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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Bill Murray


Standing somewhere in between the world of independent and mainstream filmmaking, Bill Murray is an ironic, coolly detached cultural icon who has come to inspire a whole new generation of like-minded individuals. Appearing in the films of multiple iconic directors including Harold Ramis, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola, Murray rose to prominence in the 1970s though remains an icon of popular culture to this very day. 

Content with his physical distance from the industry, the actor comments in discussion with The Talk: “It’s not that hard. If you have a good script that’s what gets you involved. People say they can’t find me. Well, if you can write a good script, that’s a lot harder than finding someone. I don’t worry about it; it’s not my problem”. Such a statement makes Murray sound like an industry outcast, though the truth is anything but, as he is consistently heralded for each of his performances and seems to revel in his glory. 

With an eclectic array of past endeavours, including a musical, comedy film A Very Murray Christmas, random public appearances in wedding photos and multiple cameos across the history of cinema. Bill Murray is one of cinema’s most unique performers, dedicated to bringing his own brand of cynical humour to the forefront of alternative culture.

Let’s take a look back through his career and his six definitive films. 

Bill Murray’s six definitive films:

Meatballs (Ivan Reitman, 1979)

Though Bill Murray’s career would skyrocket in the 1980s, his prevalence in the industry would start in the early ‘70s, joining the influential John Belushi as a featured player on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. 

An off-broadway version of the same Lampoon show led Murray to his first television role in the cast of Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, following the departure of Chevy Chase from the cast, Murray became a staple for three seasons from 1977 to 1980. His very first film role wasn’t until the release of Meatballs in 1979 however where he stars as a sweet camp counsellor who tries to encourage a teenager with low self-esteem.

A surprise box-office hit, the film would help to catapult Bill Murray into the mainstream.

Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

Meatballs would be merely the start of Ivan Reitman and Bill Murray’s flourishing relationship, with the two collaborating once more for 1981s Stripes before creating a cultural tornado with 1984s comedy sci-fi Ghostbusters

Led by the powerhouse performance of a charismatic Bill Murray, along with Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson, Ghostbusters might be remembered as a gooey sci-fi, but its bulked-out buddy comedy makes it feel more like a slacker movie about a hopeless bunch of middle-aged men that happen to take down ghosts for a living.

Speaking to Roger Ebert, Bill Murray reported, “I thought that Ghostbusters was the biggest thing that would ever happen to me. It was such a big phenomenon that I felt slightly radioactive”.

Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)

Notable commercial success followed Bill Murray into the late 1980s and early ’90s, taking on a sequel to his classic 1984 sci-fi Ghostbusters as well as starring as Scrooge in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol. 

Though just as his film roles were beginning to stagnate into the 1990s, Ghostbusters co-star Harold Ramis lent a hand, casting him in the classic comedy Groundhog Day, a film that would later prove to greatly influence narrative cinema. 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. 

Forced to face the morality of his own damaging decisions, Murray is allowed to display his full range of acting talent, proving he was far more than just a comedy actor. 

Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

Continuing his extraordinary run of cultural significance, Murray began appearing in everything from mainstream comedies such as Kingpin to smaller art films like Ed Wood and even big-budget blockbusters in Space Jam. Murray was becoming an icon of a subcultural identity. 

What better way to consolidate this new identity than by collaborating with an up and coming independent director such as Wes Anderson, looking to one-up his solid directorial debut Bottle Rocket. Rushmore would prove to be the first of nine collaborations with the iconic director, later starring in Isle Of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Appearing alongside fellow Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman, Murray plays Herman Blume, a disillusioned parent who becomes interested in Schwartzman’s lead character, Max. 

Helping to elevate the performances of the cast members around him, Murray establishes a droll, highly entertaining tone for Wes Anderson’s sophomore film.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

Collaborating with Wes Anderson not only helped Bill Murray to establish his commercial persona, but it also helped him to become a better dramatic actor, sharpening his acting chops on Anderson’s follow-up film The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001.

Such would lead Bill Murray to his very best performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, a film about a faded movie star (Murray) and a neglected woman (Scarlett Johansson) who form an unlikely bond in Tokyo. Receiving an Academy Award nomination for his role in the excellent drama, Murray is simply charming as the depressed faded actor, perfectly riding the line between drama and comedy.

“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.

The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016)

Across the last forty years, Bill Murray has maintained consistency no matter his character or role. Whether in drama, comedy or otherwise, he is always transparently Bill Murray, the warm, friendly, sarcastic, endearing personality that he has always been.

Following the release of Lost in Translation Murray enjoyed a continued collaboration with Wes Anderson on films such as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, whilst collaborating with the iconic Jim Jarmusch on Broken Flowers. Aside from such ventures, however, his film roles have dissipated slightly, becoming more of an ever-present icon in the industry rather than someone working on its forefront. 

Appearing in cameo roles and niche independent films, there are few better fitting appearances than his voice work as Baloo in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, where he plays, in essence, an anthropomorphic version of his own personality. A calm, wise, charming bear, Baloo speaks of life’s beautiful bare necessities, “Forget about your worries and your strife”.