The Transfiguration of Bill Murray

By: Scott Alic

Q: “What is it like being so awesome?”

A: “Well, nothing prepared me for being this awesome. It’s kind of a shock. It’s kind of a shock to wake up every morning and be bathed in this purple light.”

— Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session with Bill Murray, January 2014

He’s the “Director of Fun” for the Charleston River Dogs, one of four minor league baseball teams he owns. He shows up to Cannes, pro-am golf tournaments, and Letterman wearing whatever he damn well pleases. He may just show up at your karaoke room, your kickball game, or your house party and do your dishes, if you’re lucky. Your parents love him. Millennials, for whom anything over 32 years of age (except, perhaps, the corpse of Kurt Cobain) is generally repellent, adore him.

Somewhere along the way, Bill Murray has transmogrified from celebrated (but fallible) comic actor into a bona fide folk hero, and the Internet, a mere receptacle for his many whimsical intrusions into the lives of us ordinary plebes, has only fostered his ever-growing reputation as a modern-day trickster.

Regal Bill Murray.

Regal Bill Murray.

Various online lists can provide you with eight, nine, ten and even “58 Unbelievable Moments of Awesome” dispensed by the sporadic thespian, and the Bill Murray Stories website invites contributors’ life-changing encounters with the actor, not caring whether they are wholly true or not – it remains to be seen whether the stories obtain Chuck Norris-esque degrees of mythos. Murray, the uber-rare celebrity who has never had a manager or publicist[1], and who fired his agents in 2000, seems pleased to be the subject of legends and plausible truths: when questioned by GQ about the veracity of what may be the most famous Bill Murray Story, which like the Aristocrats, takes many forms involving Murray ambushing a stranger but always ends in him telling the stunned person “No one will ever believe you”, Murray responded mischievously:

[long pause] I know. I know, I know, I know. I’ve heard about that from a lot of people. A lot of people. I don’t know what to say. There’s probably a really appropriate thing to say. Something exactly and just perfectly right. [long beat, and then he breaks into a huge grin] But by God, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Just so crazy and unlikely and unusual?”

Man of the people. Friend to all. Little wonder then, that at the sprawling Toronto International Film Festival, which was visited upon by a broad swath of the Hollywood firmament over eleven days (well, really, just over the first four or so, as is TIFF custom), that the second day (September 5) was decreed to be Bill Murray Day. People dressed as Steve Zissou and Dr. Peter Venkman made pilgrimages and stayed in line overnight to catch screenings of Stripes, Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters, and to breathe the same air as the man.

After the last screening, Murray himself appeared before the enraptured audience, grabbing a microphone to sing a couple of verses of “Raspberry Beret” (his entrance music, natch; per the Vulture website, “He would repeat the performance (sans mike) at an after-party later that night, where he would also lead a dance party”, as he often does). He complimented babies dressed as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and accepted sketches of himself done in the lineup outside. He told a reliably awesome Bill Murray story of the time he was in Oakland, found out his cabby was a sax player, and then switched places with him and drove the cabby to Sausalito to play his sax in a sketchy rib shack at 2am. But most importantly, Bill Murray imparted two large pieces of what may one day be compiled as the Gospel According to Bill Murray: how one may, in this lifetime, achieve the sort of contentment that heretofore had only been graspable by one Bill Murray.

Are you ready?

“Someone told me some secrets early on about living. You have to remind yourself that you can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed. No matter what it is, no matter what your job is, the more relaxed you are, the better you are. That’s sort of why I got into acting. I realized that the more fun I had, the better I did it, and I thought, Well, that’s a job I can be proud of. I’d be proud to have that job, if I had to go to work and say, ‘No matter what my condition or what my mood is, no matter how I feel about what’s going on in my life, if I can relax myself and enjoy what I’m doing and have fun with it, then I can do my job really well.’ And it’s changed my life, learning that. And it’s made me better at what I do. I’m not the greatest or anything. But I really enjoy what I do.”

Relaxation! Okay! Sounds simple enough, although still a lesson that we can’t really be reminded of too much. It was the last question of the Q&A however, that cut to the Zen of the man: “How does it feel to be you?”

“I think if I’m gonna answer that question, because it is a hard question, I’d like to suggest that we all answer that question right now, while I’m talking. I’ll continue. Believe me, I won’t shut up. I have a microphone. But let’s all ask ourselves that question right now. What does it feel like to be you? What does it feel like to be you? Yeah. It feels good to be you, doesn’t it? It feels good, because there’s one thing that you are — you’re the only one that’s you, right? So you’re the only one that’s you, and we get confused sometimes — or I do, I think everyone does — you try to compete. You think, Dammit, someone else is trying to be me. Someone else is trying to be me. But I don’t have to armor myself against those people; I don’t have to armor myself against that idea if I can really just relax and feel content in this way and this regard. If I can just feel, just think now: How much do you weigh? This is a thing I like to do with myself when I get lost and I get feeling funny. How much do you weigh? Think about how much each person here weighs and try to feel that weight in your seat right now, in your bottom right now. Parts in your feet and parts in your bum. Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere. There’s just a wonderful sense of well-being that begins to circulate up and down, from your top to your bottom. Up and down from your top to your spine. And you feel something that makes you almost want to smile, that makes you want to feel good, that makes you want to feel like you could embrace yourself.

So what’s it like to be me? You can ask yourself, What’s it like to be me? You know, the only way we’ll ever know what it’s like to be you is if you work your best at being you as often as you can, and keep reminding yourself: That’s where home is.”

I couldn’t find any evidence online that Mr. Murray is a yoga aficionado, but anyone who has attended a class or 40 will recognize his off-the-cuff response as very much the sort of monologue a guru (or instructor) might begin or end a practice with. (And if you would like an audio stream of the above to lay some sitar drones behind for your own practice.) Trying to exist purely in the present, without being pulled away by the baggage of the past or the worries of the future, may seem like a simple task, but do take a minute to try it sometime, if you haven’t recently. Yogic instructors will likely tell you to turn your glance inward, focusing on your breath and body.  Again, a very simple antidote to so many of the stresses we torment ourselves with, and one that we could all stand to be reminded of more often.

Regardless of its simplicity, the Internet seized on Murray’s quote, and you would have thought that Murray had revealed the secret assurance that Bob “Suntory Time” Harris whispered to Scarlett Johansson in the ending of Lost in Translation.[2]

It’s not as though Bill has been withholding the Word from us all this while: crashing a bachelor party at a steakhouse in Charleston, South Carolina on Memorial Day weekend this year, and dropped some knowledge on knowing when you’ve found The One:

“If you have someone that you think is The One, don’t just sort of think in your ordinary mind, ‘Okay, let’s pick a date. Let’s plan this and make a party and get married.’ Take that person and travel around the world. Buy a plane ticket for the two of you to travel all around the world, and go to places that are hard to go to and hard to get out of. And if when you come back to JFK, when you land in JFK, and you’re still in love with that person, get married at the airport.”

Murray looking at you.

Murray looking at you.

For the record, Murray has been married twice: he married first wife Margaret Kelly at 4:30AM on Super Bowl Sunday 1981 in Las Vegas, an elopement that had begun as a spin through the San Fernando Valley to find a Mexican restaurant. (They were divorced in 1996, following Murray’s affair with Jennifer Butler, with whom he’d had two children at that point. Murray and Butler married in 1996, and divorced in 2008.[3])

In exchange for appearing in Ghostbusters, Dan Ackroyd helped secure studio backing for Murray’s dramatic film debut and sole screenwriting credit, a 1984 film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge”, about a disillusioned World War I aviator who, after seeing his best friend killed, travels through India and the Himalayas in search of spiritual fulfillment, adopting a mystical Eastern gospel of non-attachment. Neither audiences nor critics appeared ready to see Murray in a serious role, and the film was a failure on both fronts.

Flush with cash from Ghostbusters (which he’d shot immediately after wrapping The Razor’s Edge, but which was released first), Murray took four years off from acting to study philosophy and history at the Sorbonne, frequent the Cinematheque in Paris, and spend time with his ailing mother[4] (who was undergoing chemotherapy for lymphatic cancer), siblings, and young family at a renovated farmhouse in the Hudson River Valley, reading historical fiction and the novels of Irish writers at his tiny office there. Whatever wisdoms this sabbatical imparted, a November 1988 New York Times article set in the spring of that year described Murray as a man “who has made peace with any private demons he might have had, someone who has brought his personal life and his career into enviable concord… Slightly disheveled and projecting…‘a woolly Zen wisdom’”.

At a house party just off Sunset Boulevard that doubles as a wrap party for Scrooged (Murray’s return to film), lasagna, fried chicken and Mexican beer is being served, and Murray, “[acting] as a kind of father figure to the ‘Saturday Night Live’ alumni” gathered there, including then-box office superstar Eddie Murphy (rendered “meek” in Murray’s presence) and past antagonist Chevy Chase. Murray leads a dance party, urging the stars to drop their “reserves of cool” and join him on the floor.

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By living and working on his own terms; by making himself available to life’s magical moments; by staying relaxed no matter what; by being content with who you are, where you are, in the present moment; to see strangers as potential friends, and to see friends as often as possible – these are the core tenets of Murrayism[5], the qualities that have made the man as beloved as he is today.

Murray’s January 2014 “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit will likely comprise a book in the Gospel; his responses are gracious, insightful and thoughtful[6]:

On Wes Anderson:

“I love the way that he has made his art his life. And you know, it’s a lesson to all of us, to take what you love and make it the way you live your life, and that way you bring love into the world.”

On his most positive experience with a fan, and his life’s work:

“The best experience with a fan? It happens sometimes where someone will say, “I was going through a really hard time. I was going through a really hard time, and I was just morose or depressed.”

And I met one person who said, “I couldn’t find anything to cheer me up and I was so sad. And I just watched Caddyshack, and I watched it for about a week and it was the only thing that cheered me up. And it was the only thing that cheered me up and made me laugh and made me think that my life wasn’t hopeless. That I had a way to see what was best about life, that there was a whole lot of life that was wonderful.” And I happen to know (from her own spirit) that that person has really triumphed as an artist and as a human being, and if it’s just a moment when you can reverse a movement, an emotion, a downward spiral, when you can quiet something or still something and just allow it to change and allow the real spirit rise up in someone, that feels great.

I know I’m not saving the world, but something in what I’ve learned how to do or the stories that I’ve tried to tell, they’re some sort of representation of how life is or how life could be. And that gives some sort of optimism. And an optimistic attitude is a successful attitude.”

Now go forth into the world, brothers and sisters, relax always, and make life your own dance party. So ends this reading from the book of Murray.

—————

[1] Murray’s inaccessibility – producers wanting to reach him can only do so by leaving a message at a voicemailbox which he ignores for weeks at a time – has led him to miss out on some high-profile roles, including Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the role in Little Miss Sunshine which ended up going to Steve Carell, and Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; at the same time, his selectivity has been a boon: “I find that you don’t really lose by saying ‘no’ in show business. If you say no, sometimes they come back with a better script. Or sometimes it just goes away.”

[2] Still a breathtaking scene in a not-so-great movie, the whisper was actually not in the shooting draft of the script; supposedly, the plan all along was to have Bill Murray ad-lib the whisper, but if you want to be a dick about it, somebody totally jacked and filtered the audio so you can make out the words. Find it your damn self.

[3] Butler accused Murray of “adultery, addiction to marijuana and alcohol, abusive behavior, physical abuse, sexual addictions and frequent abandonment.”

[4] “My mother is a real character, a talkative soul who can make friends with anyone, and she’d always been a massive influence on me. She’s so animated, I even used to tape phone conversations with her in order to steal material!”

[5] Curiously, the early acolytes in the movement are the many readers of popular frat-humour-lite site The Chive, which sponsors Murray’s charity golf tournament, and in return have been given Murray’s blessing to use his likeness on its merchandise. As a result, “Bill Fucking Murray”, as he has become affectionately known to Chiveheads, has become an “unofficial mascot” of the site, and t-shirts bearing a high-contrast headshot of Murray are rivaled only by the site’s “Keep Calm and Chive On” tees in sales. The increasing visibility of the iconic shot — taken by Inez van Lamsweerde in February 2004 for the New York Times Magazine — the Chive image obliterates the small flowers peppered throughout Murray’s beard — could render him into a Che for our time.

[6] In the AMA, Murray reveals the reason why on earth he signed on to the Garfield film: he mistook screenwriter Joel Cohen for Joel Coen, of Coen brothers fame.

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One response to “The Transfiguration of Bill Murray

  1. I cannot WAIT to go read every last word on here. Alas, I’m at work. But I can see the brilliance already in the footnotes and in the last line: “So ends this reading from the book of Murray.”

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