Bill Murray became a movie star 35 years ago this week, upon the release of “Meatballs” on June 29, 1979. His lead role as the head counselor at a sub-par summer camp marked a number of firsts: his first of four movies with director Ivan Reitman (the others were “Stripes” and the two “Ghostbusters“), his first of six movies with writer Harold Ramis (the four Reitman films, plus “Caddyshack” and “Groundhog Day“), and his first taste of mega-stardom beyond his TV fame on “Saturday Night Live.”
Since then, his career has taken on a trajectory unique in the history of film, one in which he’s gone from comic goofball to dramatic thespian, from universally beloved to acquired taste, and from manic cynic to soft-spoken spiritual seeker. Through it all, however, there have been a few constants; no matter whether he’s a grubby groundskeeper or a morose mogul: Murray’s character is always the coolest and most charismatic guy in the room — at least in the movie playing in his own mind.
“Meatballs” established, from the dawn of Murray’s film career, the persona that would define him — and which he’s spent much of his career reacting against. His camp counselor, a guy named Tripper, is a rebel against the very notions of sincerity and earnestness. Every utterance and gesture seems to have ironic air quotes around it. Yet he’s not without heart or seriousness. He proves he’s capable of caring, about both love interest Roxanne (a fellow counselor) and lonely camper Rudy, without losing his ironic detachment. There’s a war inside him between perpetual boyishness and rueful maturity, but it can wait until summer’s over. Meanwhile, Tripper’s cynicism-with-a-grin is so charismatic that it’s capable of motivating the whole camp; his famous “It just doesn’t matter” speech is one of the least likely yet most effective pep rally moments in film. It could also be the motto for most early Murray characters.
Later Murray characters, of course, will find things that matter to them a great deal, and will often lose them. Immaturity and petulance still wage war within him against experience and wisdom, but the outcome is no longer a certainty. He’ll trade in ironic detachment for quiet dignity, but as before, he’ll insist on respect because he’s still the alpha dog.
Which Murray you prefer may depend on your own maturity level. When you’re young, you wish you could be as unflappable as early Murray; when you’re older, you may identify with the Murray-in-crisis of his middle years; and when you’re older still, you’ll recognize yourself in the sadder-but-wiser Murray of his recent roles. In other words, you can divide Murray’s career into the following three stages:
The Slacker Hipster Prince Years (1979-87)
Best Movies: “Meatballs,” “Caddyshack” (featuring Murray in his iconic role as loony groundskeeper Carl Spackler), “Stripes” (essentially, Tripper joins the Army), and “Ghostbusters” (the supernatural comedy that found Murray at his irreverent peak).
Worst Movies: “Where the Buffalo Roam” (a biopic of Hunter S. Thompson, for which Murray was neither weird enough nor serious enough) and “The Razor’s Edge” (Murray’s vanity project, a drama in which he plays Somerset Maugham’s spiritual pilgrim, a role for which he simply doesn’t have the dramatic chops — yet).
Wild Cards: “Tootsie” (a rare supporting turn in which Murray proves for the first time that he really can play a straight role, sort of, while still getting laughs) and “Little Shop of Horrors” (Murray has a priceless cameo as the masochistic dental patient whom Jack Nicholson played in the original, non-musical version).
The Self-Loathing Grouch Years (1988-97)
Best Movies: “Scrooged” (Murray’s first real critique of his own fame and power, and his first real redemption as a decent and earnest human being), “What About Bob?” (in which he plays a curiously lovable psycho stalker who drives his shrink mad), and “Groundhog Day” (Murray turns in perhaps his finest work as another showbiz jerk redeemed by magic), “Kingpin” (Murray as a smug, villainous superstar bowler).
Worst Movies: “Ghostbusters II” (in which Murray’s contempt for the material and his own phoned-in performance is apparent in every frame), “Mad Dog and Glory” (a dramatic role as a menacing mobster threatening meek photographer Robert De Niro, who should have had Murray’s part and vice versa), “Larger Than Life” (Murray co-stars with an elephant), “Space Jam” (cynical, even when playing himself in what was a blatant cash grab for everyone involved), and “The Man Who Knew Too Little” (another Bob-like naïf unwittingly wreaking havoc, but with far less charm).
Wild Cards: “Quick Change” (the only film Murray has ever directed, an underrated comedy in which he gives an early sad-clown performance as a bank robbery mastermind who can’t manage to escape a nightmarish New York City) and “Ed Wood” (the first of Murray’s great cameo roles, here as a flamboyant member of legendarily awful director’s sideshow-like repertory company of performers).
The Zen Master Years (1998-present)
Best Movies: “Rushmore” (Murray’s first of many movies for Wes Anderson, in which he plays a young overachiever’s mentor-turned-rival, marks a tectonic shift for the comic actor, who proves for the first time that he’s capable of evoking great pathos with minimal effort), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (Murray is just another member of Anderson’s ensemble, playing an intense scholar married to a restless Gwyneth Patlrow), “Lost in Translation” (Murray earned his only Oscar nomination to date for his wistful turn as a Murray-like star shooting an ad in Japan who finds a kindred spirit in wide-eyed tourist Scarlett Johansson), “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (Murray plays the lead in Anderson’s midlife crisis movie as a Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer/documentarian dealing with grief and loss), “Broken Flowers” (in Jim Jarmusch‘s drama, Murray is another Zissou-like middle-ager who gains and loses a redemptive shot at being a good father),”Zombieland” (maybe Murray’s best cameo ever, as himself, coping with a zombie apocalypse), “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (three more Anderson films with finely etched Murray cameos).
Worst Movies: “Charlie’s Angels” (Murray is wasted as Bosley, the eunuch who tends to the comely trio of detectives), “Garfield” (Murray voices the gluttonous comic-strip cat, a role of the sort he’s long since outgrown), “Garfield 2: A Tale of Two Kitties” (Murray has balked at a third “Ghostbusters,” but he still made this?), and “Hyde Park on Hudson” (a noble failure that stars Murray as FDR, a role for which his blend of insouciance and gravitas should have worked but just comes off as eccentric and even creepy instead).
Wild Cards: “Wild Things” (Murray has a small but vital role as an ambulance-chasing lawyer who may be wilier than he lets on), “Hamlet” (Murray offers a surprisingly good Polonius in this version of Shakespeare’s drama) “Osmosis Jones” (Murray returns to his old-style slob humor in this odd live-action/animation hybrid) “Coffee and Cigarettes” (Murray cameos as himself for Jarmusch) “City of Ember” (Murray tries children’s fantasy but doesn’t quite belong in the unreal world), “Get Low” (Murray happily plays second fiddle to Robert Duvall in this backwoods tall tale), and “The Monuments Men” (Murray is just sort of along for the ride in George Clooney‘s World War II art-recovery drama).
If you didn’t grow up during the years when Bill Murray was a surefire box office draw, it may be hard to grasp how central he was to film comedy of the ’80s and early ’90s, or how radically different his performances and his character-actor career are from the leading-man status he used to enjoy — and chafe at. But one thing he is now and always has been is a showman, an entertainer — one whose most important audience, however, was always himself.
Back then, he used his fame and charisma to make fun of show business smarminess; today, his minimalist style makes him seem utterly indifferent to whether a performance will increase his fame, likability, or bank account. Then as now, his first priority always seemed to be amusing himself — it’s just that most of the time, he’s managed to delight moviegoers as well. At the very least, he’s always kept us on our toes, from “Meatballs” to “Monuments Men,” wondering where Murray’s meandering muse will lead him next.
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