“It’s a serious story, and if you don’t want to see a serious story, you shouldn’t see it. I don’t want to disappoint anybody. If you’re looking for a comedy you should just go see Ghostbusters.” – Bill Murray
In 1984, Bill Murray was looking to make a change. That year saw the release of the enormously
successful Ghostbusters, and also a film that Murray both co-wrote and starred in: The Razor’s Edge, the second film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel. Bringing the story of Larry Darrell’s globe-spanning search for enlightenment to the big screen had a lasting effect on Murray, one that changed his outlook on fame, acting, and himself.
It all began when Murray met writer/director John Byrum in Los Angeles during his early days at SNL. As it turned out, the two were from the same Chicago suburb, and before long were looking for a project to work on together. Murray explained to Rolling Stone in 1984 that he “liked the way he talked about Hollywood. He says terrible things about Hollywood and everything in it.”
Soon after, Byrum sent him a copy of Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, and after reading the first 40 pages or so, Murray called up Byrum at 4 AM and introduced himself as Larry Darrell, the novel’s protagonist. The director felt confident in his ability to play the lead role in a drama, citing Murray’s desire to grow creatively.
“When you’re an actor, people want you to keep doing what you’ve done before–and that’s why so many actors atrophy. There are only a handful who keep on pushing, trying new things, and they just get better and better.”
The two began writing the script together, and the process seemed to underscore Murray’s parallel to the character. Avoiding convention from the start, they wrote in crowded bars, as Murray believed that “good things come from difficult conditions, and I thought that no matter how badly we did, at least we’d have the experience of trying to concentrate on one thing while being distracted all the time.”
As the two began traveling further out, starting with upstate New York and New Jersey, their trips became more extravagant, and included traveling to spas along the West Coast, something Murray elaborated on to David Letterman before the movie’s premiere in 1984:
Eventually, as Murray mentions in the clip, the pair ended up writing out of a monastery in India, and found themselves in the middle of what Murray called an “almost Holy War.”
John [Byrum] and I just sat down on the bottom step of this place and talked like there was nothing going on at all. And I said, “You know, we’re the only people here that are prepared for this.” It was great. We ended up being not taken by all the distraction.
After the script was completed, Murray and Byrum faced the obstacle of finding a studio that was willing to finance it. At that time, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis were in the market for a bankable star to headline their project, and Murray worked out a deal that allowed for both — he’d agree to star in Ghostbusters if Columbia Pictures were to finance The Razor’s Edge.
Even though the project had been given the greenlight, its development moved along slowly. “They were kind of hoping something else came up, another comedy, or I’d have a motorcycle accident or lose interest,” Murray said about those early days in pre-production.
Murray’s interest never waned, and with the movie being a passion project, he made the script more personal. “The story I got was of a guy who sees that there’s more to life than just making a buck and having a romantic fling,” Murray told Rolling Stone in 1984. “I’d experienced that, and I knew what that was, so I had my own ideas about how it played.”
One source of inspiration came from the death of John Belushi, Murray’s close friend and fellow SNL alumni who had overdosed in 1982. Murray, whose role in Ghostbusters was written for Belushi at first, wrote a soliloquy for him into the The Razor’s Edge. After the character of Piedmont is killed, played by his real-life brother Brian Doyle-Murray, he berates him for his eating habits. As he explained to People magazine:
“That scene is all about John. It comes from this old Persian thing where if somebody dies you tell horrible stories about him. That’s what I did when John died. What it does is remind you not to get sentimental. You say, ‘That guy was a rat,’ and I’m a rat too, and I’d better do something about it rather than weep my life away.”
Despite their considerable efforts, the public simply wasn’t ready for Murray’s dramatic turn leading to a poor reception at the box office, and, too, the film was not that well-received by critics. The New York Times said his performance was “both jokey and anachronistic, and the Parisian setting is little more than an excuse for him to show up in a beret.”
But just as Citizen Kane seemed to foreshadow Orson Welles’ future, The Razor’s Edge seemed to predict Murray’s path, at least for the next few months. Not long after the movie’s release, he withdrew from public life, moved his family to Paris, read philosophy at the Sorbonne, and studied the works of mystics like George Gurdjieff.
He called his time there “a fantastic life,” taking a French class in the morning, before stopping by a chocolatier and then, “at lunchtime I was walking around with 150 grams of chocolate in my pocket, and offering a piece was a great way to start a conversation.” It’s stories like these that seem to mark the beginnings of the eccentric gadabout the internet would become enamored with years later.
Though Murray and his family returned to their home in the Hudson Valley after six months, it would be another four years before he’d return to acting, despite having been set to star in a movie after his return to the U.S.
“I was supposed to do a movie when I came back, and when I came back, and I saw the script that I was supposed to do, I didn’t want to do it. And that put me a whole season behind, and then I went through a kind of funny thing.”
The “funny thing” he’d go through, avoiding casting calls, would last the better part of four years. After returning to acting, he became more selective about the roles he chose, and would rarely do interviews or any kind of red carpet events. Around that time he became known for comedies like Scrooged and Groundhog Day (which is based loosely on the philosophy of P.D. Ouspensky, a student of Gurdjieff’s) which let him show off his dramatic chops here and there.
As the years went on, he’d enjoy a late-career renaissance. In 2005, Roger Ebert would say of him “no actor is better than Bill Murray at doing nothing at all, and being fascinating while not doing it.” He continues to bring his kind of nuanced deadpan to film and TV today, selectively choosing from big studio projects to low-budget indie features, and even a group of guys walking down a hallway. When reflecting on his body of work, he said of The Razor’s Edge “The day I finished shooting I said, ‘If this never comes out, the experience will have been worth it.’ I still feel that way.“