Over the last 40 years, Bill Murray has successfully transformed himself from respected comedic actor into a film legend. He can pull off Oscar-caliber performances yet still feel like your best friend; he can dance with complete strangers then dress up as Liberace on national television; he can voice an animated cat in a horrible movie then admit the film was terrible. Most importantly, though, he can entertain the hell out of us, something he’s been doing consistently since his days on SNL.
This weekend, Murray will add to his long-gestating career with another potential scene-stealing role as Sgt. Richard Campbell in George Clooney’s Monuments Men. The last time we saw Murray on-screen he was in rare form, playing Franklin D. Roosevelt in a rather serious Hyde Park on Hudson. While he won raves for his performance (sadly, the same could not be said of the movie), it’s nice to see him back doing what he does best: spouting quippy one-liners and making us smile.
The inordinate amount of man-hours we’ve spent over the years discussing Murray's great characters in Ghostbusters or Caddyshack or Stripes or Lost in Translation has caused us to pass over some really great moments in Murray’s career. Now it’s time to give them their due.
How does one go about choosing Bill Murray’s most underrated role? Obviously by spending many hours watching Bill Murray movies (related: I love my job). Before you start barking at me for my final choice, at least let me show you how I got to my decision.
First, I began by listing every performance he’s had in his career, then cutting out the ones that are considered classics, both critically and commercially. That meant saying good-bye to the cream of the crop: Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Lost in Translation, Groundhog Day, Rushmore and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
Next, I scratched out another set of films. This slate included strong but small performances in movies everyone has heard of (The Royal Tenenbaums, Tootsie), brilliant lead performances in lackluster movies (Scrooged), performances Murray mailed in (Charlie’s Angels), and movies where Murray had a cameo or played himself (Zombieland, Space Jam).
That left me with 28 films to peruse. Among the rest I got rid of: A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swann III (too weird), Hyde Park on Hudson (too boring), Nothing Lasts Forever (way too obscure, and technically never released), The Razor’s Edge (underwhelming, compared with the rest on the list), Cradle Will Rock (too small a role), Quick Change (memorable but not that memorable), and The Man Who Knew Too Little (funny, but a bit schlocky).
The final three:
As Wood’s openly gay friend Bunny, Murray has a sweetness, a penchant for humor, and a potentially outrageous backstory lurking underneath the surface. Murray may not fully disappear into this character––the sequence where he sings “Whatever Will Be Will Be” feels like classic Bill Murray––but it doesn’t negatively affect what he’s trying to accomplish. Overall, it feels like his performance here is a bit of a secret, overshadowed by the dream team of director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.
Mad Dog and Glory
People might be surprised this movie ever existed in the first place. The film stars Robert De Niro as a cop who saves the life of a gangster, Frank Milo (Murray), who claims to own a comedy club where he performs stand-up. Eventually, Milo draws De Niro’s character further into his underworld, complicating matters for the both of them. De Niro and Murray are playing against type here, and it’s a delight watching them trade barbs (and a few punches). Murray sells it as a semi-intimidating mobster in a hilarious, no-nonsense way.
Winner: Broken Flowers
This isn’t a typical Bill Murray movie. He’s not up to his usual shenanigans here; instead he's a bit dialed back. Don Johnston is a middle-aged bachelor who sits alone in his big house listening to opera music in the dark. He doesn’t have many friends, other than his next-door neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright). However, one day he ends up getting a letter from a former lover, claiming that Don got her pregnant 20 years ago then ended up having his son. At the urging of Winston, Don heads off on an adventure to find out who the mystery lady is.
Murray peels back the layers of his character like he’s slowly pulling off flower petals, one by one. It’s certainly one of his quieter performances, poignant and emotional––particularly toward the end when he thinks he’s finally found what he’s looking for. Most of Murray’s best characters share their jokes with everyone, but Don looks like he’s keeping the joke to himself.
So the next time you decide to throw in Ghostbusters for the 47th time (and believe me, I know it’s tempting), try out Broken Flowers. You might help turn in an underrated film into a mainstream classic.