Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Best of Bill Murray

Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that Bill Murray appears in non-blockbuster movies by youngish directors like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and now Jim Jarmusch (the oldest youngish director in the world). Good for him for doing risky projects and believing in quirky scripts and all that.

And yet... the Bill Murray we're seeing in all these quirky, risky projects is not the essence of Bill Murray, not quite what makes Bill Murray great. Yes, he's a great actor; he always has been, and one of the things that made him such a standout on "Saturday Night Live" was his ability to give real depth and dimension to his comic characters when most of the other players were going for the easy catchphrase. He deserves the recognition he's getting as an actor. But the true brilliance of Murray, I think, manifests itself not in melancholy serio-comedies, but in mainstream Hollywood comedies. His particular talent is for cutting through the cliches of comedy, and of comedy performance, with a dose of reality. The reason Groundhog Day is a great movie -- still Murray's greatest movie, I think, no matter how many carefully-composed Wes Anderson shots he squeezes into -- is that Murray takes a high-concept comedy situation and makes it seem so real, so true, that we really get a feeling of what it would really be like to experience this impossible situation. Not to mention that Murray can actually play a jerk who converts to non-jerkiness without making either the "before" or "after" performance seem unconvincing. Maybe, indeed, my problem with his current work is that he hardly ever gets the chance to play a real jerk, which he does better than anybody.

But my favorite Murray performance, and one of the all-time great scene-stealing performances in a movie, is his performance in Tootsie, in a role so small that he didn't even get billed in the opening credits. Yet in a movie that I find very uneven both in terms of script (I can't abide Larry Gelbart's cookie-cutter one-liners) and performances, Murray simply walks off with every single scene he's in. He's usually acting with Dustin Hoffman, and the dynamic of most of their scenes is that Hoffman will emote and mug and overact, and Murray will get all the laughs while seemingly doing hardly anything at all. Every line delivery is hilarious, every look is perfectly timed. It's one of the funniest supporting performances of all time.

And it's a performance achieved by basically ignoring what the character was supposed to be. If you think about the way the character is written, he's supposed to be a young, serious playwright who rooms with the hero and has written a great play about the dangers of nuclear waste. This is the generic character of the young crusading intellectual, possibly wearing a tweed coat and glasses. Instead they got Murray, who basically sends up the whole concept of the character and generally acts as if only he understands what an idiot the hero really is.

The scene at the birthday party where Murray's character gives a long, drunken rant about his theories of play writing was, according to director Sydney Pollack (on a commentary on a long-gone Criterion laserdisc), improvised by Murray. Murray also came up with the idea to spend an entire scene eating a lemon. That's another thing his current movies need: more lemon-eating.

Anyway, here are some quotes -- from memory, so this may be wrong -- from Murray's semi-improvised party rant in Tootsie:

I don't like it when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, "Hey, man, I really liked your play." Or "I really dug your message, man. I cried." I like it when somebody comes up to me on the street a week later and says, "Hey, man, I saw your play. What happened?"

I wrote a play about the American Indian. And nobody came, nobody showed up. And to me, the American Indian is as American as Donny and Marie Osmond. It's sad, but I think that nowadays when people dream, they don't even dream in their own country. And that's sick.

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