Bill Murray was not always Bill Murray—that is to say, he was not always “Bill motherfucking Murray,” as GZA hails the recent Oscar nominee during their chance encounter in Jim Jarmusch’s latest, Coffee and Cigarettes. During his first season on Saturday Night Live in 1977, the 26-year-old Second City alum often muffed his lines and seemed nervously amused to have somehow found himself onstage. You had to root for the guy, but surprisingly, Murray soon developed into a peerlessly unsolicitous and fearlessly committed performer—never a wink or nod to the audience, never a sidelong appeal for sympathy or ironic collusion. (He reportedly freaked out his colleagues on Kingpin, in which he inhabited a combed-over scoundrel of the bowling circuit, by staying in character between takes.) Even in hateful dreck like Scrooged (1988), the Bad Santa of the ’80s, Murray’s bawling hysteria as a venal TV exec didn’t signal contempt for the cringe-making material—rather, he had become the material.
BAM’s welcome review of Murray’s film career (including an appearance by the man himself on April 13; see bam.org for full schedule) leaves out the vastly underrated Kingpin (1996), the Farrelly brothers’ most purely nasty creation, as well as stoner classic The Razor’s Edge (1984), a Somerset Maugham adaptation wherein Murray’s affable bibliophile finds enlightenment on a mountain in Tibet. Released the same year as Ghostbusters, Razor’s Edge met with such confused disdain that Murray went packing to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. Today, however, the movie can be usefully considered as part of Murray’s Buddhist Trilogy: In the just-world hypothesis Caddyshack (1980), his monomaniacal groundskeeper once caddied for the Dalai Lama, who in lieu of a tip offered him “total consciousness”; in the samsara explainer Groundhog Day (1993), Murray inwardly journeys from misanthropic TV weatherman to piano-tickling bodhisattva.
Embodying matter-of-fact melancholy and existential bewilderment as Herman Blume in Rushmore (1998) and as Blume’s fraternal twin Bob Harris in Lost in Translation (2003), Murray cultivated an exquisitely spare acting style, whittled down to a rumpled-silk economy of glances and gestures; the characters’ emotions are written in the doughy contours of his goofy-handsome face and reflected in his doleful basset-hound eyes. Father to six sons in real life, Murray has now made several touching testaments to hapless dadness: Rushmore, Translation, Osmosis Jones (2001; another Farrelly omission), and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000), in which the actor gives us a Polonius for the ages.
Murray’s progression from wiseacre to wounded wise man is generally thought to have begun with Groundhog Day, but consider too his charming and often plaintive turn in the slight but sprightly Quick Change (1990), which he also co-directed, wherein Murray and pals Geena Davis and Randy Quaid pull off an ingenious, hitch-free bank robbery but can’t seem to make it to JFK Airport. A tormented lover’s crumpled valentine to the hassled and harried New York City of the Koch-Dinkins years (and perhaps a companion piece to Tom Schiller’s Nothing Lasts Forever , in which Murray is the entertainment director of a bus from New York to the moon), the movie also happens to sum up, in a single exchange, Murray’s screen persona. “What kind of clown are you?” the bank guard played by radio immortal Bob Elliott wants to know. Murray, resplendent in his Bozo heist disguise, replies nonchalantly, “The crying-on-the-inside kind, I guess.” Exactly.