Bill Murray And The Christmas Misery Of 'Scrooged'
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Count on Bill Murray to go full “Bah, humbug!” on the rare occasions he talks about Scrooged, the gleefully bitter helping of holiday cheer that The Ringer maintains is “still the perfect Christmas movie 30 years later.”
Why perfect? “It’s loud, cartoonish, and misanthropic, but the 1988 Bill Murray vehicle is remarkably well-suited for our fraught present moment.”
Truth. But like a Christmas dinner featuring frozen ham, feuding relatives, and fermented fruitcake, the making of Scrooged was a tinsel-laden torment for everyone involved. Let’s travel to a Christmas Past to learn how a Yuletide classic was born out of severe seasonal depression.
Bill Murray's Reluctant Comeback
Murray had been on a long, self-imposed sabbatical before making Scrooged. His previous movie, Ghostbusters, was the kind of phenomenon that made it hard for a Chicago slob/comedy superstar to cross the street without being accosted by fans. So Murray bolted for Europe to catch his breath and consider what came next.
Four years later (an eternity in actor-career terms), Murray was ready to get back to it. But “when I wanted to work, the scripts were just not good."
He finally found a script he liked -- or at least, one he didn’t hate? -- from an old pal, Saturday Night Live icon Michael O’Donoghue (along with co-writer Mitch Glazer). But once Murray decided the Scrooged screenplay was a go, he proceeded to rip it to shreds.
"We tore up the script so badly that we had parts all over the lawn,” he says. “There was a lot I didn't like. To remake the story, we took the romantic element and built that up a little more. The family scenes (which featured real-life siblings Joel and Brian Doyle Murray) were kind of off, so we worked on that.”
Oy, the script. It features some of the funniest scenes of any Murray movie, including the opening promo for a bloody TV movie, The Night the Reindeer Died. “Psychos seize Santa’s workshop -- and only Lee Majors can stop them!”
“I worshiped the film’s writing,” said Carol Kane, who spooked up the joint as the Ghost of Christmas Present. “I agree with Carol,” says Karen Allen, who played Murray’s love interest. “I think the script was wonderful."
And yet Murray was never satisfied, making life miserable for O’Donoghue, himself a real-life Scrooge.
“I have a beautiful image of the very first day I shot with Bill,” remembers Allen. “We were in New York City during the winter, so it was bitter cold. And, because the days were so short, we were on set really early in the morning. Bill said, “I don’t know about the way this script is written.”
“And while we’re talking in the trailer, the crew’s standing outside, turning blue. Suddenly, there’s a little knock knock knock on the trailer door.” And shivering in the cold, at 5:30 in the morning, there’s O’Donoghue, wearing bedroom slippers, pinstripe pajamas, and a ski hat, waiting to make Bill happy.
But it wasn’t just Murray making life miserable for O’Donoghue -- it went both ways. According to Dennis Perrin’s Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, the writer hated what Murray did with the movie’s final redemption speech. Despite co-writer Glazer imploring the actor to get over his nerves and just deliver the words as written, Murray went off on an emotional, big-actor-moment tirade. Glazer actually thought Murray was having a nervous breakdown.
The cast and crew seemed to buy it, giving Murray a mini-ovation at the end of his frenzied speech. But after the applause died down, O’Donoghue voiced his displeasure:
“What was that? The Jim Jones Hour?” referring to the notorious cult leader who orchestrated mass suicide via poisoned Kool-Aid.
Director Richard Donner turned and socked O’Donoghue in the arm, bruising the writer for a good week.
Donner was only on-set in the first place because the famously toxic O’Donoghue essentially chased original director Sydney Pollack away from the production. At a readthrough with studio executives, O’Donoghue laid into the Oscar-winning director:
“Sydney with a Y? What are you, a Vegas stripper?”
Later, when Pollack had a problem with how a ghost scene was written, O’Donoghue went ballistic. “It’s a ghost, Sydney! How the f--- do you know what it would do? You’re a logic Nazi!”
Goodbye Pollack, hello Donner.
In The Eye Of The Murricane
But O’Donoghue wasn’t the biggest pain in the ass on set. That award goes to Bill Murray himself, though he had competition.
During his career, Murray has often been prickly to work with, especially in his early days. His propensity for blowing up at directors, writers, or other actors led some co-workers to nickname him the Murricane.
You don't direct Billy, you pull him back," admits Donner. "You give him a platform, make him as comfortable as possible, and he comes at you from every direction. He did for me."
In a 1988 interview with Philadelphia Daily News, Donner lamented Murray’s penchant for going off script: “It's like standing on 42nd Street and Broadway, and the lights are out, and you're the traffic cop.”
The bad feelings were mutual. Roger Ebert, who really disliked Scrooged, asked Murray if he had any disagreements with Donner.
"Only a few," Murray replied. "Every single minute of the day. That could have been a really, really great movie. The script was so good. There's maybe one take in the final cut movie that is mine. We made it so fast, it was like doing a movie live. He kept telling me to do things louder, louder, louder. I think he was deaf."
A recent viewing of Scrooged has us agreeing with Murray on at least one point -- it is the most ear-piercing holiday movie you’ll ever hear. Murray shouts most of his lines, only to be outdone by the screeching of Bobcat Goldthwait, who puts the “louder” in Eliot Loudermilk. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but Scrooged has little time for subtlety.
But can we believe Bill’s assessment of the script as being “so good?” If that was the case, why did he insist on rewriting the dialogue in every scene?
“I could never quite figure out Bill’s process,” confesses Karen Allen. “But I always sort of imagined him staying up late at night, ruminating about these scenes, and trying to figure out what they’re about. I think he would always try to mold and shape and perfect and find really interesting directions to take a scene.”
In other words, Murray threw out a lot of dialogue and improvised his own. And when he wasn’t making up the script, he was complaining. "Scrooged was harder because I was by myself, really,” Murray told Ebert. “Even though there are a number of people in the movie, they only had cameos. They would stroll in for a day or two and split. I was there every day and it was like flunking grade school again and again."
Murray even contended that he had more fun on the notoriously dour The Razor's Edge. “I got to go around the world and meet all kinds of people. On Scrooged, I was trapped on a dusty, smelly, and smokey set in Hollywood for three-and-a-half months, having a lousy time by myself, and just coughing up blood from this fake snow that was falling all the time.”
Other than that, Murray had a pretty good time.
Raising Carol Kane
But the misery didn’t stop there. Carol Kane, playing a demented pixie of a Christmas ghost, brought her own manic-depressive energy to the party.
At least she has fond memories of working with Murray: “I really enjoyed doing these spontaneous moments within scenes that were kind of improvised, even though they were planned for, and are mentioned in the script.”
Murray didn’t “enjoy” the scenes, however. Both Donner and Murray told Starlog that Kane would often break down on the set, spending 20 minutes on crying jags before filming could resume.
And then when Kane was feeling better, she literally kicked Murray’s ass. And shins. And face.
"There's a piece of skin that connects your lip with your gums and it was really pulled away," remembers Murray of one violent encounter with Kane. "She really hurt me, but it was my idea to be physical and it was her idea just to hit me as opposed to pulling the punches."
Would Murray work with Kane again? He appeared to be only half-joking when he replied, "Over my dead, lifeless body."
Was all the pain worth it? Scrooged was a moderate hit -- with $60 million at the box office, it was the thirteenth highest-grossing film of the year. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it made only about a quarter of Murray’s previous comedy, Ghostbusters.
And Murray had to deal with rotten reviews, like Roger Ebert’s:
“Scrooged” is one of the most disquieting, unsettling films to come along in quite some time. It was obviously intended as a comedy, but there is little comic about it, and indeed the movie’s overriding emotions seem to be pain and anger. This entire production seems to be in dire need of visits from the ghosts of Christmas.
And yet, the film has endured. It found new life on home video and repeated cable reruns and many now consider it a classic. For elf’s sake, Kevin Hart is reportedly doing a remake. (A holiday wish from our lips to Hart’s ears: Please don’t.)
Why do viewers keep coming back? Maybe it’s because there is a little heart after all underneath all of the frantic humor.
“To me, Scrooged is a film about the redemptive power of love,” says Allen. I think that’s the story that Charles Dickens wrote as well.”
Well, the movie does end with Murray scream-singing “Put a Little Love In Your Heart.” In the words of a back-flipping Mary Lou Retton, “God bless us, everyone.”
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Top image: Paramount Pictures