Bill Murray Retrospective

From Stripes, to Caddyshack, to Hyde Park on Hudson, to turning down Ghostbusters III yet again, we still love and respect Bill Murray.

Bill Murray Piece


It is a movie moment everyone has been waiting for all year with bated breath. Hollywood filmmakers are attempting to capture a brief period in the tenure of one of America’s greatest presidents. The social reformer’s life is being boiled down to a few specific events that would greatly define his legacy and presidency. And it seemingly will all hinge on one actor’s ability to capture the essence of that man in only a few hours. I’m of course referring to Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson.

Yes that’s right, Dr. Peter Venkman plays the polio stricken 32nd American president who led us through the Great Depression and most of World War II.  In the OTHER presidential drama this season that isn’t Steven Spielberg’s sterling Lincoln (or that one that concluded in the polls last month), Murray has been cast as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The film is a long-winded chronicle of Roosevelt’s fateful meeting with King George VI and the Queen Consort (i.e. Bertie and Elizabeth from The King’s Speech) during an idyllic weekend in upstate New York. But the real buzz on the movie for almost a year has been, “can Bill Murray seriously do FDR?” Well, I’m here to say that for the most part, Murray is surprisingly terrific in the film…though the rest of the movie is an entirely different affair. Despite this mild relief, it really shouldn’t shock anyone to see Carl Spackler attempt something like this. Murray and his characters have always been frustrated funny men in search of respect. 

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The actor began, as so many comic geniuses do, by being the funniest man in every room he stepped foot in. He quickly ran up the ranks from Second City to Saturday Night Live to Hollywood. If the old joke is all comedians are secretly anxious and insecure, the reverse seemed true for Murray. When rehearsing as a featured player in an Off-Broadway National Lampoon show, then-unknown filmmaker Ivan Reitman tried to offer some helpful criticism to the cast after a scene. Murray picked up the director’s coat and kindly escorted him out of the theatre. The comedian was always certain of his talent and would never play a character unsure of his own. His star making movie roles were loutish smartasses who knew better than everyone in the room, even when they didn’t. While at the same time Steve Martin played goofy caricatures of moronic stereotypes, be it as a “Wild and Crazy Guy” or just a plain ole Jerk and Chevy Chase was trying to play sexy comedian chic, Murray always was the guy who knew better and wanted to make sure you knew it too.

In Stripes (1981), his bum character is a lazy New York cabby who can’t keep a job. But part of the reason for that is he hates when people just write him off as a lazy New York bum. In the opening scene, a cab fare to the airport condescends and insults him repeatedly for being a fool. After an excessive amount of rhetorical abuse, he drops her off on a bridge after delivering her luggage into the East River. That sets up his hard case’s inability to take orders in the U.S. Army for the rest of the movie, but also sums up the presence Murray has had his whole career: To Hell with you if you think I am your monkey and that’ll I’ll dance for your amusement. Around the same time at this early point in his career that he was playing smug, delusional caddies who could blow up entire golf courses to kill one gopher; he was also already looking for subversive roles to let audiences know he was more than funny. Long before Johnny Depp found fear and loathing in Las Vegas as a cipher for Hunter S. Thompson, Murray played the gonzo alcoholic scribe to disturbing effect in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).

As time passed, Murray became more choosey about his mainstream comedies. Increasingly, his characters went from schlubs who don’t care what you think; to schlubs who demand your respect. In Groundhog Day (1993), he repeated the same day over again until he and the audience found a form of tragedy and beauty in this pitiful, vain man. Murray’s character, like the performer, wanted off the merry go round of mainstream Hollywood movies. The last ten years have seen him appear mostly in more offbeat movies usually directed by Wes Anderson. In films like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), the actor intentionally played against type. However, his most accepted and transcendent piece to date likely remains Lost in Translation (2003). In that film, he plays a middle-aged movie star who has lost the audience’s attention. Forced to sell mediocre liquor on Japanese television, his Bob Harris is floating through life bored with how he is treated as a pop culture commodity instead of a human being. He ends up finding companionship and possibly even love with a married woman half his age played by Scarlett Johansson. Even so, nothing can take away the sadness from his eyes; eyes that tell the story of a man who thinks life has always misunderstood him. The haunting, but dryly humorous performance netted Murray his first and only Oscar nomination. It was also a reaffirmation that those haunted eyes would be back to reclaim that level of respect. 

Given the conflict that the actor seems to wrestle with in himself and many of his characters, it should not have been that surprising that he elected to do Hyde Park on Hudson over the perpetually forthcoming Ghostbusters III.  Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis and director Reitman have courted Murray for years to return to what is perhaps his signature role. The original Ghostbusters film, which will turn 30 in 2014 before its threequel drops, worked for countless reasons. One of the key aspects that held the movie together though was Murray’s sharp, cynical wit as a second rate parapsychologist who only wants to make it rich so that he’s good enough to rub romantic shoulders with Lincoln Center musicians. He was both the most verbally funny of the characters and one of the grounding elements of seriousness that turned an absurd premise into something that can almost be taken seriously.  t is a role he revisited in 1989’s less popular Ghostbusters II and that he’s given nods to in everything from awards ceremonies to his cameo in Zombieland (2009). But the once-rebuffed Reitman has been denied again by Murray. The actor has made it abundantly clear that he has no interest in returning to that well and is slated as of right now not to appear in the third Ghostbusters flick shooting next year. Instead, he decided to play one of the most important presidents of U.S. history in an indie drama.

The scene in Hyde Park where FDR meets the film’s narrator, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney), is smartly staged. Initially, we see Murray’s Franklin from a distance and out of focus. His profile and vocalisms do well to convince us that he is the famed Head of State. When the camera finally narrows in on Murray’s face, there is a moment of adjustment at seeing him in the role. The actor and director Roger Michell wisely choose a minimalist approach to his appearance and relied more on Murray’s ability to capture the politician’s neighborly charm and upper class posture for the illusion. After a few moments, it is remarkable how quickly he becomes the President of the United States.

Unfortunately, Murray’s newest step towards legitimacy is thwarted by everything around him. What should be the meat and most compelling aspect of the film, the quickly formed bond between Roosevelt and the King of England, is totally mishandled and used more as a backdrop for a Depression Era version of Melrose Place. In the film’s setting of June 1939, George VI is less than three months away from declaring war on Nazi Germany. The war would become the greatest struggle for Britain in the 20th century and America’s support would prove crucial. But somehow, that is not where the movie’s interest lies. It is instead a woefully miscalculated love story of sorts between Roosevelt and his fifth cousin, Daisy. Linney does her damndest to make Daisy interesting, but despite overwhelming amounts of voice over narration, she has no personality and seems only there to hold this Roosevelt’s own big stick. When you have Franklin Roosevelt and Great Britain’s monarch discussing their nations’ unity on the eve of World War II, how many dalliances Roosevelt is having feels as meaningful to us as FDR’s wheelchair is to his subservient press.

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Despite this setback, there was something fitting about seeing Murray capture the great politicians’ abilities to win everyone over to their side, even three mistresses at once. It is a skill that the actor must find somewhat enviable as he continues to look for a way to earn a level of recognition that will satisfy him. I hope he realizes though that he already has our love and respect as more than just a comedian, but also a great actor. However, I still look forward to how he’ll want to prove it next.

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