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.”
Bill Murray became a big screen superstar on the back of loose-limbed performances in comedies like Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters. By 1984, however, he was tiring of playing the clown and looking to do something with a bit more edge.
When director John Byrum gave him a copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, Murray responded the very next day. Calling the director at 4 am he said, “This is Larry, Larry Darrell,” dropping the name of the novel’s main character, an enigmatic man on a quest for spiritual fulfillment.
The resulting film bombed, with Roger Ebert suggesting Murray played “the hero as if fate is a comedian and he is the straight man.” Of course Murray has gone on to become a credible and in demand dramatic actor, but the story of a comedian’s rocky leap from farce to drama still rings true today.
This weekend Chris Rock’s new comedy Top Five tells the story of Andre Allen, a fictional megastar trying to jump from silly comedies to Uprize, a serious drama about the slave revolt in Haiti.
Top Five is a new twist on an old story. Many comedians have tried to flick the switch from comedy to drama.
The late Robin Williams effortlessly hopped between genres. In 2002 alone he made three films, the lowbrow laffer Death to Smoochy, bookended by the psychodrama One Hour Photo and Christopher Nolan’s thriller Insomnia.
Will Ferrell, Steve Carell and Jonah Hill are best known for funny movies like Blades of Glory, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Superbad, but each have stretched their dramatic muscles. Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction earned a good review from Roger Ebert who said Ferrell “has dramatic gifts to equal his comedic talent.” Carell’s new drama Foxcatcher looks poised to earn him notice at awards time and Jonah Hill is a two time Oscar nominee for heavyweights Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Finally, think Jim Carrey and visions of talking butts and rubber-faced features come to mind but he made a serious run at being a serious actor. Perhaps he was pushed into more thoughtful work when his Batman Forever co-star Tommy Lee Jones told him, ‘I cannot sanction your buffoonery,” but whatever the case in movies like Man on the Moon, The Majestic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind played it straight. “It’s going to be so hard to talk out of my ass after this,” he said when he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor award for The Truman Show, “but I’ll manage.”
On Sept. 5, the Reel Guys will be wearing our matching glow-in-the-dark Dr. Venkman khaki T-shirts to celebrate TIFF’s Bill Murray Day. Beginning at 10 a.m., the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto will feature free screenings of Stripes, Groundhog Day and, everybody’s favourite, Ghostbusters, in advance of the world premier of Murray’s new movie St. Vincent. “I’m a nut,” Murray says, “but not just a nut.” His movies, which range from nutty comedies to dramas and everything in between, show his range. Today, as we celebrate the genius that is Bill Murray, the Reel Guys select a few must-sees.
Richard: Mark, I feel happy just knowing that I live in the same world as Bill Murray. I’ve never met him, but his very existence and the existence of films like Meatballs, Ghostbusters, Lost in Translation and any of his movies with Wes Anderson make my world a better place.
If I had to choose one little-seen Murray movie to tout, it would be Where the Buffalo Roam — his take on the life of the high priest of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. It’s not a great film, but it’s worth it to hear Murray say the famous line, “I hate to advocate drugs or liquor, violence, insanity to anyone, but, in my case, it worked.”
Mark: Richard, here’s my pick for a little-known film starring Murray: The Razor’s Edge. At the height of Murray’s first round of fame, he managed to miscast himself in a Somerset Maugham costume drama about a man’s search for spirituality.
His acting style is completely at odds with the rest of the material, as he’s playing the part as a louche 19th-century wiseass. And you know what? I love it!
Also from this time period, the mid-’80s, is the underrated Scrooged, a great retelling of A Christmas Carol. Traditionalists who fondly remember Alistair Sims would be aghast, but Murray really knows how to shake off the cobwebs and make the movie funny and oddly touching.
RC: Have you seen Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson? He plays Franklin D. Roosevelt and he gives the kind of effortless performance that made me wonder what might have happened to his career if The Razor’s Edge hadn’t been such a flop, forcing him back into comedy. But he can switch back and forth easily.
The same year he played an undertaker in Get Low, he also played an exaggerated version of himself as a man who plays at being a zombie during the apocalypse so he can continue playing golf unbothered by the undead in Zombieland.
It’s a surreal cameo that, like most of Murray’s appearances, is worth the price of admission.
MB: There may be bad movies that Bill Murray is in but there are no bad Bill Murray movies. He consistently rises above the material. But when the script is top-notch, there is no beating him.
I’m thinking here of Groundhog Day — one of the best and smartest comedies of the past 30 years.
He takes a clever idea and turns it into something transcendent, even philosophical. Great movie, great performance.
RC: In the transcendent and philosophical pile, I’d throw in Broken Flowers, where Murray plays a man on a journey to reconnect with all the women he knew before he became a burned-out Don Juan.
Ebert gave this four out of four stars; I give it five out of four. It’s that good.
MB: Yes, a great role for him. But consider this: his supporting role in Tootsie, where he nearly steals scenes from the great Dustin Hoffman.