In the 1950s, author Robert Schnakenberg’s father was the letter carrier who delivered jazz legend Louis Armstrong’s mail. “Louis would say, ‘Hi Mr. Mailman’ and sometimes Louis and his wife would invite my dad in for coffee. That is sort of my claim to fame.”
It also began a career Schnakenberg says involves “lurking around the edges of famous people.” The author of more than a dozen books, including The Encyclopedia Shatnerica and Christopher Walken A-to-Z, Schnakenberg’s latest is The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray, a weighty tome analyzing the life and career of everybody’s favourite Ghostbuster.
“They’re more history books than puff pieces about celebrities,” he says on the line from his Brooklyn home. “I wanted to approach them from a quasi or mock academic perspective and treat them as if they were historic artifacts rather than just pop culture icons.”
Murray was a perfect subject for the pop historian. “I had done two previous A-to-Zs and was looking around for a third person to round out the trilogy. I had visions of a three volume slip case edition in my head.”
Murray fit the criteria. “Who has a long career? Who has left a paper trail of interviews and profiles? Who has an off-camera persona that is just as interesting as what they do onscreen? It just clicked last year. He reached a point of saturation with all these viral videos going around that (the publisher) said, ‘Let’s do the book now.’”
The volume provides an overview of Murray’s long and varied time in the public eye. From critical appreciations of his films, to interesting trivia, The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray spans decades of fascinating behaviour.
“His career provides a lot of entry points for people who want to get into him,” says Schnakenberg. “If you came of age in the ’70s, the way that I did, you remember the Saturday Night Live version of Bill Murray. If you were 13 in 1984 you probably think of him as Ghostbusters Bill Murray. If you were a proto-hipster in the ’90s your image is probably the guy in all the Wes Anderson movies. Now people know him as the dishevelled guy who crashes people’s parties.”
The point is, for almost forty years Bill Murray has been a constant in our lives. “Bill Murray never had to come back because he never went away,” says the author. “He was always cool; just cool in different forms over the years.”
What kind of goodwill does Bill Murray bring to “St. Vincent”? In the opening scene of the dramatic comedy from director Theodore Melfi, he tells the world’s worst joke—punchline, “That’s not a porch, it’s a BMW”—and still gets a giggle out of the audience.
Murray plays Vincent, a Sheep’s Head, New York guy whose life is in as bad a shape as his jokes. He’s usually drunk or trying to get drunk. His house is second mortgaged to the hilt, his bank account in overdraft and his only friends are a Himalayan cat and the pregnant working girl he pays for company. His new neighbors, single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and ten year old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) are a nuisance to him, until he discovers he can make a few extra bucks babysitting the boy. “Is that our new neighbor,” says Oliver when he first spies Vincent. “It’s going to be a long life.” The pair, however, form a bond. Vinnie passes along valuable life experience, like how to fight, bet on horses and order a drink in a bar, but when Oliver’s dad sues for co-custody it turns out Vinnie’s life lessons may have been ill advised.
There is a scene early on in “St. Vincent” showing Vinnie, head awash in booze, dancing, blissed out to “White Rabbit” on the jukebox in the back room of a seedy bar. It’s a great Murray-esque character study. With just a few drunken gyrations we figure out that Vincent does as he pleases. He always danced like no one was watching.
That’s the essence of the character, and those moments elevate “St. Vincent” from wacky-old-man movie to interesting character study. Murray is always watchable, interesting and reaching for the unexpected even in a movie as by-the-book as this. The story hits all the inspirational notes you’d expect from a movie about building an unconventional family and occasionally falters on the side of sentimentality but overrides the syrupy tone of the old man genre with a series of stand put performances.
Noami Watts is almost unrecognizable as Daka, a plainspoken, pregnant hooker with an impenetrable accent and, if not exactly a heart of gold, an affection for things made of gold. It’s a rare comedic role for her and she nails it, physically and emotionally.
As Maggie McCarthy takes a refreshing step away from her well established comedic persona to deliver a supporting role that has laughs but shows more of her range than we’re used to.
The film’s secret weapon, however, is the pairing of Jaeden Lieberher and Murray. Like Mutt and Jeff–although it’s not clear who is Mutt and who is Jeff, who is the child and who is the adult–they are a matched and balanced pair, with chemistry to burn. Their scenes together are the heart of the film and when they are separated the movie loses some of its appeal.
“St. Vincent” is more predictable than you might want from a Bill Murray movie. He usually makes left-of-centre choices, or at least puts a spin on the regular. The latter is true here, but Murray’s blissed-out dancing reverie and bad jokes are still worth the price of admission.
“Canada AM” Web Exclusive: Richard’s interview with “St. Vincent” star Chris O’Dowd.
A synopsis: Bill Murray plays Vincent, a Sheep’s Head, New York guy whose life is in as bad a shape as his jokes. He’s usually drunk or trying to get drunk. His house is second mortgaged to the hilt, his bank account in overdraft and his only friends are a Himalayan cat and the pregnant working girl he pays for company. His new neighbors, single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and ten year old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) are a nuisance to him, until he discovers he can make a few extra bucks babysitting the boy. “Is that our new neighbor,” says Oliver when he first spies Vincent. “It’s going to be a long life.” The pair, however, form a bond. Vinnie passes along valuable life experience, like how to fight, bet on horses and order a drink in a bar, but when Oliver’s dad sues for co-custody it turns out Vinnie’s life lessons may have been ill advised.
Richard’s “Canada AM” interview with “ST. Vincent” star Melissa McCarthy!
“[Bill Murray] is an icon. It’s less about him being one of the funniest human beings, and more about that he’s such a good actor. I thought this role was right in his wheelhouse because I knew he wasn’t going to overplay it. Then to see him do it so subtly and so underplayed, makes you love that character so much. It was a master class for me.”
Melissa McCarthy admits she was nervous to work opposite Bill Murray in St. Vincent.
“Is that not true for every human being?” she asks rhetorically, before adding she was intimidated, “in every possible way.
“He’s an icon. It’s less about him being one of the funniest human beings, and more about that he’s such a good actor. I thought this role was right in his wheelhouse because I knew he wasn’t going to overplay it. Then to see him do it so subtly and so underplayed, makes you love that character so much. It was a master class for me.”
The Bridesmaids star plays Maggie, a recent divorcee and mother of 10-year-old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Her nursing job requires long hours and without daycare she is forced to leave the boy with her neighbour, the hard-drinking reprobate Vincent (Murray).
“I liked that she was stripped down,” she says. “There are no more tricks. She’s out of tricks. She’s just trying to survive.”
As Maggie, McCarthy takes a step away from her well established comedic persona to deliver a supporting role that has laughs but shows more of her range than we’re used to.
“I’ve played a lot of characters who are very vocal, very aggressive. It’s been what the character has called for, but even within those bombastic parts you still have to let that character touch down. Even in a bigger, straight comedy you always have that moment where something’s got to break. You see why they’re so loud. At least for the women I’ve played there is a reason why they are so ballsy and it is nice when you see the crack in the veneer and you realize, ‘It’s part of their insecurity. They stay loud so nobody yells at them.’ I think the same applies to this one, except that the character wasn’t putting on much of a facade. She was falling apart more openly and she had to buckle down and keep moving forward.”
St. Vincent is a character piece that showcases the actors — like co-star Naomi Watts as a plainspoken, pregnant hooker with an impenetrable accent and, if not exactly a heart of gold, an affection for things made of gold — but makes the point that families can be formed anywhere by anyone, even if one is a prostitute, one drinks too much and one spends too much time at work.
“It’s a lovely message that (director) Ted (Melfi) handled so beautifully, because it doesn’t feel sentimental,” says McCarthy. “It’s not like, ‘And now the message is …’ You just get the feeling in the pit of your stomach that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”
Bill Murray, Al Pacino, Robert Downey and Dustin Hoffman highlight first weekend at Toronto film fest. The Reel Guys, Richard Crouse and Mark Breslin, give us their take on the first weekend of the festival.
Richard: Mark, no matter how prepared I think I am going into TIFF, the first weekend always bowls me over. Like I’ve been run over by a stretch limo running late for a red carpet. This year was no different. Things really kicked off on Friday with the celebration of all things Murray. Bill, that is. The great man himself was seen all over town and even did a Q&A before a screening of Ghostbusters, and appeared in the pouring rain at the gala for his new one, St Vincent. My favourite line of his? “If this is really my day, why do I have to work so hard?”
Mark: Wish I’d seen that, Richard. But I did see Al Pacino, the great Al Pacino, in the unanticipated Q&A after The Humbling. When asked why he was drawn to the material in the Philip Roth adaptation, he said that the character had a lot in common with him, as an actor on the way down and a bit of a has-been. It was an amazing moment of how one of the greatest actors in the world regards himself. Also, he said he acquired the rights to the book in 2009. Which means it took five years for Al Pacino, the great Al Pacino, to get a movie made. Yikes! I admit the material is complex, and not multiplex fare. But The Humbling also has an offbeat sense of humour and a killer script by Buck Henry.
RC: When I wasn’t at a screening, I spent the weekend interviewing people — notably, the stars of the opening night film, The Judge. Robert Downey Jr. was last year’s highest-paid movie star, and he’s also one of the most quotable. When he walked into the room he was carrying a little green box. “I have distilled socialism in this box,” he announced, “and am taking it back to America.” In a wide-ranging conversation, he talked about portraying realism on camera — “Realism is the death of cinema in many ways” — and plans for his next couple of movies. “I can tell you for sure that we are obsessively working on another Sherlock, and the Marvel universe seems to self-perpetuate.”
MB: What other star than Downey would dare to use the word socialism in an interview that could be picked up by Fox News? What a gloriously eccentric actor and human being.
RC: I also got to spend some time with Dustin Hoffman. Not only did I fix his watch — he couldn’t stop the alarm from going off every 10 minutes or so — but we talked about his film Boychoir, and why he started acting in the first place when his first love was music. “I wanted to be a musician but I wasn’t talented enough. I have small hands,” he said, which made it difficult to excel at piano. “There is no correlation between small hands and private parts,” he added, before saying, “I was told to take acting. Nobody flunks acting.” Later he said that it wasn’t such a bad choice because, for instance, “No one ever says, ‘I want to be a critic when I grow up.’”