What about Bill?

Times Staff Writer

Will Bill Murray win the Oscar tonight for best actor in a motion picture?

It’s a funny question. On “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1970s, when he was on “Weekend Update,” Murray used to do his annual Oscar predictions, in which he’d mock the event as a Left Coast dog-and-pony show. The bit involved a magnetic tote board and the names of the nominees, which Murray would blithely toss aside as he eliminated contenders for reasons that had nothing to do with performance (“Best supporting actor and actress? Who really cares

And yet, with “Lost in Translation,” here we are: Murray could find himself crowned Grand Pooh-bah of the Hollywood acting community. His competition for best actor includes Ben Kingsley, a guy you’re supposed to call “Sir” when you see him on the street; Johnny Depp, who starred in a movie based on a Disneyland ride; Sean Penn, who will surely be nominated a zillion more times; and Jude Law, a Brit playing a Civil War deserter in a movie, “Cold Mountain,” that substituted Romania for the American South.

Of all the nominees, Murray is the one true wild card. The others exude actorly Hollywood rectitude, even the former bad boys Depp and Penn. Put another way, Murray is the only one of the five who hasn’t sat down for a discussion of “craft” on Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”


This is exactly why Murray can be so likable: He is outside the rules. He is not classically handsome, and his face, acne-scarred until it more recently resolved into weathered middle age, is identified more for its malleability than its wattage. Known as reclusive (or, in today’s media age, someone you can’t find on 16 magazine covers when he’s got a movie out), Murray also has a famous antipathy when it comes to the people within the movie business.

In 1999, Murray spoke at the memorial service for his agent, Jay Moloney, who was found hanged in his Mulholland Drive house after years of drug abuse. Murray told the assembled that he was waiving his appearance fee that day “because Jay would have wanted it that way.” Then he looked out at an auditorium filled with industry types and said, “There are so many people here today that I would much rather be eulogizing.”

Murray was in similar form last month, when he won his Golden Globe. He gave a pretty biting speech. Instead of thanking his agents as a parade of winners had been doing all night, Murray said he’d fired his representatives; meanwhile his physical trainer had killed himself. Nor could he thank anyone at Universal or Focus Features for “Lost in Translation,” because “so many people are trying to take credit for this thing I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

Say this: Murray gave something to the moment. But then he usually does, even if his approach is thickly dolloped with scorn and creative malfeasance. Appearing on “The Late Show With David Letterman” several weeks ago, Murray referred to the Oscars as “this thing at the end of the month.” Acclaim is forcing him out of hiding and perhaps, as a comedian, he is struggling with which public face to wear. On “Letterman” -- as at the Golden Globes, and in the current Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair -- he looked as gray and forlorn as his more recent characters, the industrialist Herman Blume in “Rushmore” and the burned-out Hollywood action star Bob Harris in “Lost in Translation.”

The Bill we used to know

For longtime fans of his movies, the glum-faced Murray represents only part of the career. Where was the mischievous smile, the coy Murray?

But no, he kept his miserable face on. Maybe it was jet lag (he’d flown in from Italy, where he was shooting his latest movie, “The Life Aquatic”). Between the new movie and promotion of “Lost in Translation,” Murray has been away from his home and family since Labor Day, something that is said to weigh on him. The PR people for “Lost in Translation” declared him unavailable for an interview in a way that suggested vast, don’t-even-think-about-it unavailability. This even though “Translation,” which was released quietly as a “small movie” that happened to star Bill Murray, is now being hard-sold as a Bill Murray comedy, even though the movie isn’t a comedy (that scene of him losing control on the Life Cycle, while hilarious, is hardly representative of the tone of the film, which is generally deadpan and wistful).


Now that the movie is both out on DVD and in the American multiplex, audiences who haven’t seen Murray since, say, “Groundhog Day” may be surprised that the tone of the movie is so serious. Certainly it’s a sea change from his best-known work (e.g. “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters” or even “Kingpin”). Though considered a comedian, Murray has over the years shown a consistent desire to do dramatic work (as when, according to lore, he agreed to do “Ghostbusters” on the condition Columbia bankroll an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” in which he starred).

Newly hot thanks to “Translation,” it remains to be seen how he will play this hand. “His patent insincerity makes him the perfect emblematic hero for the stoned era,” the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, a consistent admirer, wrote of Murray in her review of “Ghostbusters,” which came out in 1984. “He has a genuine outre gift: he makes you feel that his characters are bums inside -- unconcerned and indifferent -- and he makes that seem like a kind of grace.”

In the course of asking around about Murray you hear that he is “weird,” that getting a project to him can involve leaving a script in a phone booth, that he conducts business, or some business, via an 800 number (needing to get in touch with him, an assistant on a recent Murray movie was told to call the 800 number and leave a number where she, the assistant, would not pick up the phone, thus avoiding any potential for a conversation).

Hollywood stories of Murray include the disagreement with producer Laura Ziskin on the set of “What About Bob?” in which Murray tossed Ziskin into a lake -- “playfully,” Ziskin said. “Bill also threatened to throw me across the parking lot and then broke my sunglasses and threw them across the parking lot,” she told The Times last year.

Jessica Tuchinsky, one of the CAA agents Murray recently fired, declined to be interviewed. Tuchinsky, who had been Moloney’s assistant, referred questions to Wendy Smith, an agency spokeswoman, who said it was the company’s policy not to comment on former clients.

Several sources, requesting anonymity, suggested Murray was unhappy that his representatives had not been able to get him a bigger payday for “The Life Aquatic,” a big-budget Disney film directed by “Rushmore’s” Wes Anderson, in which Murray plays an oceanographer not unlike the late Jacques Cousteau.


Murray’s fee was reportedly $10 million for “Groundhog Day,” but that was more than a decade ago, when he was represented by then-CAA superagent Michael Ovitz (Ovitz did not return several phone calls). At 53, Murray is too old to be Adam Sandler, who rakes in the millions as the box-office king of slapstick.

But Murray never wanted to be that guy, or at least he was ambivalent about it. True, there have been a few naked commercial grabs (“Charlie’s Angels”), but he has aged in to quirky dramatic roles apparently not done for the money (“Ed Wood,” “Cradle Will Rock”).

In “Lost in Translation,” Murray plays a fading star who can’t earn in Hollywood anymore and has to take a whiskey commercial in Japan to keep the seven-figure paydays coming. Is it art imitating life? Murray turned down the role of Bosley in “Charlie’s Angels II” -- work he probably saw as roughly the equivalent of staring into a camera and saying “Make it Suntory time.”

Instead he did “Translation,” a movie whose total budget was around $4 million. Lo and behold he fires his representatives, gets an Oscar nomination and becomes even harder to contact.

This is all part of his mystique or his perversity, depending on your point of view. As a movie star, Murray is no Julia Roberts: He shuns most press but appears at odd moments. At the International Conference on Sturgeon Biodiversity and Conservation in New York, according to a 1994 New York Times item, he “crumpled up a check and threw it at Kathryn Birstein, the wife of Dr. Vadim Birstein, a geneticist and champion of sturgeons in Russia. It was a signed blank check.”

All of this is great so long as you can keep Hollywood needing you more than you need them. Murray has had a few misses (i.e. “The Man Who Knew Too Little”), but he has managed to hold onto his essence in ways that other big-name comedians have not. There is a through line, a humanity, to his work that isn’t as palpable with other comedic stars, including Steve Martin, who went from the wild-and-crazy guy of “The Jerk” to his more recent series of neutered roles as dads, or Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, who are all over the place, playing pet detectives and serial killers and menschy therapists, depending on the year.


Letterman tried to point this out to Murray, though as he ticked off the now-classic films (“Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters”) Murray sat there, looking chagrined. Then he choked up talking about all the months away from his family (Murray, choking up?). He has six children, all males, between the ages of 2 and 21, and he lives with his second wife, Jennifer Butler, somewhere up the Hudson River in New York.

This is the private Murray, the Kurtz-on-the-Hudson whom people in Hollywood must seek out.

“He keeps getting better, and most artists go the other way,” said Jason Schwartzman, the 23-year-old actor who co-starred with Murray in “Rushmore” (1998). “That’s what’s exciting about him.”

In that film, a dark comedy, Murray played a misfit father figure to Schwartzman’s misfit teenager. It was the latter’s first major role. “I don’t know how he makes choices about movies, or how Hollywood perceives him,” Schwartzman said. “All I know is Bill Murray, the guy that I worked with. And that guy is about 75% of the reason why I’m here [and] kind of the way I am.”

After some more thought Schwartzman added: “Bill Murray is to me what calculators are to math. I never knew math before calculators, and I never knew life before Bill Murray. Being a child of the ‘80s, his movies were always around me, and I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t Bill Murray.”

Nudging toward ‘Translation’

“I saw a sneak preview of ‘Meatballs,’ OK?” Quentin Tarantino said a few weeks ago, at the DVD release party for “Lost in Translation.” Tarantino was standing near the bar in one of the inner-sanctum, VIP rooms at Koi, a fashionable Japanese restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard.


“I’m 40, and he’s truly a god-like, iconic hero to me,” Tarantino said of Murray. He suggested that, for a generation, Murray is to comedy what John Lennon was to pop music. He said that other stars had cut their teeth copying him. Tom Hanks was doing Bill Murray in “Bachelor Party,” Tarantino said, and John Cusack was doing Murray in “The Sure Thing.”

Tarantino is a former video store clerk, and video store nerds, particularly males, revere Murray. To that end, it is probably worth noting that Murray movies typically warrant their own shelf. Tarantino’s top five of all time: “Lost in Translation,” “Groundhog Day,” “Stripes,” “Kingpin” and a tie between “Caddyshack” and “Scrooged.”

“He’s like W.C. Fields in ‘Scrooged!” Tarantino proclaimed.

At Koi, “Lost in Translation,” an increasingly trendy product that will likely make more money as a DVD than as a theatrical release, played on flat screens around the restaurant, and the waiters were wearing the camouflage T-shirt that, in the film, symbolizes Bob Harris’ midlife crisis.

Beck was there, and Marisa Tomei and Francis Ford Coppola. So were Murray’s director and his costar, Sofia Coppola and Scarlett Johansson, respectively. But not Murray, who was in Italy for “The Life Aquatic.”

It is the third film Murray has done for writer-director Wes Anderson, after “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Anderson is 34, Coppola is 32. They are young filmmakers in whose quirky cinematic worlds Murray’s comic skills have been repositioned as engines of romance, comedy and, yes, sincerity.

In “Rushmore,” it was Murray as the depressed, alcoholic father and industrialist Herman Blume who strikes up an odd but poignant alliance with Max Fischer (Schwartzman), a precocious kid failing out of prep school. In “Lost in Translation,” the conceit is repeated, this time with Murray as a movie star out of sorts in a Tokyo hotel who strikes up an odd but poignant alliance with Charlotte, the ignored, 21-year-old wife of a climbing fashion photographer.


“Rushmore” was Anderson’s second film, after “Bottle Rocket”; “Translation” was Coppola’s second feature, after “The Virgin Suicides.” Both filmmakers had to beg, cajole and wheedle to get Murray to commit.

Coppola turned to screenwriter Mitch Glazer, who co-wrote “Scrooged” and has known Murray since his “SNL” days. Glazer said he sent Murray the “Translation” script and called him “every few weeks, saying, ‘You need to read this.’ ” He bugged Murray while Coppola bugged Glazer and Murray. Eventually, Glazer brokered a dinner, in New York.

“I just wanted to see him sitting in the kimono on the bed,” Coppola said recently. “... I left him a lot of messages. He probably got sick of it. I sent him pages, and then I would leave him messages about what I was thinking about it.”

“Lost in Translation” posits Murray as a romantic leading man. This is not exactly new (he always got the girls in his comedies -- once with the use of an ice cream scoop in “Stripes”). But the romance in “Translation” is meant to be seen, finally, as bittersweet and tragic. Bob Harris and Charlotte never have sex, but they do have a series of intimate conversations in bed, clothed and on top of the covers, lying there.

“I’m stuck, does it get easier?” Charlotte, the Yale-educated, existentially challenged protagonist, asks of life.

“No,” Harris tells her. Beat. “Yes, it does,” he says.

On the DVD of “Lost in Translation,” there is a conversation between Coppola and Murray, shot on a balcony somewhere in Rome last year. The conversation is pretty boring, but the body language between the two is not. At one point they stand awkwardly next to each other, at another they’re back to back. She gazes up at him and he down at her.


The feeling is very much like the tone of Murray’s quasi-romantic scenes with Johansson and perhaps explains why their on-screen relationship, while unlikely, is the most convincing aspect of the film.

“I think he’s really attractive,” Coppola said on the phone. “Bill Murray is hot. Different women have said that to me ...” She realized what she had just said and added: “I don’t want to say anything inappropriate.”

Coppola vaguely remembers watching “Saturday Night Live” as a kid. “I remember Lisa Loopner and Todd,” she said, referring to the high school nerds Murray and Gilda Radner played in a recurring sketch. And so, whereas Murray has been a particular kind of anti-hero to guys, “Lost in Translation” presents Murray from the point of view of a woman: a paternal figure who is charming and funny and sweet -- and thus sexy.

“I think that I saw him as a leading man, and I really respected him as an actor,” Coppola said. “I could see that he’s a brilliant comic, but you could also see that he has this really sensitive side. In ‘Groundhog Day,’ he was really romantic.”

Material for comics

On “Letterman,” Murray hinted that if he wins the Oscar he plans to thank some of the people he started out with in Second City, the famed sketch comedy troupe in Chicago.

He mentioned John Candy, who co-starred with Murray in “Stripes.” Candy died 10 years ago this week while shooting a comedy in Mexico called “Wagons East.” By then he was grossly overweight and showing up in any number of comedies that were vastly beneath his best work.


But this is how it so often goes for even the good comics; they can’t find the material, and so they recycle whatever moves they’ve got to keep working. That Murray has been able to avoid this fate is a sign that his work transcends the tastes of different generations.

“Murray seems enormously likable now,” the New Yorker’s Kael wrote in her 1981 review of “Stripes,” “the more so, maybe, because he has been wearing his suave put-on expressions so long that he has no way to be straight without appearing even phonier.”

In “Lost in Translation,” anyway, he figured out a way.