From Sofia Coppola to Wes Anderson: Bill Murray’s 15 greatest film performances
“I’m a nut, but not just a nut.” – Bill Murray
American actor and comedian Bill Murray is famous for his brilliant performances in films like Ghostbusters and Lost in Translation, winning a Golden Globe and a British Academy Film Award, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for the latter. He first rose to fame on Saturday Night Live, winning his first Emmy for those appearances.
“I’m not [acting like this] for the purpose of being exciting – I do it because it’s fun. If there’s life happening and you run from it, you’re not doing the world a favour. You have to engage,” Murray said, while speaking about being himself. “It’s almost sad that people are not expecting others to engage, that it’s a surprise, and if it’s someone they recognise I guess it has an almost supernatural quality. But I’ve always been like this.”
He added, “My relaxation is a complete collapse of a human being. There’s certainly no backbone. It’s a dissolution of humanity is what it is. I’m nothing but compost most of the time.”
On his 70th birthday, we take a look at some of the finest performances in Bill Murray’s illustrious career.
Bill Murray’s 15 greatest films:
15. Quick Change (Bill Murray, Howard Franklin – 1990)
Bill Murray stars as a bank robber dressed as a clown who robs a Manhattan bank with the help of his girlfriend, Phyllis Potter (Geena Davis), and best friend, Loomis (Randy Quaid). However, things go south once they make it out of the bank.
“This movie doesn’t have any violence in it,” the actor said. “Six months ago that didn’t bother me at all, and it really doesn’t bother me now either, but people are saying things like, ‘This is a gentle movie’. I don’t think it’s gentle at all. I think it’s weird and funny. I think it’s as strange as anything. It’s about New York, and it’s weird, but it isn’t violent.”
14. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson – 2014)
A product of Anderson’s unique vision, the film focuses on the exploits of Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes). He is a concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel who is wrongly framed for murder. Murray features as M. Ivan, the manager of Grand Budapest’s rival hotel, Excelsior Palace.
“I mean, it’s pretty impressive. I mean, that’s quite a vision, to be able to see all that and achieve it effectively,” Murray said. “The storytelling—he spends a lot of time and he’s obviously very specific about how he wants things to look and sound.”
He added, “So there’s not a lot of overage. He’s got a lot of tricky camera moves, so you shoot a lot of goofy takes, where the camera isn’t absolutely perfect, so you do it again.”
13. Hyde Park on the Hudson (Roger Michell – 2012)
Bill Murray played President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this acclaimed film, taking him away from the famous Bill Murray persona we are used to seeing. He received his fourth Golden Globe Nomination as Best Actor in a Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) for his fantastic performance.
While speaking about the casting, Murray said, “I thought, Can this guy be serious?’ I wouldn’t have cast myself. But this guy did, and about halfway through I went, ‘Wow, he really was right.’ Not to compare myself, but certain personality things were similar, like the way he tried to leaven things and move attention around a room, get everyone their little slice of the sun.”
12. Meatballs (Ivan Reitman – 1979)
This low-budget Canadian comedy launched Murray’s career. He stars as a sweet camp counsellor who tries to encourage a teenager with low self-esteem. The film become a surprise box office hit in 1979 and helped Murray’s acting career tremendously.
“I remember how amazing he was that first day he [Murray] showed up,” Reitman recalled. “I handed him the script—I think it was the first time he was reading it—he flipped through it and said, ‘Eh.’ And he very theatrically threw it into a nearby trash can. That’s kind of terrifying to see an actor do that just minutes before you’re going to shoot your first scene with him.”
11. Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch – 2005)
Murray delivers a moving performance as a retired computer magnate in Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 comedy drama. He was nominated for a Satellite Award for Best Actor and the film was critically acclaimed. It’s the story of a man who is simultaneously journeying into his past and his present.
Broken Flowers won the Grand Prix, the runner-up prize at the Cannes Film Festival. “That was better for Jim,” Murray said. “He could win and not feel awkward. His victory was a bit off to the side. And he’s happier there.”
10. Get Low (Aaron Schneider – 2009)
Murray plays a slimy funeral home director in this 2009 drama, trying to cash in on the funeral that Robert Duvall’s character is planning for himself. Murray received a couple of critic’s group awards as Best Supporting Actor as well as an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his performance.
Co-star Robert Duvall praised Murray’s work in the film, saying, “He’s very talented, wonderful to work with.” He also spoke about the nature of the film, “it’s a fictionalized version of what really happened in the ’30s.”
9. Tootsie (Sydney Pollack – 1982)
The premise of a cross-dressing comedy might seem controversial at first, following in the footsteps of Some Like It Hot (1959). Theoretically, there are a lot of reasons why Tootsie shouldn’t work but the earnestness of its intentions eclipses all possible caveats.
It follows the story of actor Michael Dorsey (played by Hoffman) who comes to the conclusion that he has burned too many bridges to get roles in films. He transitions to his alter-ego Dorothy, full of love and kindness and he finds professional success in doing so. Bill Murray features as Hoffman’s roommate.
The director recalled, “We worked our butts off on Tootsie to get it to where it is, and it was improved enormously with all the rewrites done by Larry Gelbart and Elaine May. I don’t mind the work, but where do you find great comedies today? A comedy that’s sharp and has something on its mind is worth its weight in gold. But they’re very hard to find.”
8. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson – 2004)
Murray had appeared in supporting roles in two of Anderson’s previous films but he took the lead in this one as the title character. The film received poor reviews but Murray was brilliant as the famous oceanographer.
“(The characters) don’t have any controls on them, especially this fellow I play,” Murray said of his role. “He doesn’t have any censors that say the next thing you’re going to say might be bad behaviour, you might want to hold that back. He just sort of lets go. There’s no governor here holding him back. All the emotions are expressed. He is hit, bang, and out it comes.
“That’s kind of fun to play. You don’t get to do that in life that often. You’re supposed to obey some rules of politeness or respect and we don’t have time for that in the movies. We gotta move right along. He wants to see the emotion right now. It’s kind of a treat to do that.”
7. What About Bob? (Frank Oz – 1991)
The 1991 comedy stars Richard Dreyfuss as a self-involved psychiatrist and Murray as his extremely neurotic patient. Convinced that the doctor can help him, he follows the doctor’s family on their vacation. Murray’s character is a lot to take but the actor expertly pulls it off.
Murray said, “It’s entertaining–everybody knows somebody like that Bob guy. [Richard Dreyfuss and I] didn’t get along on the movie particularly, but it worked for the movie. I mean, I drove him nuts, and he encouraged me to drive him nuts.”
6. Caddyshack (Harold Ramis – 1980)
Murray plays the role of a groundskeeper at a posh country club golf course. He is obsessed with killing a gopher who keeps ruining the course’s fairways. A memorable performance, audiences loved his exaggerated accent and facial contortions.
Bill Murray filmed all of his scenes, including the famous scene with Chevy Chase, in six days. Many people expected them to have another confrontation as they had had during Chase’s return to Saturday Night Live (1975) years before. They were professional and didn’t show any signs of their alleged previous feud.
5. Stripes (Ivan Reitman – 1981)
In the year following his departure from Saturday Night Live, Murray established himself as a film star with this highly successful army comedy. He is hilarious as John Winger, a man who decides to join the army because he has nothing else to do. Things don’t go as planned and his superiors don’t know what to do with the oddball character.
“We went to Fort Knox, Kentucky and we stood outside in formation in the cold for six to twelve hours a day,” Murray said of his preparations for the role.
4. Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman – 1984)
Murray reunited with old colleagues Aykroyd, Ramis, and Reitman to create a seminal work of popular culture. It was the biggest comedy film of that year, influencing later works as well as Murray’s own performances. To this day, Ghostbusters remains one of Murray’s most popular works.
The director recalled, “I remember actually driving out to JFK and picking up Bill Murray. We were getting ready to do costume fittings and pre-production shooting. He had been living in France, and I wasn’t sure if he was actually going to get on an airplane, so I wanted to be there when he arrived.”
He added, “[When I work with comedians], I treat them as writers as well as performers… I’m always looking for a way to keep the scene fresh and dramatically on point or comedically on point, so I do encourage improvisation.”
3. Rushmore (Wes Anderson – 1999)
Murray’s first collaboration with Anderson, he plays a bored business executive who befriends a teenager that goes to the same private school as his sons. Things get complicated when he falls in love with the teacher that the teenager has a crush on. Melancholic and funny at the same time, Murray’s performance earned him Best Actor awards from major print critic’s circles (National Society of Film Critics, New York and Los Angeles).
The actor said, “When I read Rushmore, I figured the writing was so specific that whoever wrote it knew exactly what they were going to shoot. I never have a problem with guys who make a movie that misses as long as they make the movie they want to make. That’s usually the hard part.”
2. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis – 1993)
With an innovative plot and a convincing performance by Bill Murray, Groundhog Day is another cult classic from the ’90s. Masquerading as a romantic comedy, the story follows the life of Phil (Murray), a weatherman working for a local station in Pennsylvania as he relives the same day over and over again. For his work, he won a Golden Globe and a British Academy Film Award, along with multiple awards from critics’ circles.
Initially, He is bitter and treats everyone with contempt but as he is forced to confront the morality of his own actions, a sense of empathy changes his understanding of the universe. In the eternal winter of life, it teaches us to be kind to each other because it is only what we do to and for each other that defines the world.
“The idea that we just have to try again. We just have to try again,” Murray said. “It’s such a beautiful, powerful idea.”
1. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola – 2003)
Murray received his only Academy Award nomination for Sofia Coppola’s brilliant 2003 drama. He is charming as a depressed, middle-aged movie star who has gone to Japan to shoot a commercial. He meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and the two find comfort in each other, escaping from their unhappy marriages.
“He brought so much,” Coppola said of Murray. “I was having a hard time at that stage of my life and I’d wish Bill would show up and take me on an adventure…A lot of it was just found moments with Bill improvising. The scene in the sushi restaurant with the black toe? That was just Bill riffing on the situation.”