Folks, Harry here, and ya know... Moriarty is in a gleeful happy mood cause I do believe the man has scored his giant sized IRON GIANT toy. Poor old man, someone his age still playing with toys... I mean... I'm just a tenth of his age, yet there he is in his silken robes and monocle firmly lodged into the glassed over blind right eye. The toy... one he can barely lift, but still behold the joy that this evil genius has as he talks about today's subjects.... I tell ya... He's like a twentysomething all over again! Well... Here's the Professor...
Hey, Head Geek...
To celebrate the fact that there's only 10 days left till the release of IRON GIANT, I have programmed the hidden speakers that run throughout the Moriarty Labs to play nothing but that psychotic "Salt Peanuts" cover from the soundtrack, over and over and over again. To get an idea of what it sounds like, it's as if the voices from www.hamsterdance.com decided to perform the jazz classic. True, it's driven the henchmen stark raving mad, and, yes, they're beginning to randomly turn on one another, but I'm loving it. It's got me in such a good mood that all I want to do today is talk about the positive, setting aside all the MPAA claptrap, and just deal with the things about this business that currently make me happy.
That astonishing second weekend for THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT... that makes me happy. Over $60,000 per screen? Crazy, man. I don't understand the media outlets that keep saying the film has done this without the benefit of a single TV commercial. I've seen TV spots for the film for the last month, and I've even caught a few of them on tape. Running TV spots doesn't take away at all from how miraculous the opening has been, so why keep making the false claim?
There are certain artists whose work does more than just make me happy. Over the course of a lifetime, certain people and their work has actually caused shifts in my perception of an entire art form. Van Gogh, Stanley Kubrick, John Zorn, Vittorio Storaro, Ennio Morricone, Jim Thompson, John Irving, Carl Stalling, Philip K. Dick, Richard Pryor, Buster Keaton, and John Coltrane... these are a few of my favorite things.
There's one other name I'd put on that list, and I'm always surprised that more people haven't actively declared him a genius, a gift, a national treasure. I'm speaking from the bottom of my heart about Bill Murray. It was the recent release of RUSHMORE and GHOSTBUSTERS on DVD that got me thinking about Bill again, since each film represents a career high for him in different ways. Taken together, they're a real measure of what makes him so special.
Like many of our biggest comic stars from the past 20 years, Bill got his first major national exposure on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Because he joined the cast in the second year, just as Chevy Chase was leaving, there was an initial perception that he was Chase's replacement. I'd be willing to say that over the course of Bill's five years on the show, he shone brighter than Chevy ever did, and more consistently. He quickly established himself as a unique comic presence, one that meshed nicely with Belushi, Aykroyd, and O'Donohue, the original "Bully Boys." There was something raw, almost threatening, about Bill's particular charisma. When he made the jump to starring roles in features with 1979's MEATBALLS, it was an interesting indicator of the eventual shape of his career.
The film itself is crude, almost amateurish, but there's no denying how good Bill is every time he's onscreen. In particular, his scenes with Chris Makepeace (as "Wudy the Wabbit") reveal something sincere behind the sarcasm and the bluster. Bill forges a real connection to the kid, and it grounds the film's silliness in something that at least resembles reality. Over the course of the film, Bill manages to make his co-stars look more gifted than they are because of how well he plays off of them.
This has been one of the trends of Bill's career. When he makes a film like SPACE JAM or LARGER THAN LIFE, he never acts like he's slumming. Instead, he manages to breathe life into the material, providing individual moments that make you want to forgive the film itself. In THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE, a fairly dreadful film overall, Bill brings the same innocence and sense of play that he contributed to WHAT ABOUT BOB?, and it almost makes the spy parody work. In particular, there's a scene at the end of the movie, when Bill has to dance at a Russian embassy party, that benefits enormously from his exuberance, his joy in performing. In the Warner Bros. commercial... um, movie, I mean... SPACE JAM, Bill uses his real-life friendships with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan to put the two non-actors at ease, and the result is the most natural material in the film. For a few moments, Michael Jordan's real-life charisma shines through the weak material, and the laughs are genuine, not forced.
When Bill is in a film that actually works, it frequently is hailed as great, even if the movie is only average. Take STRIPES, for example. This is a screenplay with a serious structural flaw. The first half of the film is very funny, and builds to a wonderful graduation day conclusion. The second half of the movie seems aimless, tacked-on. Still, if you ask most fans of Murray about STRIPES, they'll tell you they're very fond of the film. It's that first half that does it. There's so much funny material there, and Bill is surrounded by so many other talented performers (Harold Ramis, John Candy, John Larroquette, Warren Oates) that it feels effortless. Think of how many moments jump out of that film. There's the introduction scene ("Chicks dig me because I don't wear underwear, and when I do, it's usually something unusual"), there's the classic "Who cried at the end of OLD YELLER?" scene, there's the bizarre seduction scene involving P.J. Soles and an ice-cream scoop, and there's the wonderful opening of the film, where Bill's job and his relationship both go south. All of that material could have been flat in the wrong hands, but with Bill onboard, it seems both real and hysterical. One scene that's not funny involves Bill and Warren Oates, who plays Sgt. Hulka, in the latrine. Oates gives Bill a rather thorough pounding, and there's not the slightest hint of a joke. Instead, Bill knows that you have to give us something real to make us identify with the characters we're watching.
And then there's the film that I believe is the pinnacle of Bill's starring work, GHOSTBUSTERS. This film is just as smart and as funny today as when it was released in 1984. I think it's funny to listen to Ivan Reitman moan about some of the film's effects on the new DVD's secondary audio track. Who cares, Ivan? They may not be the best effects ever done, but they have real character. Besides, that's not what makes the film work. Instead, it's just how invested Aykroyd, Ramis, and Murray are in making Stantz, Spengler, and Venkman into real people. When you watch an Adam Sandler film like THE WATERBOY, there's a breezy silly nature to the movie that keeps you from ever taking it seriously. When you see GHOSTBUSTERS, it is absolutely essential that you take the situation seriously. It's the only way the laughs work in the film. If they're not in danger of the world ending when the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man comes storming down the street, then why would we care? It makes it even funnier when Bill yells, "No one steps on a church in my town!" Venkman is fearless, and there's a strong desire in us, the audience, to either be Venkman or to be his friend. This is the kind of guy you want in your corner -- unflappable, always ready with the right thing to say, rumpled but somehow in style. Knowing how free Bill is with the written word makes me think of him like some kind of jazz musician, but with comedy. Bill knows when to stick to what was written and when to take the liberty. He knows innately how to make a scene funnier without changing it. There are ad-libs of his that didn't make it into movies that reveal just how quick he can be. One moment in GHOSTBUSTERS involved the first form of Zule, the fashion model version. She orders the Ghostbusters to "choose and perish," but the actress' thick European accent prompted Murray to shoot back, "Jews and berries? Honey, we don't understand!" Since she was going to be dubbed in the final film for clarity, the ad-lib didn't work, but the instinct was definitely right.
What marks GHOSTBUSTERS (and its sequel to a lesser extent) as a departure from the usual Bill Murray vehicle is the real heat generated by his love interest in the movie. I would go so far as to say that Sigourney Weaver has never been better matched with an actor onscreen. For one thing, no one knew she was funny until she and Bill proved it. When you watch her work with Bill, there's a gradual wearing down of her defenses that feels authentic. Bill earns her affection in the film. It's not just given to him because he's the lead. We can understand the attraction between these two people, and it makes her even sexier. I wish someone would wise up and reteam them instead of giving us more dreck from the team behind PRETTY WOMAN. This is a reteaming I'd pay for. Sigourney's never shown that level of life again opposite anyone, and I'm sure she would benefit as much as Bill from the reunion.
Bill's got another career trend, though, that's worth exploring, and that's his supporting work. He's one of the few true movie stars on the planet today who consistently takes small roles in interesting pictures. The first example of that would be one of his best-known characters, Carl the Gardener. I have the production draft of the CADDYSHACK script, and there's not even a character named Carl. The role was invented wholecloth by Murray and Ramis during production, and it's really detailed, fascinating work. How many people have you heard try to imitate that bizarre manner of speaking that Carl has? How many times has a friend of yours quoted the character? His monologue about caddying for the Dalai Lama is one of my favorite individual moments of his career, and never fails to delight me immensely.
There's one scene in the film, though, that should have earned Bill an Oscar, but not because of what you see onscreen. Instead, it was just the effort of staying on set and not attacking his co-star that should have been rewarded. The scene is the one that takes place in Carl's little shack late one night as Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) is practicing for his big match. He drives a ball into Carl's place, then comes in looking for it. In real life, there was such intense antagonism between Chase and Murray that I'm surprised they could even get insurance that would allow them near each other. You can read about the origins of the feud in the wonderful book SATURDAY NIGHT, but the short version is that when Chase came back to be a guest host on SNL, he made sure Bill knew that he was a replacement, and that Chase was the original. Bill got bumped from all but one sketch that week, despite the enormous popularity he was enjoying, and in that one sketch, he only had a couple of lines. Chase's ego has been the downfall of his career in recent years, but even during his funnier early days, he was evidently full of himself. Bill, on the other hand, has always been a generous comic performer, and when you see him in CADDYSHACK, he even manages to give Chevy several great moments. Next time you see the scene, enjoy it, because it's the only time they'll ever be onscreen together.
The same year as GHOSTBUSTERS, Bill took a small role as Dustin Hoffman's roommate in TOOTSIE, and it was liberating. All he had to do was come in, kill for a few scenes, and leave. Without the responsibility of carrying a whole film, Bill was just pure comedy, and it was awesome to behold. The same is true of his few moments of screentime in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, where he played a masochistic patient desperate to be hurt by Steve Martin's sadistic dentist.
There's one film in Bill's career that is truly a reflection of his comic sensibility from start to finish, and that's QUICK CHANGE, the film he co-directed and co-wrote with Carl Franklin. An adaptation of a droll Jay Cronley novel, the film is much funnier than it was given credit for upon release, and it seems to have stopped Bill's career as a filmmaker cold. That's a shame. If he can bring the same kind of keen intelligence to his work behind the camera as he brings to his work onscreen, then we would no doubt have several classic eccentric comic gems, films that we'll never see now.
It wasn't until ED WOOD that Bill's career as a supporting actor finally kicked into high gear. His performance as Bunny Breckinridge is hysterical and oddly touching, like almost everything about Tim Burton's oddball biopic. It's also fairly brave work. Bill doesn't have any ego about looking cool or hanging onto his previous persona. Instead, he gives Bunny a pathetic quality tempered with sweetness that is memorable and even touching. He does equally great work with almost no screen time in John McNaughton's trash masterpiece WILD THINGS. Bill's shyster lawyer is very, very funny, but he's also real, and he makes a strong impression.
It was last year, though, that Bill's work as a supporting actor finally paid off with a breakthrough performance in Wes Anderson's delightful RUSHMORE, one of the most eccentric pictures of last year. A spiritual descendent of THE GRADUATE, the film gives Murray one of his best roles. He could be the grown up version of Benjamin Braddock in the film, a guy who rushed into his life, made a ton of money, but has never really found happiness. In one classic moment, he is sitting apart from his family during a birthday party for his giant moronic sons, watching the proceedings with naked contempt on his face. He stands, walks around to the high dive board, and climbs it. For a long moment, he stands there with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, his majestic gut hanging over the front of his awful Budweiser bathing suit. He's a glorious image of potential gone to seed, and when he finally dives into the pool, sinking to the bottom, you can't help but remember Ben Braddock lying on the bottom of his pool. Both men are trying to escape from life, but from different ends of the deal. In the scenes he shares with the astounding young actor Jason Schwartzman, there's a real sense that Bill is amused and delighted by the work he's witnessing. There's a joy on Bill's face that works well for Max Blume, his character, and that also proves how little ego Murray has. He is perfectly willing to hand a scene over, and does so on numerous occasions. He lets Schwartzman shine, and he also gives wonderful support to Olivia Williams, the film's female lead. Hers is subtle work, easily overshadowed, but Bill never pushes her or bullies her. For all of his supposed reputation for running over his co-stars, there's no hint of it in the film.
So is this a sign of the Bill to come? I sure hope so. He's in Michael Almareyda's HAMLET this year, as well as Tim Robbins' THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. Neither one is a starring role. I only hope that Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have written him a phenomenal lead role in their new still-untitled film about a family of eccentric geniuses in New York. I know that there's a short film premiering in NY this week called SCOUT'S HONOR that I would love to see. It stars Bill and Alec Baldwin as basketball scouts. Baldwin's a new scout who uses technology to find his prospects, while Bill is old-school all the way, using nothing more sophisticated than his judgement. Neil Leifer is the director of the short, and it's the second time he's made a short film with Murray hoping to turn it into a full-length picture. The first time was THE GREAT WHITE HYPE. I haven't seen either of these short films, but I hope they become available in some way. To know there's Murray work out there that I haven't had access to drives me insane.
In the end, whatever direction Murray's career takes in the future, I'll follow gladly. He is the only one of our great film comedians who hasn't soured with age. If anything, he's continually revealed new elements of himself to us, and he seems to mature as an actor each time he steps in front of the camera. Bill Murray is the definition of professionalism, and we are richer for the work he has done.
Before I go, I want to break my promise to only talk about the positive for just a moment. I have to, actually. I can't be quiet when Paramount is about to do one of the stupidest things I've ever seen in this business. Remember... Carrot Top made a film, so it's not easy to win the title of "stupidest decision ever." Paramount Home Video is in the running, though, with their plans to retitle RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK for a new video release. I understand the reasons they're claiming it's a good idea -- it promotes the series as all connected, it means they can be put next to each other alphabetically on a shelf in a store -- but forget all that.
I know this is an unpopular opinion among film geeks, but it's my contention that there is only one classic film in the Indy series, and that's the first one. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is, in my opinion, the finest pure adventure film of all time. Both of the sequels are fine, I suppose, but don't really do much for me on repeat viewings. I think the second one's just too cruel, and for no good reason, while the third one is the most half-hearted effort I can imagine. RAIDERS stands alone, and I've always liked that the title was different. Besides... isn't Indy one of the titular Raiders? After all, it's him who cracks the Well of Souls and finds the Ark to begin with. The new title is not just awkward, it's stupid. Paramount, I can promise that I will never own a film on DVD called INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and I'm not alone. Save yourself the public relations nightmare and pull the plug on the plan now. It's a horrible idea that will bring you nothing but heartache in the long run.
I'm putting together some artwork now to accompany my long-promised LORD OF THE RINGS article, so we're in the home stretch. Nice to see my mention of Ian McKellan and Ian Holm joining the cast be picked up by everyone else a week later. Just remember where you read it first, everyone. Let me go now and put the finishing touches on the piece. Until then...