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Never Out Of His Depth

'Life Aquatic' Star Bill Murray Keeps His Own On an Even Keel

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page C01


Bill Murray should sell noogies, the kind he used to give Gilda Radner on "Saturday Night Live," back when boyfriends -- even caricature boyfriends -- were more goofy. Form a line, wait your turn. He'll just put you in a headlock and . . . bliss.

There's still another reason to adore him just a tiny bit more: The man does not have his own publicist. Here is what you must do if you need to ask Murray to be in your movie, or play a round of charity golf, or sit still for a press interview: You call a 1-800 number. You leave a voice mail. He does not always check these messages. (And return the calls? Not so much.)

Bill Murray, right, as Steve Zissou with Owen Wilson, whose character may or may not be his son, in "The Life Aquatic." (Philippe Antonello -- Touchstone Pictures)

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This is unthinkable in Hollywood. No publicist? No staff?

"Nothing. No one," huffs an exasperated, disbelieving Touchstone/Disney publicist for the movie "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," which opens tomorrow. Murray stars as a kind of Jacques Cousteau adventurer in a coolly absurd Mediterranean meditation (a Mediterration?) on midlife crisis. It's a larky "Moby-Dick"-type thing, with Speedos and scuba tanks, and old David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese.

When it comes to all these marketing people who whine that he's hard to wrangle, "They just smell a big fish," Murray says, with a dismissive wave. "They can't stand the idea that someone could get along in life without having a publicist, and they'd all like to have the job."

He sees himself simply as a suburban businessman, husband and father who occasionally makes movies. Sometimes these are classy, independent movies drizzled in critical drool, for which he is paid far less than his customary $8 million or $9 million fee, and sometimes not, as when he provided the lead voice in last summer's shameful but more personally profitable "Garfield." Why pay a publicist to make his life hell, to always be calling him on the phone with a new schedule?

Now. A problem, and an apology: We're sorry to always let these articles collapse into the meaningless go-betweens involving reporters and movie stars and the many handlers who micromanage the interactions between them in a never-ending series of Ritz-Carlton hotel suites -- but this time we swear it's germane to the story.

Murray, you see, has walked out of the Ritz at Battery Park on a recent, brisk Monday afternoon, with vague ideas about when -- or if -- he's coming back, leaving behind a group of peevish reporters who are waiting for strictly parceled-out private interviews with a man who doesn't like giving them. A schedule is falling apart. (This story is, too.) Frazzled studio publicists are waving around clipboards and talking into headsets. The actor, 54, was last seen wearing black Ugg-ish boots, faded blue jeans and a black T-shirt with the Blues Brothers logo on it.

How wonderfully Bill Murray of Bill Murray to act like this.

How lovable, how hangdog -- and also how [bleep]-you.

This is exactly the quality that director Sofia Coppola wanted when she begged Murray (for years, the legend goes) to play Bob Harris in her film "Lost in Translation": The melancholic edge to his unpredictably manic riffing was allowed to simmer and congeal in his portrayal of an aging star trapped in the antiseptic luxury and weirdness of Tokyo. There were strange moments of self-promotion and fawning admirers, much like in his own life.

"I kind of feel like there are some moments and things I know about [Murray], even things that are in this new movie, things about him I know that I'm not real excited to share with the rest of the world," says Wes Anderson, who directed "The Life Aquatic."

"If you have some personal connection to him, you almost want to keep it private. If you're with Bill somewhere -- he loves people. He loves to be around people. Everybody feels like they know him, more than any other movie star I know. You walk around with Bill Murray and people just immediately go to him, they feel like they can, and he's okay with that. I think he's so far beyond the question of whether that's okay or not, with 20 or 30 years of being famous. . . . There are some people who are famous and they are not going to want to walk in Times Square, because it would be a disaster. But with Bill, it's never a disaster, because he's not afraid of people. He can handle it. He has an authority about him."

Anderson, 35, is trapped in still another of the Ritz hotel suites two floors down enduring his own round of interviews, and we've passed some of the time waiting for Murray by going down to see him. He puts his stocking feet on the table and habitually pushes his long hair behind his ears. He has the pleasant, accepting weariness of a man forced to talk all day to people clearly not as smart and visionary as himself.

"Whatever Bill has, whatever his kind of combination and the sense of humor and sadness about him, whatever that is, it's just about right for me," Anderson says. The director cast him in 1998's "Rushmore" as an unhappy millionaire who falls in a sort of sublime love with a private-school teacher. Early on, Murray's character climbs a diving board during a suburban backyard pool party, wearing baggy Budweiser swim trunks, and performs a forlorn cannonball, and nobody at the party seems to care. It was a darkly comic moment in Anderson's particular brand of joyous ennui, and it felt like a second take on the film life of Bill Murray.

Anderson used him again, in less quantity, in 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums," as a middle-aged therapist who's been jilted by his depressed, playwright wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). While filming that movie, Anderson began talking to Murray about a favorite recurring idea -- something having to do with Cousteau's undersea world, something that would feel Frenchy and, of course, weird. It would be about larger themes of self and loss, a man on the brink of both ruin and personal discovery, etc.

"I was thinking about who else could have played [Steve Zissou], and I was also thinking about who else could have played his part in 'Lost in Translation,' " Anderson says. "And there aren't that many people, but one thing I did think about was Brando. Brando at the same age Bill is now would have been great at both roles."

A Familiar Role

Even as he left Sofia Coppola waiting for him to agree to star in "Lost in Translation," Murray understood the part all too well: the celeb who goes to Japan to do a highly-paid commercial endorsement which won't ever be seen on this side of the international date line. Years ago, he says, on a trip to Japan, he'd picked up a glass and there was Harrison Ford's face on the coaster, hawking Japanese beer, with a pathetic, forced-looking smile on his face. Coppola, according to Murray, was enamored of an ad featuring an equally begrudged Kevin Costner, who plugged espresso-in-a-can.

Murray won a Golden Globe for "Lost in Translation" last January. Fans of that movie are still reeling from the subtle heartache of his two-fer karaoke renditions of Roxy Music's "More Than This" and Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" -- such modern pathos, the washed-up and exhausted, fragile quality of a star's life. (And by the way: Nearly every reporter in the Ritz this afternoon will politely ask him -- still, and maybe for the rest of his life -- what his character whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of "Lost in Translation." He won't reveal it.)

But Murray's preeminence these days isn't all about art houses, and the odd cult status he's discovered there. It's also about the Bill Murray that men everywhere identify with, deeply, and revere as a role model, and thus honor him by still doing beery, crooked-jawed routines from "Stripes" and "Meatballs" and "Caddyshack." There's a Greenskeeper Carl and a Nick the Lounge Singer in every American male now, courtesy of Murray. It apparently comes bundled with the standard software.

It's about the Bill Murray who starred in 1993's "Groundhog Day," and has since seen that film take on a long and profitable afterlife as, of all things, a teaching tool. In varying interpretations, Zenmeisters and megachurch preachers and Catholic laity have proffered "Groundhog Day" as a parable for life. Corporate trainers use it as a feel-good way to impart business philosophies. People who won't give a whit about "The Life Aquatic" and thought "Lost in Translation" was slow and pointless will just as easily expound on how "Groundhog Day" changed their lives, improved their sales, helped them fine-tune their backswing.

Away from the Sofia Coppolas and Wes Andersons (and the role he'll play in the next Jim Jarmusch film), this other Bill Murray, with family, opened golf-themed Murray Bros. Caddyshack restaurants (motto: "Eat, Drink and Be Murray") in St. Augustine, Fla., Orlando and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Murray also wrote a golf-related memoir, "Cinderella Story," five years ago. He has invested in a handful of minor league baseball teams. His six sons all got names befitting ballplayers or class clowns, themselves a farm team: Homer, 22, and Luke, 19, with his first wife, Mickey Kelley; with his second wife, Jennifer Butler, there's Jackson, 11; Cal, 9; Cooper, 8; and Lincoln, 3.

He is still your dream of a goofy brother-in-law, part of a big Catholic family that screams a lot and laughs a lot. Bill is one of eight Murray children from suburban Chicago; his brothers Joel Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray are also actors, attending and honoring the traditions and dogmas of the Second City improv troupe the way other families send their boys to Notre Dame. One of Murray's sisters went another direction, and became a Dominican nun. He went to Loyola, the Jesuit high school in his home town of Wilmette, Ill., and spent a year at Regis College (another Jesuit-run institution in Denver) before he dropped out and fell in with the cult of improv. He filled the empty spot on "Saturday Night Live" left by Chevy Chase in 1977; it was the first time someone replaced a cast member, and so naturally people thought he was terrible -- awkward, unfunny, acerbic and strangely acne-scarred.

That was before he was god.

At the Globes ceremony, where he won best performance (by an actor in a musical or comedy) for "Lost in Translation," Murray got up and told the audience he didn't think he was able to give the standard litany-of-phony-gratitude acceptance speech they'd heard all evening, and then deadpanned: "You can all relax. I fired my agents a couple months ago, [And] my trainer, my physical trainer, killed himself."

And people laughed at that line, nervously, hahahaha, even as it turned out the next morning to be true: Murray had fired his two reps at Creative Artists Agency. His trainer, who'd worked with many celebrities, had killed himself.

"Why would you get up there and bore people?" Murray asks, later, when we finally get to him (and we do eventually get to him in just a little bit, for those of you who are still with us) and ask him about that speech. "I never have figured that out. These people are supposedly in the entertainment industry, and they finally get up there to that podium and they become the most boring people in the world."

This is a little bit like the Murray you read about in gossip columns: Walks off sets. Snarls at colleagues. Gets into some sort of snit with co-star Lucy Liu on the set of the first "Charlie's Angels" movie, and then spends the next four years insisting it was all overblown. There's the Murray who might have had a look of bitter disappointment at the Academy Awards last February when he lost the Best Actor award to Sean Penn. Some say he didn't clap enough (or at all). People point out that he didn't stand, and everyone in Hollywood knows how important it is for losers to graciously stand. (His fans and detractors continue to debate this, online, long after anyone cares.)

And during still more publicity churn this month for the opening of "The Life Aquatic," according to the New York Post's Page Six, a man who identified himself as having worked as a cameraman on the "Charlie's Angels" set raised his hand at a press conference with the cast and director and lambasted Murray: "I am a cameraman, and I've worked with all the actors onstage. Anjelica [Huston], you're wonderful. Willem [Dafoe] -- you're great. But, Bill -- you are a bastard. You are horrible to work with. My question is for Wes and the cast. What's it like to work with someone as awful and difficult as Bill Murray?"

According to the column, Murray said absolutely nothing in response. Both Huston and Anderson tried to respond to the question.

"Bill isn't a bastard," Huston replied.

Face Time

He's back now, a couple hours after he disappeared.

Sitting on a butter-colored sofa, playing nice -- friendly and avuncular, but so ready to have this over with. Bill isn't a bastard. He's sleepy, and runs his meaty paw all over his forehead and face after a long yawn. "Let's do it," he says, and your heart sort of sinks as you realize we aren't going to do "it" at all -- that the questions probably don't interest him and that our allotted time has been shaved down to comparably nothing.

Then again, all anyone wants to do with Murray now is be trapped in a hotel.

So let's try.

We talk with Murray about fatherhood. In the new movie, Steve Zissou is confronted by a man who may or may not be his son, played by Owen Wilson. Murray doesn't see much in the way of his own experience as a father coming into his performance. "I never really think about parts that way," he says.

We talk about nuns. We talk about the Catholic Church's views on divorce. "I never understood it," he says.

We talk about how hard he worked -- physically -- on "The Life Aquatic." His physical appearance in the film is enthrallingly middle-aged: He is tanned, broad-torsoed and Hemingway-bearded. ("He does grow a great beard," Anderson remarks. "And I think he got real strong for this movie, like physically strong.") Anderson told him it would take three months to complete shooting off the coast of Italy. It wound up taking five, and carved sorely into Murray's family life. "We get out there and they said, 'It could take into January,' and it did, and it was just brutal. I mean, it was long for me, but brutal for my wife, who has the kids." Murray was miserable, and says he's never been away from home that long.

What's made him happy, lately?

"I went to the reunion of my grade school graduating class," Murray says. "Not the high school reunion, which is a whole different thing, but grade school. St. Joe's. These are the people that I was a little kid with. And nothing's really changed. You go and you really feel happy to have grown up and be alive and you really feel just completely like yourself. That was one of the greatest times I've ever had, seriously, just being with those people again. Not talking about work or anything. Talking about our kids . . ."

We talk about the way Wes Anderson's movies look, and wonder what "Caddyshack" would have looked like if directors like Anderson had been around to fetishize the appearance of, say, a country club, and give the whole thing a mid-century, WASPy hue.

Has anyone seen "Caddyshack" lately, by the way?

We have. On the train, on our laptop. Of the ways it's become outdated, perhaps most striking is how its director -- Harold Ramis, himself an acolyte of Second City -- and the cast rely chiefly on the free-associative powers of late-'70s improvisational comedy. It's all riff, with hardly a script, and almost none of the nuance that hip people now regard as comic genius. And yet we remember, in junior high, hailing it as the finest cinematic achievement of all time. (The best scene is where Murray improvises sports commentary while pretending to play in the Masters Tournament as he whacks the bejesus out of a flower bed. It seems to exist only because someone thought to turn on the camera.)

Elusive comedies like "The Life Aquatic" and "Lost in Translation," on the other hand, come across as meticulously written, styled, planned and framed. Wes Anderson will build an entire movie around old songs first, if he has to. He even picks the font on the movie poster.

"It doesn't even compare. These guys know so much more about how they want every last thing to look," Murray says. "They speak a whole other language about movies, with all these different references. And they've seen everything."

And they have somehow coaxed Murray into being a muse, a crank, a sage. Their Brando and their Meatball. At this point, a Touchstone minion comes in and announces time's up, coaxing us away from him.

"Already? Darn," Murray deadpans, then laughs, and we leave without our noogie.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company