Around the time of Rushmore — the defining image of which may be the slow, sad dive of Herman J. Blume into that backyard swimming pool — a wave of young, independent-minded filmmakers seemed to catch on to something about Bill Murray. Namely, his special capacity for exalted weariness; those droopy eyes and puffy cheeks, perfectly suited to playing men whose lives had turned out to be anything but what they’d expected, and for whom that disappointment had become a defining condition. Perchance, he could even make a fine December half of May-December romances, or hold up one side of odd romantic triangles. In short, he might do sad as well as (or better than) funny, if only given the chance. Even in his sketch-comedy heyday, after all, there was something private and withdrawn about Murray. If clown he had to be, then he would be, in the words of one of his screen characters, “that crying-on-the-inside kind.” And now there is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, where, if Murray is crying on the inside, it must be that Coppola has photographed his scenes using X-ray film.
Murray won lots of awards for Rushmore, and there was talk of an Oscar nomination that never came. Still, his career stood effectively revived, and he would be much smarter about what followed than, say, Burt Reynolds in the wake of Boogie Nights. But it was easy to imagine Murray being less giddy than indignant about his good fortune, to believe that he had waited too long for this moment to come. A certain measure of impatience has also been one of Murray’s key attributes. In his signature moments, he conveys to us the sense that he’d quite frankly rather be off somewhere playing golf. (In his aptly titled 1999 memoir, Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf, there are as few pages devoted to Murray’s film career as there are, in most other actors’ autobiographies, to athletics.)
A couple of things you may already know about Bill Murray: that he got his start in comedy, first with Chicago’s Second City improv group, then at Saturday Night Live, where he would share an Emmy award for his writing during the 1976-77 season; that he was one of the most popular film stars of the 1980s, rivaled only by Eddie Murphy among SNL graduates’ small-to-big-screen transitions. Some things you may not know: that Murray turned to performing only after a college marijuana bust derailed his med-school plans. That he is a bona fide sports fanatic who owns part of several minor-league baseball teams. And that he is the middle child from a family of nine (and the father of five himself), which suggests that Murray may have always been destined for a career more attention-getting than medicine.
Ivan Reitman’s low-budget Meatballs, in 1979, was the beginning of the run of hits (also including Caddyshack and Stripes) that established Murray as a top box-office draw. These were lowbrow ventures in which the star was encouraged to play broadly at the center of slapstick shenanigans; already, though, Murray was expressing interest in something more complex and demanding. During those same years, he was brilliant as Hunter S. Thompson in the dismal Where the Buffalo Roam, followed by an unbilled (and mostly improvised) supporting role as Dustin Hoffman’s roommate in Tootsie — an indication that Murray was quite comfortable not being the star attraction. 1984’s Ghostbusters was the first of a new breed: the large-scale action comedy in which actors were routinely displaced by elaborate special effects. Yet Murray grooved through the chaos to his own bemused rhythms, sometimes seeming to be in a different picture entirely, and enjoying a very offbeat romance with the feral Sigourney Weaver.
He was now at the peak of his commercial powers, and he used them to realize a long-standing dream project: a new film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. The movie meant a great deal to Murray, who would not only star but also co-author the screenplay, and who had supposedly bullied the studio into the project. Clearly, Murray saw something of himself in Maugham’s society-bred malcontent Larry Darrell, who thumbs his nose at expectation and drops out to seek enlightenment (a dilemma not unlike that of the typecast funnyman hungry for dramatic roles). Alas, the results were disastrous, the work of many people trying much too hard to be taken seriously. The Razor’s Edge opened in theaters months after Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters was still playing long after Edge had closed.
Then, when he was most in need of a comedy comeback, Murray — in the spirit of Larry Darrell — packed up his family and moved to Paris, finding his own form of Vedanta in the city’s numerous cinematheques. (That many who have worked with Murray have seemed surprised at his extensive knowledge of film and literature says much about America’s patronizing attitude toward comedy and comedians.) With the exception of bit parts in Little Shop of Horrors and She’s Having a Baby, he appeared in no films for the next four years. When he did return to leading roles, it was for Scrooged, a crass updating of Dickens on which he quarreled with the director (Richard Donner) until neither of them was happy with the outcome. (It was by now well known that Murray could be difficult, even in the company of collaborators he liked.) In 1989 came the inevitable: Ghostbusters II. But Murray was back, and the next year he co-directed, with Howard Franklin, Quick Change, a wry, deadpan take on the love-hate relationship New Yorkers have with New York City. It flopped.
An unfortunate (if not unusual) syndrome seemed afoot, in which Murray’s most ambitious vehicles were the ones for which he was the least rewarded by audiences. Fortunately, the best was still to come. In 1993, he cracked up beautifully as the Pennsylvania weatherman stuck in the unending Jacques Rivette–meets–Frank Capra lunacy of Groundhog Day, then exuded real menace as the gangster trying his hand at standup in Mad Dog and Glory. Everything had at last converged: Groundhog was a terrific role in a terrific movie that also happened to be a smash hit, and it gave Murray his best (and least bestial) leading lady, Andie MacDowell, with whom he played some very charming romantic scenes. Mad Dog is less well-known, though those of us who saw Murray in it were startled by how scary he could be, and by how deftly he upstaged Robert De Niro.
The road to Rushmore was paved with more supporting work in offbeat projects (Ed Wood, Kingpin), mixed in with two poorly received star vehicles: Larger Than Life (which was actually quite good) and The Man Who Knew Too Little (which wasn’t). Of course, Rushmore was the breakthrough, and it seems unlikely that Murray would have so soon been cast as Polonius in Michael Almereyda’s extraordinary Hamlet or as the ventriloquist in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock without it. It’s worth noting, however, that Rushmore director Wes Anderson had been inspired to cast Murray on the basis of his admiration for the actor’s earliest screen work — a reminder that, even 20 years earlier, it was possible to see just how poignant this sad clown could be.
Is Oscar finally ready for Bill Murray? It’s a tricky question, but one that is already on the lips of many, as word of Lost in Translation — where his Bob Harris, an over-the-hill American actor stuck in Japan filming a whiskey commercial, is just the sort of man Larry Darrell feared becoming — begins to circulate. But as critic David Edelstein once pointed out, “The last male clown — and the only one in about 25 years — to get an Academy Award had to have a concentration camp around him.” Then again, Murray (like Peter Sellers, who managed two nominations, but never won) is no ordinary clown; he might be able to land Oscar, though he’ll likely be out on the putting green (and, perhaps, finally cracking a satisfied smile) when his name is called. And if he is passed over, there will be more chances. Presently, Murray is lined up to play two autumnal patriarchs: again for Wes Anderson, as oceanographer father to Owen Wilson’s estranged son in The Life Aquatic; then, for the gifted Noah Baumbach (Kicking & Screaming, Mr. Jealousy), lusting after his son’s girlfriend in The Squid and the Whale. Dysfunctional fatherhood may prove to be his strongest suit yet, or maybe just the thing that makes everyone finally realize that Bill Murray is a treasure — worth thinking, writing and worrying about — and one of the things that keep us going to the movies.