Bill Murray: 5 greatest roles of a national treasure
There are maybe five people competing in my mind for the title of “greatest living man”. Two of them are actors, and one of those actors is Clint Eastwood. The other, and without a doubt the person who’s been on my list the longest, is Bill Murray. He turned 61 today, and has spent about half those years entertaining me, so I feel it’s only fair that I pay tribute the only way I know how: in blog form. So I’ve compiled a list of my five favorite Bill Murray roles-no small task when dealing with such a consistently awesome actor. I assure you, cuts had to be made.
1. Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghost Busters: This is without a doubt one of the greatest films ever made, so there’s no sense in even building up to it. Basically every character in Ghost Busters is great, but Murray manages to stand out in the crowd by providing such a great contrast against the enthusiasm of his costars. He portrays Dr. Venkman with such a casual disinterest in everything going on around him, probably providing an early influence for my own apathy and sarcasm. Being bored with your job even if that job is busting ghosts is a concept with undeniably universal appeal, and it’s played here to absolute perfection.
2. Bob Wiley in What About Bob?: Bill Murray plays a character simultaneously endearing and frustrating, a man so plagued with insecurities that he manages to burn out every therapist who attempts treatment. He ends up in the office of famous psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (played by Richard Dreyfuss), and comedy ensues. This is, in all honesty, a mediocre movie with two great actors giving great performances. You could distill What About Bob? into a two-man stage show with Murray and Dreyfuss and it would be just as effective, if not more so.
3. Ernie McCracken in Kingpin: This is the only Farrelly brothers comedy I’ve ever really gotten into, and while much credit for that assuredly goes to costar Woody Harrelson, it is in large part due to Murray’s role as the arch-nemesis pro bowler Ernie McCracken. I love few things more than inept villains, and McCracken is basically the Cobra Commander of the bowling circuit. Literally everything he says and does in this movie is comic gold. It’s hard to pick a favorite moment, but it’s probably when he meets up with Harrelson’s character Roy Munson again, years after being directly responsible for the loss of Munson’s bowling hand. “You know, for years I felt partially responsible”.
4. Herman Blume in Rushmore: Like the Farrelly brothers, Wes Anderson has also only made one film that I truly enjoy. And again, it stars Bill Murray. Coincidence? Here he plays industrialist Herman Blume, friend and surrogate father figure to high school student Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman). The plot has Herman Blume cycling seemingly constantly between good guy and villain, while simultaneously remaining believable and endearing, and Murray pulls this off effortlessly. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the point where Blume says “I’ll take…punctuality” brings a genuine smile to my face no matter how many times I see it.
5. Don Johnston in Broken Flowers: Surprise, this entry is not about Lost in Translation! I just really like that image. Bill Murray does deserve credit in that film for making Sofia Coppola look like a competent anything, but under the skilled direction of Jim Jarmusch is where his dramatic acting really shines. In Broken Flowers, he plays Don Johnston, a lifelong bachelor and womanizer who receives anonymous news that he has a now 19-year-old son. This leads Johnston to travel cross-country, showing up unannounced at the homes of former girlfriends in an attempt to trace the source of the note. What follows is an insightful and often harshly realistic statement on how we view our own pasts and those who shared in them. Murray lends sympathy to such an inherently unlikeable character, showing he is just as skilled with drama as he is with comedy.
So there you have it. Five films you should without a doubt go watch right now. Bill Murray does have a few career missteps, from voicing two movies’ worth of unnecessary CGI Garfield to inexplicably holding up production for years on the still-ethereal Ghostbusters III. But the fact remains that he is one of only a few actors to have so many films I can enthusiastically and unconditionally recommend, regardless of the point in his career or genre of the film itself. And for that, he definitely deserves all the respect and admiration I have for him. Happy birthday, Bill!