Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #20 - Bill Murray

photo by David Shankbone


-Ghostbusters II
-What About Bob?
-Groundhog Day
-Ed Wood
-Wild Things
-Lost in Translation

Comedians are often overlooked in acting categories.  Their work is looked as less important than the great tragedians.  But in most ways, making people laugh is more difficult than making them cry.

Bill Murray can do both.

He is a master of broad and subtle comedy.  His humor is both high and low brow.  Some people are just naturally funny and so do no actual acting on the screen.  But Murray layers his humor with some fantastic performances.

His John Winger in Stripes is a character who is completely lost and depressed.  He is empty and has nothing.  His humor is biting because all he has is snark.  And Murray shows us that, against his will, the army gives him meaning and purpose.  You can see the way he humbugs his fellow troops, but he becomes the leader he pretends to be.

When Murray gives his speech he is able to do something quite remarkable.  He makes his speech both sarcastic and inspiring.  He mocks the military but uplifts soldiering.  He buys genuine good will and devotion when he says "Make me proud."

His other truly great character creation is Dr. Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters.  He is a scoundrel, as demonstrated by the opening scene, but he is so charming.   Like the great Groucho Marx, Murray office witty reposts and tension-releaving humor all throughout his deadpan performance.  It is hysterical when the ghost situation finally becomes real.  His inability to think of a joke is, in itself, funny.  And it is only as you get closer to the end that you see that his humor is really armor.  When they go ahead with the plan to cross the streams, Murray blusters with bravado to get his boys to walk into certain death and then says goodbye in his own way: "See you on the other side, Ray."  And then he looks away

The intense emotional states Murray achieves can be seen best in his final monologue from Scrooged.  I cannot understand why he did not receive an Oscar nomination for that scene alone.  The movie's denouement is a several minutes long monologue that is almost said directly to the audience.  This is usually death in cinema.  The principle is always "show, don't tell."  But what could have come off as sappy preaching in the hands of another actor becomes compelling performance in Murray's hands.  His "conversion" set in relief against his horrid life before only highlights the power of his performance and how Murray is able give believability to his words.

He uses that skill again in Groundhog Day.  This is a great study in the utter scene-by-scene transformation of a character.  Unlike his character in Scrooged who has a radical Road to Damascus experience, Phil Connors is changed by slow degrees.  And as horrible and selfish as he is in the beginning, we can't help but root for him.  Watch as he goes from deadpan funny to deadpan tragic with the most imperceptible changes.

But his greatest, most understatedly powerful performance is in Lost in Translation.  The movie itself has a lot of narrative flaws.  But its power is in the acting.  Almost everything said and done is subtext.  Murray has all of these intense and conflicted feeling bubbling under the surface but has so much control that he doesn't go for the big pull on the heartstrings but shows such an incredible amount of restraint that he draws us in.  We desperately want the damn to break and have him finally say what he feels.  But every look, every gesture, every line of dialogue showcases Murray's skill as an actor where he hints at the larger unfathomable world in his mind and heart that you, the viewer, cannot access.

Murray's style has often been attempted by other actors.

But there is only one Bill Murray.

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