Is Bill Murray the Humphrey Bogart of our time?

Having recently watched Sofia Coppola’s latest directorial effort On The Rocks (you can read my full review here) I had the opportunity to scrutinize the slowly crystallizing critical consensus surrounding the movie. One of the more popular observations made by Twitter users and reviewers alike pertains to Bill Murray’s acting. Granted, this isn’t the first time. In fact, almost every film Murray is in is bound to attract this kind of criticism, which mostly boils down to noting the fact he always – without fail – plays the same character. Himself.  

Now, this isn’t a groove Murray slipped into over the course of his entire career as a result of succumbing to some form of artistic inertia. He has never been known for embracing the Stanislavski’s method or losing himself in the characters he was taking on. Whether in StripesGroundhog DayRushmore or the aforementioned On The Rocks, he has been seemingly executing the same shtick of a casually likeable nihilist with a penchant for deadpan caustic humour. Some critics see this as an opportunity to jab at his acting talent and suggest that he might not be capable of doing anything else, which might be correct to a degree; but there’s absolutely nothing wrong about it. As a matter of fact, what he is doing – lending the film his personality – is what biggest Hollywood stars have done in the past as well.  

Before such icons as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman normalized the notion of fully embracing the character and meshing with them the way chameleons camouflage their presence, Hollywood stars were first and foremost recognized as personalities. One could equally accuse Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart of always playing themselves as well, because they would never hide their personal idiosyncrasies. Their presence, swagger and personal quirks were their calling cards and filmmakers who hired them to star in their pictures wanted to capitalize on their caché as well. After all, before the advent of The New Hollywood which changed filmmaking forever more, audiences flocked to cinemas precisely to enjoy watching these larger-than-life personas interacting with one another.  

This, in my opinion, is what Bill Murray has been doing throughout his career, with a fair degree of success. He has cultivated a presence that struck a chord with audiences in the 1980s and internalized it over time. As a result, he actively decided to pursue a specific type of acting career. It is unlikely he will ever be cast against type unless this jarring mismatch between the audience expectation and artistic purpose is engineered by the filmmaker. A notable example of attempting to achieve this effect involves the time when Robin Williams – known the world over for what he called controlled insanity shtick – was cast as a deranged sociopath in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo. I doubt we will get to see Bill Murray eat a bison liver on screen, nor would I expect him to spend six months in a monastery in preparation to play a monk, just as nobody would have ever expected Humphrey Bogart to go to such lengths either.  

Therefore, while it is certain some people will not be willing or able to resonate with the way Murray carries himself on camera, it should be acknowledged what he is doing is not a product of a lack of talent. On the contrary, he is extremely well versed in what he is doing and just as these stars of the Golden Age Hollywood, Murray compensates for any shortcomings with his innate charisma and swagger. As a result, he can effortlessly (and maybe even unconsciously) hijack the stage and carry entire scenes by ad-libbing and openly riffing with other actors. In fact, he may even be impossible to contain by some less confident filmmakers at all.  

This brings me back to Murray’s performance in On The Rocks, which is both a tour de force of his natural raw energy and a lightning rod for his detractors. It is certainly true he was allowed to ‘let his hog loose’ (as Werner Herzog would put it) and some viewers will not find it appealing at all. However, this isn’t a result of him just being himself or taking over the set and overriding Sofia Coppola’s vision; far from it. He is executing on a very specific artistic decision to reconnect with his character of Bob Harris from Lost In Translation, a film to which On The Rocks is organically tethered. He is not only allowed to be himself, but actively asked to call back to certain quirks he made use of in that specific film. In a way, he is parodying himself to an extent because he was specifically hired to do just that. And, boy, does he succeed.  

Bill Murray’s on-screen presence might not be everyone’s cup of tea, that’s for sure. But at least I think we should be able to come to some sort of an understanding that there is a method to his madness. What is more, by the simple fact of having made an effort to build a brand out of his own personality, Murray succeeded in re-connecting with a very traditional (some would say old-fashioned) manner of acting and maybe he should be seen as a modern-day equivalent to Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, William Holden, or Walter Matthau as a result of that. 

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