Currently starring in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, and working the publicity circuit, Bill Murray is everywhere, all of a sudden.
He’s the subject of a strangely beautiful Belly Kids colouring book, for which 24 illustrators have reprised some of his cinematic roles; he appeared in a young fan’s fake movie trailer; and he startled and delighted everyone at Cannes by appearing in the Madras checks, or racetrack, plaids he wears in Moonrise Kingdom, while taking photographs of the press scrum with a tiny camera.
Earlier this month, on Late Show with David Letterman, he introduced a hologram of himself playing banjo, which he claims will be touring in proxy as “the art films” are financial murder, and he needs the cash. “I tip heavy,” he explained. “I dress like a king.”
Like Punxsutawney Phil, the eponymous rodent in Groundhog Day, Murray makes (usually, with the release of a film) infrequent, fanfare-attended appearances which, more and more, predict the climate of his own reception and popularity, which never stops growing.
While speaking with Letterman, the Late Show host remarked that so many actors were making “a fantastic living, doing you.”
“Yeah, well, this guy,” Murray said, gesturing to the black and white holographic image, and politely avoiding the subject.
What did Letterman mean?
He was very likely referring to the Judd Apatow-fostered deadpan-antic comic actors, from Jonah Hill to Seth Rogen to Steve Carell, and to a wider array of artists still modifying the lounge singer he created in the 1970s (in a Saturday Night Live skit involving Soap-on-a-Rope); to any number of actors willing, as if responding to Ezra Pound’s lyrical demand, “Pull down thy vanity,” to act without artifice, to appear onscreen in actual shambles. Consider the most recent, and most popular roles of Clint Eastwood, Mickey Rourke or Gary Oldman: Each actor is monstrous.
Monstrous, yet undeniably appealing: In this regard, Murray, a minor babe in his youth – of the Irish ruffian variety – has not changed, even if his on-screen appearance is increasingly storm-haired, paunchy and grotesque – he is wildly attractive in the manner of great men gone wildly to seed, or, to state the obvious, like King Lear, grandiose and ruined.
In this regard, he is very much like Jack Nicholson, who in accepting the lead in 1983’s Terms of Endearment (a role Burt Reynolds turned down), let himself be seen as sexy-with-damage (receding devilish hair, slack belly, wrinkles) and opened up the career he still enjoys today as an unlikely rake and loveable roué.
But it is Murray’s great wit and comic brilliance that distinguish him, ultimately: His appearances in the fey Moonrise Kingdom are few and far between, but stand as mighty tent-poles for this gauzy bit of pseudo-nostalgia.
In one scene, he appears in front of his children, shirtless, hair furled into a vast white cloud, and carrying an axe: He is looking for a tree to chop down. In another, he lifts high the tent that has been sheltering his 12-year-old daughter and her young boyfriend/husband and thunders like God in outrage.
His so-called serious roles are always standouts in this way – Murray plays the dissolute-yet-morally-outstanding man perfectly: His 1984 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge may have been a huge failure (especially to his fans who then loved him exclusively for comedy), but he is now able to tell, again and again, the story of a man who is torn up and searching for meaning.
For four years after The Razor’s Edge, Murray studied history and philosophy at the Sorbonne.
He returned with Scrooged, and continues to dip, duck and return to this day.
If it is harder to remember how genuinely hilarious he is (like the very best comics, his mere inflections trigger riotous responses), how much he contributed to comedies by virtue of the now-stock figure he manufactured (an irresistible heel, an endearing hardass), it is clearer all the time what he is creating in his “art films,” or comic/dramatic roles.
In the best of these, Lost in Translation, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, he plays an old man with a life that is still malleable, still redeemable.
He also plays lonely men, who love women and lose them; he plays deadpan funny masculine men whose frailties are absurd and regal.
In Lost in Translation, writer-director Sofia Coppola has his character, a bleak, aging film star, part from his very young female friend (Scarlett Johansson) in the end.
He seizes her and whispers in her ear, on a crowded street. We cannot hear what he says.
He plays a man who tells beautiful girls things that only they can hear, that change them, before disappearing.
Before he disappears also, to the links, the track, the game, the bar, the home where he recently told Esquire he merely wants “peace and quiet,” the maddened, sweet mind he reveals to us, occasionally, so we may look forward to the end of certain cold, hard seasons.
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