murray reciting Shakespeare. However, Tim Burton knew just what he was doing casting Murray as Bunny Breckinridge in Ed Wood. Breckinridge was an openly gay actor who hoped to one day get the proper surgery to become a woman, and he spent his time in and around the troupe of actors and crewmen who made up Ed Wood’s regular people. The character requires a delicate balance of removed sarcasm, but also a tender compassion for what the infamous director was creating. Though not onscreen too much, Breckinridge serves as one of the main confidants for Wood in the film, with many instances of the director passionately hashing out new ideas over the phone to the actor.



7. Meatballs

In between Saturday Night Live and Caddyshack, Murray was clearly finding his voice in the transition from sketch comedy to film. As noted, Caddyshack proved to be a great opportunity to stretch his improv muscles and create a character basically out of thin air. Meatballs is known mostly as the first starring role for Bill Murray, not to mention the film that launched Ivan Reitman’s long successful run of producing hit and often classic films over the course of the decade. Tripper Harrison is a great base plate for the rallying leader that Murray came to bring out in several of Reitman’s films, including Stripes and Ghostbusters. More so than those films, Meatballs is such a simple premise that being the leading man basically means getting a wide, aimless window into the comedy genius of Bill Murray. The actor has made a lot of speeches in his career, on and off screen, but none can beat, “It just doesn’t matter!”



6. What About Bob?

While Bill Murray’s humor and style can generally be summed up as dry, if not nearly dead pan, in many of his iconic roles, there is undoubtedly the wackier side. What happens when that character is taken out of the weird universe surrounding the golf course or summer camp and placed in average society in front of a therapist? Frank Oz aims to answer that question with What About Bob?, a comedy about a near-celebrity psychiatrist who sends a particularly rocky patient away with a copy of his book while he leaves town for a family vacation, only to find that the patient, Bob, has followed. As Dr. Leo Marvin, Richard Dreyfus is such a perfect opponent to Bill Murray’s crazy, a steady balance between sweet and deranged. Marvin so wants to be the good guy of the story, but through Bob’s incessant yet charmingly insane drive to be friends puts the doctor so far over the edge that he essentially becomes the more bonkers of the two. The scenario is a great place for Murray to work his different comedic muscles, toying with Dreyfus as he so naturally shifts gears between obnoxious and just a guy asking for help.



5. Lost in Translation

The first time the general public, and the Academy, recognized Bill Murray for the depths he could go, was with Sofia Coppola’s still-highly-acclaimed Lost in Translation. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the following year, Translation finds a near-perfect use for a comedic actor in a primarily dramatic, though not without laughs, small and personal film.  The film follows an American actor who has come to Japan to shoot commercials, but also to bite his time away from the rhythms of life in the states. At the hotel, he meets Charlotte, wife of a busy photographer, who is also biting her time as the cultural remove leaves her somewhat alienated. Together, the two eventually share a quasi-platonic affair, in the two-ships-passing sense where it’s not really an issue what happens beyond this story. The interactions with the people of Tokyo can venture a little too close to a joke, though Murray is especially good with the titular situation because he is pulling a similar dry, removed performance of his past, just in totally new and different territory.



4. Rushmore

Bill Murray has been a frequent collaborator with several filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch, Mitch Glazer, John McNaughton and Ivan Reitman. Above all, he has been incredibly loyal to Wes Anderson, playing both lead, supporting and even cameo roles in all but one of his eight films, Bottle Rocket.  From a script written actually before his debut, Rushmore is the film that fully established the director’s signature style. Apparently, said script astonished Bill Murray enough that he claimed he would do the film for free. Whether or not that is true, it would make sense that Murray saw the project as a huge opportunity for a career shift, because that is essentially what happened. His performance as Herman Blume not only launched a decade-plus long relationship with the director, but a huge second act of work that would dramatically help shape the Bill Murray we idolize today. Blume is in many ways a muted version of some of the similar grouchy older men of his filmography. That mutedness goes a long way to making the character intensely relatable and pathetic simultaneously. Anderson’s language, even that early on, is so suited to the delivery style that we have noted to be Murray’s strong suit.



3. Ghostbusters

At the time of the film’s release, critics were somewhat skeptical about the balance of humor with relatively cheesy special effects in Ghostbusters, though Roger Ebert saw it as the rare exception where those things were harmonious. Afterall, the film was your average summer blockbuster that took on many ridiculous forms before landing on the cult classic it has become. Through some serious rewriting from Harold Ramis followed by throwing out a lot of the script on set, Ghostbusters went on to become one of the most beloved films of its era, and of Bill Murray’s career. As Peter Venkman, Murray was able to first bring to screen his characteristic dry sarcasm and running witty commentary that works simultaneously to his co-stars’ benefit and as a comforting proxy for the audience. Much of this persona could very well have sprung from his own feelings about doing the movie, which he allegedly agreed to in order to get studio backing for The Razor’s Edge. And we all know his contempt for the sequel, more of a marketing ploy that we are nothing but used to nowadays with franchise cinema, not to mention his resistance to even come near a third film. Although, it is comforting to know he supports certain incarnations of that idea.



2. Broken Flowers

By 2005, Murray was well into his second act with two Wes Anderson pictures and an Oscar nomination under his belt (no, I am not forgetting about Garfield and I am definitely not forgetting Osmosis Jones.) After a small yet forever quotable scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, Murray wound up the choice for the avant-garde filmmaker’s next project, which the actor supposedly would only accept if the shooting could all be within one hour’s drive from his house. It is safe to say that Bill Murray was feeling a little burnt out. But Jarmusch complied and Broken Flowers proved to be a huge highlight in both artists’ careers, with Murray recently telling Redditors that he considered it his best performance and that he contemplated retiring after seeing the film. After recently being dumped, habitual bachelor Don Johnston receives a mysterious letter from an ex-lover with a heads up that he has a son who may be looking for him. With the help of his neighbor (a fantastic Jeffrey Wright), Johnston follows an itinerary of all his past partners, cautiously hoping for some resolve on the letter. Murray’s performance here is impressively grounded in a reality that feels somewhere in between the finished script and his own life by this point. The film’s highs and lows are not exactly standard plot form, and this allows for a constantly flowing character, fueled often by decisions of the present moment and ambivalent to what might ever be next. In a recent interview, Murray referenced working on The Grand Budapest Hotel like needing to be a world-class musician:

“You can see that there’s actually a process where his interior state is so quick, that he can find time other people can’t find [….] If you’re real quiet, your whole body will be quiet, and there’ll be echo, and resonance.”

This is pivotal insight to the refined skills of actor Murray once was, and there is no question he still has this power. However, nothing exemplifies this quite like his work in Broken Flowers.


groundhog day

1. Groundhog Day

Right in the middle of the two main phases of Bill Murray’s extensive filmography is a film that not only features his finest performance, but a film that is arguably one of the best of its time. Groundhog Day emerged after a nearly 9 year hiatus from directing for Harold Ramis and a relatively sparse period of time for Murray, who was going through a divorce during the film’s production. It seems a telling and cathartic project for both artists to come to after a whirlwind decade of success, often in collaboration. Groundhog Day initially begins on a similar note to Scrooged, with Murray pushing the buttons of everyone around him, constantly living inside a self-loathing joke. However, the film takes a detour from the more silly magical side of the former film and goes to a more metaphoric place (although early drafts apparently featured an ex-girlfriend putting a hex on Phil Connors. Thank the cinema stars that never made it to the screen.) After a day of particular animosity toward his coworkers covering the titular festivities, Connors awakens to that same day, and continues to wake up to that same day until he learns how to reach the literal and figurative tomorrow. The film essentially is a retelling of the Dickens classic, but if Scrooge were forced to face only the present.

And it takes time for Phil Connors, which means Murray not only had the task of reenacting the same events with a slight twist every time, but he had to give the character a new twist as he goes from panicked to helpless to conniving to morbid depressive and finally to a redemptive place that allows him to become a new man. Groundhog Day is this unique story that is always moving forward, but consistently given the space to remain in the moment. Down the road 21 years now, the film perfectly represents a watershed moment for Bill Murray, who shifted his career and eventually sought to take on a new presence. Now the actor comes to represent a place of comfort, inspiration, truth and wisdom, and from whom one could only dream to have a french fry stolen.


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