Everybody loves Bill Murray.
I was thinking about this last week after Dustin posted a video of him reading poetry to construction workers. There wasn’t anything particularly striking about the video, but still, it was irresistible. In the video, Murray read three or four poems to about 20 guys on a construction site. Standing there with their arms crossed, the assembled workers looked bored, embarrassed, and confused. Exchanging uncomfortable looks with one another, like a bunch of sixth graders fearing that something “gay” was happening to them on the schoolyard, they nervously looked for social cues from their peers. It was funny, but in an awkward way, and it looked like the video was being set-up to mock both the workers and the pretenses of poetry.
But that didn’t happen. Just at the point when stretching the readings out would have been exploitive of the workers’ sincere discomfort — the sort of torture that Tom Green would have engaged in — Murray released all the tension, and in a jubilant and accessible way, swept the workers into the center of the performance. What started off as alienating ended up being inclusive, and it was sweet, funny and entirely winning.
This, of course, is the unique and brilliant talent of Bill Murray. He’s absurdly charming, a man who’s able to shift gears and connect, on a meaningful level, with whomever happens to be around him.
Born in Chicago in 1950, Murray grew up in a prosaic suburb under difficult circumstances. As a young man, while studying pre-med in Denver, he was busted for possession of marijuana at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, and subsequently abandoned his studies. In short order he was performing with Second City in Chicago, before becoming a cast regular on “Saturday Night Live.”
With a weary, slightly pockmarked face, you get the sense that his path wasn’t easy, and that he earned everything that he’s received through the persuasiveness of his extraordinary talent. There’s an authenticity to him that seems to defy Hollywood, and his lack of affectation extends to the point where he doesn’t even have a manager or an agent, and he’s unfailingly polite and adores golf, a sport so, well, average, it almost seems like he’s just a real guy! And if of this effortless cool isn’t enough for you, well, you should know that he quit Hollywood for four years after his pet project— the film adaptation of the literary novel The Razor’s Edge— flopped, and moved to Paris where he studied philosophy and history at the Sorbonne.
But still, when I think of the first half of Murray’s career I don’t think of a generous performer. I think of somebody, who although wickedly funny, was also smug. It was like he was living within an inside the joke the rest of us never had access to, and there was always something ironic, even sarcastic in his tone. Even though we were always won over, we also had the uncomfortable sense that he might just be making fun of us, too. There was the potential for meanness there, and it was easy to imagine that deep down he might just have contempt for his Botoxed peers in Hollywood, and for the audience that chose to celebrate Meatballs and not The Razor’s Edge.
I think this side of Bill Murray began to soften as he entered into his 40s, and the movie that marks this transition is the 1993 film Groundhog Day. It’s a terrific movie, and although Murray’s performance isn’t a startling departure from his previous work, the arc of maturation the central character goes through seems to foreshadow that of the actor’s career.
Murray’s character, a self-centered and arrogant weatherman from the big city, must live the same day over and over again in a small town full of unsophisticated rubes. Naturally, he considers this to be a hellish punishment and assuming the all-knowing status of the divine, seeks to manipulate everybody for his own immediate gratification. Eventually he figures out that it’s much more rewarding to use his circumstance to get to know people and help them, instead of exploiting them to serve his own narrow interests. You know, if you’re intelligent, the trick is to make people around you feel smarter, not less so. In short, he acquired wisdom, becoming sympathetic and compassionate to the world around him rather than contemptuous.
Five years later Bill Murray gave a performance in Wes Anderson’s film Rushmore that established him as an actor with some complexity and heft. Sadder and wiser, this incarnation of Murray projected a benevolent and whimsical melancholy. He was still funny as hell, but now he was more than just a cut-up thumbing his nose at authority. Earlier, the fact that Murray seemed capable of seeing deeper and further than the rest of us made him seem superior, even bored, but now it infused him a kind of humility, as he now knew that our lives ultimately elude our own control, regardless of their talent or will.
Murray found a perfect home in the films of Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch, and Wes Anderson. These movies, unlike a lot of mainstream releases, relied on mood more than plot for their meaning to be conveyed, and in Murray they found an actor who could convey a thousand complex emotions in a single look.
In The Darjeeling Limited, perhaps Anderson’s weakest film, Murray (now an Anderson regular) made two very brief appearances. At the very start of the movie we see him dressed with the old fashioned panache of an accidental hipster running with his luggage in an attempt to catch a train. The much younger Adrien Brody — a gangle of long-legged ambition — speeds by him as Murray, now out of breath, gives up and fades into the distance, the train pulling away.
Later, about two-thirds of the way through the movie, we see Murray again, and this time for no more than two seconds. Anderson takes a moment to allow his camera to pass lyrically through the walls of the moving train, settling briefly on passengers in unguarded moments, and for a moment we see Murray, staring out a window, a glass of sweet tea at his hand. Turning around, he looks into the camera for just a second, but in this we feel more emotional depth than anywhere else in the film.
Bill Murray is now more than just a comedian or actor, but an artist. We see somebody who has come to a point where they’re at peace with having a little bit of sadness in life, and now he seems happy to include us in that inside joke he seemed to be living in earlier in his career, knowing that ultimately and inescapably, it’s on each one of us.