While hanging out with a couple of friends last night, somehow our conversation organically transformed into a debate over Bill Murray's best all-time performances. Don't ask me how we got there (I think it's because I had watched What About Bob on cable earlier in the day, and so the film was on my mind), but we began with our top three. That is until I mentioned how this would make a good Cinematical Seven -- and since the guys (who both help run two prominent film festivals here in NYC) love reading our Cine Sevens -- we took about a half hour and finally agreed upon the man's seven best performances. Now, keep in mind these aren't necessarily the best Bill Murray films -- these are simply his seven best performances, in our opinion.
1. Arthur Denton, Little Shop of Horrors -- Coming up with our seven favorite Bill Murray performances was difficult to say the least, but deciding on an overall favorite was fairly easy. Murray's cameo as a patient who's just itching to be manhandled by an insane, over-the-top macho dentist (Steve Martin) in this big-screen adaptation of the staged musical takes the cake. The scene itself is short, and Murray's performance is almost all improv, but it's quite possibly the funniest character he's ever played. In fact, I'd love to see an entire movie about that guy -- who's with me? Additionally, for those who may have missed it (or would love to watch it again), here's the clip on YouTube.
2. Dr. Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters -- Who else would get into the business of hunting down ghosts purely for the women? While supporting players like Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis (who I feel is right there with Murray in this film) and Sigourney Weaver do a fine job in the flick, it's Murray's Venkman character that truly breathes life into one of the great comedies of my generation. Overly confident, yet insecure in a lot of ways, Venkman also provided all of the most memorable lines of dialogue in the movie -- most notably, "He slimed me!" and "We came, we saw and we kicked its ass!" It's funny, it's scary and till this day I still hum the title song from time to time. Who you gonna call ... when you're in the mood to laugh? Bill Murray!
3. Bob Wiley, What About Bob -- Seeing as my parents absolutely adore this movie (to a point where they would rent it every weekend and watch it over and over again), there was a time when What About Bob featured my favorite Bill Murray performance. Of course, my mind has since changed, but even so I still felt the urge to throw this sucker up top at number one. "Baby step What About Bob down to the number two spot. Baby step What About Bob down to the number three spot. Good. You're doing it!" Essentially, it's the chemistry between Murray (as a lonely man suffering from a severe case of OCD) and Richard Dreyfuss (as his stern therapist) that really makes this flick sail above the rest. With the perfect blend of humor and heart ("I'm taking a vacation from my problems!"), there's no one else I could ever imagine playing Bob Wiley (and his assortment of hysterical idiosyncrasies) as well as Bill Murray did back in 1991.
4. Phil Connors, Groundhog Day -- And speaking of a role that could only be pulled off by Bill Murray, the character of Phil Connors came at a time when Bill Murray was beginning to take some bigger risks in his role choices. Scrooged had him playing a selfish, a**hole of a TV executive, he came at us as a World War I veteran in The Razor's Edge and, here, in Groundhog Day, he introduces us to yet another self-centered character who we slowly grow to root for as he begins to discover true happiness while re-living the same day over and over again until he gets it right. The great thing about the film in general is that there aren't any rules; there's no magical wizard who shows up to tell Connors he has to keep re-living Groundhog Day until he completes a particular task. Instead, like the character, we just have to accept that this is happening and follow along on his journey. And man, what a journey that is.
5. Ernie McCracken, Kingpin -- It's the haircut that got me. Bill Murray isn't the type of actor who plays villain all that much, but when he does he winds up churning out the kind of fantastic performance that, more often than not, makes the movie. In Kingpin, he quite literally steals the show as a conceited bowling champion who struts around in a disco outfit and makes up lines as he goes. And although he's not in the film much (just enough to have us craving more), while on screen he makes every moment worthwhile. Never in my life have I loved a man with a severe God complex as much as "Big Ern" in Kingpin. If only the Farelly Brothers were still making them like they used to ...
6. Carl Spackler, Caddyshack -- By far one of this silliest roles, here Murray plays the assistant groundskeeper of a golf course that's being terrorized by a man who never gets any respect, as well as one of the smartest and toughest gophers to ever hit the big screen. Utilizing his Green Berets training, Spackler comes up with a number of moronic ways to rid the golf course of this pesky critter -- only each and every time, he fails miserably. And it's so much fun to watch. He's dirty, he's disheveled, and half the time we have no idea what he's saying -- but he more than holds his own in this comedy packed full of memorable performances.
7. Don Johnston, Broken Flowers -- The seventh spot was the toughest by far, because you begin to remember so many other phenomenal Bill Murray performances and wish you had space to include them all. For example, it pains me that I didn't have room for Rushmore, Stripes or even Lost in Translation -- three exceptional roles that would've made this list if I hadn't attended a private screening of Broken Flowers followed by a Q&A with the great Jim Jarmusch. The pace is terribly slow, and the film is definitely not for everyone, but Murray (in a part specifically written for him) glides effortlessly through a role filled with so much internal conflict. Unlike his most memorable characters, there's nothing outwardly quirky about Don Johnston; he's a relatively quiet man who can't seem to hold a steady girlfriend. And as he makes his way from one ex-flame to the next (in search of who may have mothered his mystery child), there's a great existentialist theme that grows organically throughout. It's also the perfect film to show how far Murray has come as an actor over the 30 or so years he's been entertaining us on the big screen.