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As an actor Bill Murray has displayed a significant career evolution. From Saturday Night Live to the collection of Ghostbuster movies, Murray’s early work can be considered some of the best in the comedic genre, establishing for Murray a cinematic persona classified as deadpan, sarcastic, at times a little dark, yet always with a sense of emotion, even sentimentality. This seeming contradiction between emotion and monotone is what defines Bill Murray’s acting style and provides the foundation for the chameleon-like career moves he’s made in the past decade. Like comedic actors such as Jim Carrey and Robin Williams, Bill Murray has proved that his talents as a funny man are suited just as well for dramatic roles, to which he brings an understated quality that no dramatic actor can capture quite as well.
One Murray film that denotes his potential success as a dramatic actor is Groundhog Day. The film shows Murray trapped in a world in which he wakes up to the same day, Groundhog day, every morning. In this film we see our first evidence of the understated sadness that Murray conjures up with his demeanor. After he realizes that he’s not living in a dream, Phil Connors settles into a heavy sense of resignation. This hopeless restlessness foreshadows the since immortalized characters of Bob Harris and Don Johnston of Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers respectively (IMDB.com: Bill Murray). Roles like that of Phil Connors suggest that Murray was always part comedic actor and part dramatic actor, what changed was the roles he was given. Both Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers feature Murray in a dramatic role infused with some innate sadness and sense of loss and, unlike many of his less successful colleagues, Murray’s talent with the genre actually emphasizes his comedic talents instead of making viewers think that’s all he can do.
In this way, Murray creates his own dramatic archetype—the man on the brink of change, struggling with emptiness and a sense of meaninglessness whose ability to relate to the human condition makes his on screen appeal undeniable. In Lost in Translation we have Bob Harris, a world famous actor rapidly approaching his expiration date, struggling with what seems like an existential crisis. He has it all—money, family, fame, yet finds himself dissatisfied and confused about what he really wants (IMDB.com: Lost In Translation). His attachment to Scarlet Johansson’s character comes from something within him the reaches out through his inwardness. In an interview for Broken Flowers Murray recalls the character of Bob and how he related to the man’s life. “There were many threads in the film he recognised from his own life. ‘You are always away from home, as a film actor.
Look at me now. You can be stuck in a hotel, several thousand miles away in a whole different time zone, and it is never glamorous’ ” (Old Stone Face Cracks, 2005). It seems evident that Murray brings his experience as an actor to the role like a true professional, showing us not only his incredible talent but at the same time we see Murray’s truly deep and complex personality. Amidst his deadpan delivery Murray shows us a man on the brink of implosion, brimming with emotion that seems to be rising to the surface after lying dormant for a lifetime. Murray achieves the recreation of this role once again in the lost and searching Don Johnston, and even in the quirky role of the Businessman in The Life Aquatic. The archetype Murray develops in these movies is all the more significant because he is considered primarily a comedic actor in transition. The listless and lost man in crisis is one that denotes the stereotypical life of the comedian. As we know, many comedic actors struggle with addiction and depression, including Chris Farley, Robin Williams, and many others. Murray’s work in his dramatic roles are more powerful because of his identity as a comedian, because the ability to create comedy requires a wide range of sensibilities, included an inherent understanding of irony, tragedy, and human pain.
The comedy to drama transition is somewhat of a phenomenon in Hollywood. Actors like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams have made some of the most memorable dramatic roles truly come to life. Like Murray, these actors carry a sense of pervasive sadness in their characters. In The Truman Show, Carrey exhibits a man who experiences the complete disintegration of his world and the resigned disappointment that comes with the skewing of life’s meaning that Truman struggles with. Like his peers, Williams upholds the tradition in his own unique way, finding his home in the thriller genre with movies like One Hour Photo and a remake of Insomnia. Williams gives us a man isolated, lonely, whose mind seems to have degenerated from an outcast’s life to be come something evil. Both Williams and Carrey make a departure from Murray’s fierce but understated emotions that is understandable considering their comedic roles. Both Williams and Carrey are known for their hyperbolic comedy which translates in their dramatic roles as uncontrolled and even, at times, outrageous.
Bill Murray offers contributions to the film industry that few dramatic actors can offer. “The wider basis of sentimental comedy…was the particular kind of humanitarian feeling, the strong if inarticulate appeal to a fundamental “goodness of heart”; the sense of every individual’s closeness to vice and folly…” (Wojcik 103). His background in comedy and his inherent ability to portray both genres in one character gives his roles a sense of reality that most dramatic actors miss because their dramatic style relates more to fantastical scenarios and worlds than human ones. For example, Robert DeNiro and Cuba Gooding Jr. succeeded in dramatic roles and fell into the slapstick genre of comedy. In movies like Meet the Parents, Rat Race, and Boat Trip the originally iconic dramatic actors short change their images by failing to offer a realistic, relatable, character. Their roles serve simply to deliver the humorous lines written for them, instead of an embodiment of the human condition. Whereas Bill Murray succeeds both in the comedic role of Phil Connors and the dramatic roles of Bob Harris and Don Johnston in delivering emotions we identify with, DeNiro and Gooding’s roles come across more clownish than sentimental. Thus, Murray gives us characters that mean something and teach us something about ourselves in comparison to dramatic actors whose only comedic offerings are slapstick gags.
Murray’s career has given us many memorable roles. What stands out to viewers across Murray’s entire catalog of films, comedic or dramatic or both, is his undeniably powerful ability to get to our guts, to tap into emotions that are raw and familiar and even, at times, painful. When Bob Harris stands in the cramped Tokyo elevator we need only that forlorn head tilt to read the unbridled emotion broiling within him (IMDB.com: Lost In Translation). This significant career has given us characters that are dramatic not just because of the plot but because of the exposition Murray brings to the roles. He truly achieves any ambitious actor’s ultimate goal; as Pamela Wojcik states in her book Movie Acting, the Film Reader, “an actor should not just adopt a broad specialization in comedy or drama, but should carve out a niche in small roles” (Wojcik 182). Certainly, Murray has found his niche. Among his peers, Murray has risen to incredible heights and will undoubtedly continue to give us performances we would surely be remiss without.
“Old Stone Face Cracks”. (October 2005). The Guardian Online. 2008. .
Profile for Bill Murray on IMDB.com. Online, Internet. Internet Movie Database.
Profile for Lost In Translation on IMDB.com. Online. Internet. Internet Movie Database. 2008.
Wojcik, Pamela Robertson. Movie Acting, The Film Reader. (2004). Routledge: New York. 256 pages.