The 5 Bill Murrays You Meet in Bill Murray Movies
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In which Bill Murray movie is Bill Murray at his Bill Murray-est?
It’s a tougher question than it sounds. And that’s because, both in the movies and in life, there are distinctly different Bill Murrays. Are we talking shaggy-dog, anything-for-a-laugh Murray? Cooly ironic, “I will take down this institution” BIll Murray? Unruly-facial-hair-so-I-must-be-in-a-Wes-Anderson-movie Bill Murray?
Your pals at ComedyNerd have prepared this handy guide to all of the different Bill Murrays you’ll meet along your cinematic path. Let’s go.
Noogies Bill Murray
Combine Murray’s two early breakout Saturday Night Live characters -- smarmy Nick the Lounge Singer and horny/hormonal teen Todd DiLaMuca -- and you pretty much have Noogies Bill Murray, the skull-scratching comic persona he rode into his first feature films.
Noogies Bill Murray, like nerdy Todd and showbiz outcast Nick, is a swaggering outsider. His clothes are rumpled and mismatched, he doesn’t play by the rules. And yet there’s confidence, even if it’s unearned, underneath all the disheveled mess that makes you want to follow him into comic battle.
Fresh from SNL, Noogies BIll Murray took his sweet time before agreeing to star In Meatballs (a pattern he’d continue for decades). He didn’t let producers know he’d take the part until the actual day that filming began, according to Nick de Semlyen’s Wild and Crazy Guys. And when he did show up, he dismissed the script as “kinda crap.”
It just didn't matter because Murray mostly used the script as an audience suggestion from his Second City improv days. He made up more than half of his dialogue, often wearing the bedraggled clothes in which he rolled out of bed vs. the costume the movie had prepared for him. He was, in other words, Tripper, the slovenly camp counselor who helps the nerdy kids find their inner Noogie.
Then Tripper essentially joined the Army. In Stripes, Murray played slipshod and sloppy again, a perfect comedy counterweight to military rigidity. Noogie Bill Murray was well established at this point, a “sharp-witted crumbum,” according to Gene Siskel. And his Pied Piper charm works once more, this time with recruits instead of campers.
And before he’d grow out of his crumbum phase, Noogies Murray doubled down on being the ultimate slob in the Cinderella story we know as Caddyshack. The offscreen pattern was now familiar: Once again without a contract, he shows up on set days after filming begins and uses the script as a jumping-off point. Once again, he improvised most of his dialogue. And like in Meatballs, he told director Ivan Reitman, “This (script) is crap.” Which is especially brutal when you consider one of the writers was Bill’s brother, Brian Doyle-Murray.
Supernova Bill Murray
Noogies Bill Murray was a star. Supernova Bill Murray somehow blew up into something incomprehensively bigger.
In this phase of his movie journey, Murray didn’t exactly change so much as clean up his act, keeping the “sharp-witted” but losing the crumbum.
As Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, Supernova Murray moved up in the world from jobless slob to slick conman (in a role that Dan Aykroyd originally wrote for John Belushi). Like in Meatballs and Stripes, his outspoken bravado makes him a natural leader. “We quickly came up with a model,” remembers Harold Ramis. “Dan was the heart of the Ghostbusters, I was the brains, and Bill was the mouth.”
Once again, Murray used his own mouth where the script failed. “Bill was kind of expected to come up with brilliant things that weren't in the script, like day after day after day,” says Sigourney Weaver. Ivan would say, "All right, Bill, we need something here." And … Bill would just come in and do something. It was absolutely effortless.”
Audiences dug the evolution, rewarding Supernova Murray by making Ghostbusters the top-grossing comedy of all time when it came out.
Scrooged and Groundhog Day gave Supernova Bill Murray two more vehicles to perfect his new comic persona. Network executive Frank Cross and weatherman Phil Connors were respected professionals that had risen to the top of their crafts, yet underneath the suits was still the same misanthropic, quick-witted guy with a disdain for the rules. But now the character had taken on a new dimension: The cynical conman who discovers that life and love might be worth embracing after all.
Deadly Serious Bill Murray
If you haven’t surmised by now, both Noogies Bill Murray and Supernova Bill Murray could be a pain in the ass on set. Who wants to work every day with a guy who says the script sucks? But some of his famously churlish behavior on set may have been born of a desire to be taken more seriously.
So he became Deadly Serious Bill Murray.
His first foray into what he seemed to deem Real Acting came in 1980 when he took on the role of gonzo Rolling Stone reporter Hunter S. Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam. The part itself wasn’t deadly serious -- Thompson was a notorious wildman -- but the movie represented Murray’s first attempt to play a real person rather than a riff on his improv characters. He took the job seriously, returning to his final season of SNL still in character as the wacked out journalist.
But this attempt at Real Acting resulted in one of the worst reviewed films of his career, giving what Roger Ebert deemed “a one-level performance.”
Deadly Serious Bill Murray doubled down with The Razors’ Edge, a personal passion project based on W. Somerset Maugham’s somber novel. In fact, he agreed to do Ghostbusters only if Columbia would also green-light The Razor’s Edge.
The result was another failure, both critically and at the box office. Deadly Serious Bill Murray seemed like a sedated version of his earlier film personas -- in an attempt not to joke it up, he goes too far in the other direction.
As The Razor’s Edge’s trailer promises, we see “Bill Murray in a role unlike anything he’s ever done before.” It was different, sure, but the audiences didn't buy the monotone performances, no matter how well-intentioned.
Needless to say, Serious Actor Bill Murray wasn’t the one who would get the Oscar nominations.
Indie Bill Murray
If you’re young Wes Anderson, maybe here’s where your head was: What if I could write a part that melded together the best elements of Supernova Bill Murray and Deadly Serious Bill Murray, then got THAT Bill Murray to work for a seriously reduced rate?
Boom. Career reinvented. After a weird period in the 1990s wandering through lukewarm comedies like Larger than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little, Murray roared back into the pop-culture consciousness with Anderson’s Rushmore.
And Indie Bill Murray was born. He must have suspected going small was the key to his career’s next phase, offering to work for free but eventually getting scale. Anderson estimates Indie Bill Murray made about nine grand for his role as Herman Blume. Indie Murray scored an Independent Spirit Award and Golden Globe nomination for his trouble.
Murray has continued his onscreen affair with Anderson for more than twenty years now, with memorable appearances in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and most recently, The French Dispatch.
But Indie Bill Murray really planted his alt-independent flag in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
Here Murray finally finds the zen balance between his modulated Deadly Serious performances and the subversive anarchy of his Noogie films, filtered through world-weary melancholy.
But some things never change. Coppola wrote the part for Indie Bill Murray and even started work on production before he committed. “We went to Tokyo and were spending money in the hope that he would show up,” she said.
Of course, eventually, he did. “I was having a hard time at that stage of my life and I’d wish Bill would show up and take me on an adventure,” remembers Coppola. “A lot of it was just found moments with Bill improvising. The scene in the sushi restaurant with the black toe? That was just Bill riffing on the situation.”
Different Murray, but same old Bill. And this time, he was rewarded for his art -- wins at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, along with an Oscar nomination. (As for the actual statue? He was robbed).
Bill Murray Bill Murray
Finally, if you’re a fan of Murray movies, you’ll occasionally run into Bill Murray Bill Murray -- a comic persona so defined that all Bill Murray has to do is show up and be Bill Murray.
Sure, other actors may show up for brief cameos to add a sense of vérité to a movie. But when Bill Murray Bill Murray shows up, he’s going to stay a while.
Take Space Jam -- the one with Michael Jordan. You know, the real one. Other comedic actors show up in the movie, but Wayne Knight isn’t playing Wayne Knight. Only Murray gets to play himself and somehow seems right at home sharing a court with HIs Airness and the entire Looney Tunes stable of cartoon characters. Dude even got the assist on the winning shot!
And then there’s Zombieland, where Bill Murray Bill Murray cosplays as a zombie to avoid being eaten by the actual undead. The bit works because, admit it, it seems like the kind of thing the actual Bill Murray would do. He shows up again in Zombieland: Double Tap, because who else were they going to get to play BIll Murray?
Heck, if we’re going to count just showing up and being Bill Murray, then maybe the two Garfields counts as Bill Murray Bill Murray movies as well.
And there you have it -- the five BIll Murrays you meet in Bill Murray movies. Who knows? Maybe Murray will come up with a sixth iteration before he retires from the film biz. One thing we can count on: Generation Six Bill Murray won’t commit to being in the movie until production has begun.
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Top image: Columbia Pictures