The 10 Best Bill Murray Performances of All-Time
Bill Murray is amazing.
We probably don’t need us to tell you that because you, being the fine surveyor of popular culture that you are, already knows that Mr. Murray is an international treasure. One of the funniest men who has ever lived and one of the greatest actors to appear in the movies, he’s had his fair share of ups and downs…but when your highs are as high as his, you’re allowed the occasional ‘Operation Dumbo Drop.’
There’s never a good reason to not talk about Bill Murray and his frequently astonishing (and occasionally bewildering) career, so let’s take a few steps back, take a look at everything he’s done and pick out the best of the best. These are the 10 best performances of Bill Murray’s career.
Bill Murray's entire career has been built around his incredible ability to play the "sad clown" type better than anyone else in the business, but what happens when you remove almost every laugh and leave the clown with nothing? You'd get something like Murray's strange and wonderful performance in Jim Jarmusch's 'Broken Flowers,' which finds the comedian in one of his least funny but most moving performances. It's a meandering and often slowly paced film, but Murray provides a relatable emotional center, grounding us through the movie's various dark episodes. With a less likable actor, the movie could have been a disaster.
Although it's a rare supporting role for Bill Murray, his turn as "Bunny" Breckinridge in Tim Burton's 'Ed Wood' is one of the funniest of his entire career and proof that he is sometimes best utilized as a secret weapon hidden in the ensemble rather than a leading man. This is a movie filled with oddballs and screw-ups, but Murray's depiction of the B-movie actor and drag queen who regularly worked with "the worst director of all time" Edward D. Wood Jr. is the standout.
Almost every single line of his dialogue is hilarious, but the performance achieves immortality when he regales Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson with the story of his ill-fated trip to Mexico and the Mariachi band that saved his life. It's a role that you could never build a movie around, but as comic relief in a movie that's already hilarious, you can't do much better.
Bill Murray is one of cinema's greatest smartasses, a label that has allowed him to play some of the greatest clowns, rebels and slackers in movie history. If you were to search for the Murray performance that best exemplifies his pure, unfiltered essence, you'd ultimately land on Ivan Reitman's 'Stripes,' in which Murray stars as a guy who couldn't respect authority thrust into the United States military.
The film may lose a lot of steam in the second half, but the first hour shows you why most of America fell in love with Murray in the first place. You can wag your finger at Murray for taking the occasional paycheck gig these days, but the man made 'Stripes.' He's obviously just as disappointed in himself as you.
Bill Murray's work in 'Scrooged' initially feels very typical of the actor's regular output, just another chance for him to snark and deadpan his way through 90 minutes, cutting down everyone who stands in his way with biting sarcasm. And for awhile, that's what it is and it's perfectly fine (after all, few things are as entertaining as watching Murray get grumpy and mean).
However, this modern update on 'A Christmas Carol' shows its true hand in the final stretch, putting Murray center stage to deliver a very long, very sweet, slightly cheesy and 100% moving speech about the holiday spirit and what it means to love and be loved. It's a big, sentimental speech, but coming from one of cinema's least sentimental actors, it transforms into an incredible plea for decency, instantly transforming a good Murray performance into a great one.
Bill Murray's role as disgruntled assistant groundskeeper Carl Spackler in 'Caddyshack' looms so large in the film's reputation that it's easy to forget that he's really not even one of the film's leading characters. Heck, he's barely even involved in the shenanigans of the film's main plot and most of his scenes were added during shooting because everyone liked his work so much. And that was certainly a good thing.
Murray is very funny in 'Caddyshack' playing the broadest and silliest character in his career and it almost feels like an extension of his 'SNL' work. The film helped make much of its cast into stars, but there's a reason everyone tends to break out the Spackler quotes when they talk about this movie.
If you ask any random movie fan to name the first Bill Murray character that just pops in their head, they'd probably respond with Dr. Peter Venkman. They'd do it for good reason, too: everyone has seen 'Ghostbusters' and everyone loves 'Ghostbusters.'
Although crammed full of nifty special effects and hilarious performances from a murderer's row of amazing comic talent, the greatest thing 'Ghosbusters' has going for it is Murray's dry wit, which quickly becomes Venkman's shield when things start getting spooky and dangerous. If we ever had to face down an ancient god who has taken the form of a giant Stay Puft marshmallow man, we hope we'll still have the same capacity for one-liners as Peter Venkman.
'The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou'
'The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou' (somewhat dismissed on its released) has been seeing a critical reevaluation in the past few years and for good reason: it's one of Wes Anderson's best films and it features one of Bill Murray's best performances. Filled with all of the visual lunacy, oddball characters and general whimsy that you'd expect from an Anderson film, 'The Life Aquatic' gives Murray the extremely difficult task of standing at the center of all the chaos and playing straight man to a deranged universe ... and then bring genuine humanity when it's called for.
This is a very funny movie and Murray gets plenty of laughs from playing explorer/filmmaker/stoner Steve Zissou completely straight, the performance truly comes into its own late in the film, when Zissou takes the first of many steps in a difficult grieving process. It's not just the most beautiful moment in an Anderson film -- it may be the most beautiful moment in Murray's career.
'Lost in Translation'
In 2004, Bill Murray received his first (and so far, only) Oscar nomination for 'Lost in Translation' and while he didn't win, it served as an important reminder that one of the world's funniest men is also one of its best actors.
In a role that probably contains more of himself than he'd like to admit, Murray plays a washed-up movie star who comes to Tokyo to film a commercial, forges a (mostly) platonic relationship with a beautiful young woman and possibly (maybe?) finds some hope to assuage his ongoing midlife crisis. It's a touching, funny and warm performance that's almost entirely lacking in any of Murray's traditional tics or quirks. Most of all, it feels painfully real and true, as if we're watching Murray truly bare his soul onscreen for the first time.
Could 'Groundhog Day' be the most balanced of all of Bill Murray's performances? After all, it lets him get broad and silly while letting him play a sarcastic, deadpan jerk while letting him undergo a serious transformation that forces him to dramatically re-examine his life in a moving, heartfelt way.
'Groundhog Day' is a masterpiece through and through and it's impossible to imagine it without Murray at the center. Like the movie itself, Murray is hilarious and biting while simultaneously being moving and poetic. Most films about jerks who learn to be good guy end with the main character getting completely defanged, but Murray sidesteps that, managing to capture a decent man who just knows when to utilize a good wisecrack. This is textbook Bill Murray and a perfect performance.
It would disingenuous to put Bill Murray's performance as Harold Blume in 'Rushmore' anywhere other than the number one position on this list because it's not just Murray's best role, but one of the best movie characters in recent history.
A lovelorn sadsack who quietly battles PTSD from the Vietnam war while befriending (and later, battling) Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer, Blume is the ultimate Murray character, the world's loneliest, saddest and most inexplicably likable clown. He's a depressing character, but he's so damn funny and easy to trust, with Murray's trademark snark only emerging when the character reaches his darkest places. Murray has been funnier and he's been more dramatic, but he has never played a more complicated, rich or compelling character.