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Bill Murray is playing it beautifully straight in his new role as a lusty old FDR — but don’t write off the young punk he used to be quite yet|
There are times, as you watch Bill Murray in his latest film role, when you can’t help wondering what his earlier self, at his screwball, young-punk peak, would have made of it. He plays the beloved wheelchair-bound American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson, a film about the first visit by George VI and his wife to America. There’s nothing amiss with Murray’s performance — it’s lovely, gentle, considered and lacking in ego; not flashy in the least, just quietly underbaked — but in the film’s stiller moments, it’s easy for the mind to drift into visions of early-years Murray being sarcastic and smirky, pulling wheelchair wheelies, goosing Eleanor in the entrance hall and rolling out the deadpan when Bertie stutteringly asks for help in the Second World War: “Hey, king, don’t sweat it.” We miss that man.
It turns out Murray misses that man, too. “That guy is not dead,” he reassures me, grazing on a sandwich platter in a gloomy Toronto hotel room. Murray can flip his on switch at will, discharging Kalahari-dry quips and the droopy-eyed, slack-jawed expression he made an art form in the trenches of the television series Saturday Night Live in the 1970s, before climbing Hollywood’s ramparts to become the new clown prince. But he seems more content settling into reflective conversation, without any urge to show off (unlike Robin Williams, who can’t help himself). If he wants to make us laugh, the genial, mischievous Murray can do so with no effort or expression.
“You live in London?” he drawls, spotting my mid-Atlantic twang. “Man, you gotta work on your accent.” He launches into an anecdote about the English weather, tied to his first trip to Britain, 40 years ago, when he witnessed three old Londoners — “Whaddya call them, senators?” — dropping their trousers to take advantage of the rare bursts of sunshine. No sunlight worries for Murray when he took up residence in Britain to make Hyde Park on Hudson — he requested a hotel beside a golf course, squeezed in nine holes with frequency and zipped off for jaunts to Paris with pals. He calls the job “very civilised”.
At first glance, Murray seems off-beam casting for FDR: less jarring than, say, Jim Carrey as Abraham Lincoln, or Williams as Teddy Roosevelt (oh, wait...), but incongruous nonetheless. This is the four-term president who tried to carve out the New Deal for post-Depression America, then valiantly led it through the Second World War. Confined to a wheelchair after contracting polio at 39, he was, it turns out, a lusty old goat, too, with manifold mistresses and a penchant for manual relief from his cousin Daisy (Laura Linney). A robust love of women is something Murray can directly relate to; in Toronto, he was hitting the film festival’s party circuit with a vengeance. On one night, he could be seen holding court at a bar, surrounded by a bevy of attractive women, then whirling like a dervish at 2am in a grimy dive club, again ring-fenced by lovely ladies.
When it came to playing the leader of the free world, Murray concedes he did wonder: why me? “I thought, ‘Maybe they have an ulterior motive.’ When I read the script, it was just, ‘That’s not impossible. I’ll do that.’ ” Would he have been scared if the approach had been more like Oliver Stone’s Nixon, a searing portrait of executive power, as opposed to a bucolic at-home snapshot of FDR hosting George VI (Samuel West) and his queen (Olivia Colman) for the weekend? “I don’t know if I could have done, like, the War Room scenes, or Roosevelt on the stump — that’s not what I do best or feel comfortable doing. I liked that the movie’s not about Roosevelt, it’s about what happens to the others he touches.”
The film’s reception in Toronto created some buzz for Murray as a potential awards-season candidate, although that evaporated in the face of ferocious grandstanding by Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix and Denzel Washington. Which leaves Murray with his single Oscar nomination for 2003’s Lost in Translation, although FDR did land him a Golden Globes nod. Little consolation there, admittedly, but he defiantly refused to take a leaf out of the method actor’s playbook, at one stage calling a halt to the makeover fuss going into making him resemble FDR. He says he can do an uncanny vocal impression, but, mimicry being the comedian’s art, was savvy enough to keep it out of Roger Michell’s film.
Roosevelt lived in an era when a president’s dirty laundry wasn’t likely to be aired in the media. Murray recalls telling a friend how he didn’t want Hyde Park on Hudson to be known as the movie about Roosevelt’s mistresses, insisting it was a companionship arrangement after Eleanor set up a separate household with (FDR’s words) “she-men”. “It wasn’t like he was any kind of stallion,” he intones. “The guy was wearing pins, you know? He couldn’t be having sex all day because he had this enormous job to do. Think how long it would take him just to get back and forth from the bedroom.”
It’s part of Murray’s mystique that, having run his career without an agent or manager since the late 1990s, he can be reached only by voicemail, and will go weeks or longer without checking it. Michell quips that it was like trying to locate the Wizard of Oz. “In the movie business, nothing’s happening tomorrow,” Murray says. “My career is wonderful. I’m not overextended, I’m not starving for work. I’m satisfied with my little place.”
It’s the comic actor’s traditional whim to demand to be taken seriously, but despite the fantastic dramatic characters Murray has inhabited (Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers), audiences still suffer withdrawal symptoms. When the starstruck approach him in public, they inevitably bring up the early roles. “Half the time, they confuse me with someone else. ‘That one where you were in Vietnam? God, you were funny in that.’ ” Murray loves to mess with them, pulling gleeful pranks on the unsuspecting that are chronicled at billmurraystory. com. His sardonic excursions with Wes Anderson — as in last year’s Moonrise Kingdom — continue to show off his rare gifts for comedy both broad and subtle, but it’s the delirious, cynical, anarchic genius he brought to bear in Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and even Kingpin that makes these the most popular films in his portfolio. And he may never make a comedy as satisfyingly clever and delightfully rounded as Groundhog Day again.
“I never got all sweaty about that, I just got asked to do certain things,” he explains. “When I did The Razor’s Edge, I got lambasted — how dare you try to do anything that’s not a comedy?” Murray possesses a useful stubborn streak, simply following the offers. Yet now, he admits, “I’m hoping the funny stuff comes back. It’s fun to be funny. If you can be funny, you should be funny. I’d love to find a good script.”
The various iterations of Ghostbusters III that Sony Pictures has been hurling his way for years have yet to pass his qualitycontrol test. Just when you think he has rebuffed their offer to reprise Venkman for the last time, though, they drag him back in. “It is kind of tempting. Kind of sad but kind of tempting.” A couple of years ago, a new Ghostbusters III script landed on his doormat, with “a lot of oomph behind it”. Murray put it down after 20 pages: “It didn’t touch our stuff.” Fellow ’busters Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd press on, but in the knowledge that, without Murray, it’s a loser’s game. The latest brainstorm was hiring Men in Black 3’s scribe, Etan Cohen. “It’s not the way I would have gone,” Murray says.
Another thing he’s not rushing back into is directing. Having helmed himself as a bank-robbing clown in 1990’s Quick Change, he hasn’t ventured behind the camera since. “I thought I would do it all the time — I thought it would be a regular thing,” he says. Then came a sour experience trying to pull off an adaptation of the 1994 French hit Grosse Fatigue, an absurdist, industry-skewering black comedy in which leading French actors such as Michel Blanc and Charlotte Gainsbourg portrayed themselves. “I wrote a really funny script with my friend Mitch Glazer [Scrooged], and Disney said, ‘This is the greatest script we’ve seen in five years’ — then, three days later, went, ‘We don’t want to make that movie.’ It was such a low blow. It knocked the wind out of me.”
We would pay to see his Hollywood makeover. Is he prepared to yank it out of the drawer again? Murray grimaces. “I got to settle down the rest of my life a little bit,” he says. Now 62, he has six sons by two ex-wives. The younger ones split their time between Murray and Jennifer Butler, who painted an unflattering portrait of a philandering, abusive ex-husband in their 2008 divorce.
Beyond acting, he has a few... “I’ve got a few problems, it’s true,” he interrupts with trademark deadpan. The next words were actually going to be “outside interests”: he owns a restaurant with his brother, has stakes in minor-league baseball teams and invests in “good ideas” presented to him by brainiac friends. In another life, he would have been an inventor. He once pitched an idea for an eyepiece that film cameramen could flip from side to side to prevent ocular fatigue, but was laughed out of one company’s office. “And damned if some guy didn’t make this thing 15 years later.”
A country not renowned for its sense of humour is Murray’s next stop. Beware, Germany, he’s heading your way for his seventh Anderson collaboration, The Grand Budapest Hotel, for which he has sprouted an impressive walrus moustache. He’s also being courted for a role in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, but isn’t sure he will have the time (read: inclination) to do it. “Terry’s a fun guy to hang out with,” he says. “His stuff doesn’t always work for me, but it’s not for lack of trying. He really throws it out there.”
It’s what we’d love to see Murray do next: really throw it out there. Life is good, though, and he appears to exist in a state of laconic contentment. Maybe he lacks the frenzied, shark-like blood lust that keeps a Gilliam going. “Now if I had a pint of Terry’s blood,” he muses, “I would get some shit done.”