Why is one of Bill Murray’s best movies still largely unavailable?

09.21.15 2 years ago

Everybody loves Bill Murray.

Okay, maybe that's not 100% true, but there are days where it seems like it's true. Bill Murray is well aware of the way people feel about him, and over the course of his very strange career, he has taken full advantage of the latitude that people grant him because of the persona he has cultivated. Bill Murray has become something more than a comic lead, something bigger than a movie start, and arguably something more impressive and enduring than a legend.

Bill Murray is an urban myth.

Talk about transcending your corporeal form, man. We've all heard the Bill Murray stories, wild tales about the actor showing up at a party, staying till dawn, then doing all the dishes in the house before slipping out the back door without a goodbye, or tackling someone in the park before whispering to them, “No one will be believe you.” These stories may or may not be true, and Murray would certainly never wade in to try to sort out fact from fabrication, but they all feel true. They feel like what we should expect from the star of “Rushmore” and “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day.” After all, his brothers even seem to view him as a sort of comedy Bigfoot, telling stories like this one:

Good god, I love that. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I remember one afternoon when I was dropping off a script at CAA. I was just going to run it in, hand the envelope to someone at the front desk, and then run back out to the car where my buddy was waiting. I was in shorts and an old t-shirt, and we were in the middle of running a ton of errands on a hot summer day in a Chevette with an air conditioner that had long since seen better days. The last thing on my mind was how I looked. Before I could run back out, though, I ran into Bill Murray and a group of people, and Murray turned, mid-conversation, to riff on my appearance as if I was an agent for the at-that-time-hottest-agency on the planet, making fun of me to my face in a way that didn't even slightly feel mean, going for a good 30 seconds before he continued the conversation without missing a beat. It was surreal, and by the time I got to the car, I felt like I had dreamed it. It was just too strange, and I can only imagine how many people have had experiences like this and felt the exact same way. 

In many ways, “Tootsie” is the Platonic ideal of a Bill Murray performance, where he spends most of the movie offering up deadly, laser-accurate punchlines from the sidelines. He's a movie star of the highest order, but he is also frequently deployed as a weapon in very focused bursts, capable of cameos that redefine how great a cameo can be. Think of his work in “Zombieland,” for example. Not only is it in character for him to show up as “Bill Murray” in something, but it frees him up to play an even more surreal version of the image we all have of who he might be in his private life. Although the story behind this absolutely tremendous photograph —

— as recounted in this absolutely tremendous interview is about as surreal a celebrity story as I can imagine. Bill Murray was at Elvis Presley's funeral in 1977? What the hell? He can't exist. He just can't. He's the kind of famous that Muhammad Ali was at his biggest, when he fought Superman in a comic book. It makes sense that Bill Murray would be in “Space Jam.” Why wouldn't he be in “Space Jam”? If aliens are fighting cartoons and they need an equally improbably actual celebrity to appear, Bill Murray seems like the perfect bridge between the world of reality and the world of cartoons. He encourages the mythology, and I think it makes him seem special in a world where movie stars have been thoroughly demystified. There are plenty of Murray stories, but not tabloid Murray stories. He seems like he exists somehow beyond the world of the paparazzi and the TMZs of the world. Last night, he won an Emmy for his role in “Olive Kitteridge,” and instead of attending the event in anticipation of the award, he was at his son's wedding, according to Kelly Lynch:

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What I love most is how many people are on Twitter right now making jokes about where Murray was instead of the show, and there's no suggestion too silly or weird. And the real answer is beautiful and makes me like him so much more. Enjoying all of this Murray-ness this evening, it made me itch to revisit a particular favorite Bill Murray film. Unfortunately, the film isn't especially easy to find at the moment, and I don't appear to have it in my collection. I remember buying a DVD of it at some point, but I don't have any idea if it's in the big unsorted snow drifts of discs I have tucked around my apartment. I'll go looking later to see if I have it here, and if not, I'll just have to leave that itch unresolved. But there's no Blu-ray. It's not on Netflix. It's available on VUDU, which is where I'll end up buying it if I have to. The idea that this is now just a digital file, something that you can't in the physical sense, makes me so nervous. It really does. Films can just go away now. If you don't have it archived physically in various places, it's not really in circulation. If if can just drop off of Netflix, out of retail outlets completely, then did “Quick Change” really happen?

I wish Warner Archives would offer up a Blu-ray of it. I doubt it's in high demand, but I wonder how much of that is just a case of the film always having been treated as a red-headed stepchild. It had a deadly release date, the campaign never really sold anything beyond Bill Murray dressed as a clown, and it didn't catch any sort of critical wave, either. It's a movie I like enormously, though, adapted from Jay Cronley's novel. There was a moment there in the mid-'80s to early '90s where Cronley's books were being snapped up and turned into movies. I think “Let It Ride” is a great one, while “Funny Farm” is a decidedly not-great one. I've never seen the Canadian adaptation of “Quick Change,” which was called “Hold-Up,” but I adore what Murray and Howard Franklin did with the material.

The film has one of the best opening acts, a bank robbery staged by a guy named Grimm, played by Murray, and the enormous mileage they get out of his clown make-up and costume is enough to put Murray in the pantheon of the best Warner Bros cartoons of all time. It is one of those impeccably cast movies that features a script that gives every one of the supporting players something fun to do. Randy Quaid is outstanding in the film, and Geena Davis goes toe-to-toe with Murray in a way that few of his other female leads were allowed to do, reminiscent of the sense of play in his onscreen relationship with Sigourney Weaver. Once the bank robbery is over, and it's out into the streets of New York, I love the way the city seems determined to frustrate and punish them. Tony Shaloub is so good in the film that I think acting schools should just teach his performance in this film as a single class. He's insane. It's not quite “After Hours” dark, but it does take some profoundly weird left turns along the way. There's a jousting scene I find beautiful, and one seriously deranged Tennessee Williams joke, and through it all, Murray's doing character work on par with any other comedy or drama released in 1990. He's a great actor, something I don't think people truly acknowledge. After all, he's the Yeti. He's too much fun for us to totally take him seriously… right?

The truth is that the most subversive thing about Bill Murray is just how deeply soulful he is in his sneakiest moments. His humor is a tool that he uses to dissect the world and disguise just how much it all genuinely affects him. It's one of the reasons I think “Scrooged,” his version of the oft-told Dickens tale, is one of the most affecting. He is so good at putting on the cynical front, playing the detachment, that when he thaws, when he wakes up, when he becomes that best version of Bill Murray who seems like he just wants to tickle every single person on the planet at least once, it's a huge emotional release.

Today's Bill Murray's birthday. I hope he has about 1,000 more.

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