In Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray gets to flex his considerable acting muscle.
Frankly, my dears, he doesn’t give a damn. Clark Gable’s parting shot at the end of Gone With the Wind could be Bill Murray’s career motto. Not since Marlon Brando has there been a major movie star who seemed so supremely indifferent about being a major movie star. Murray famously shuns Hollywood, doesn’t have a manager or agent, and picks up job offers via a 1-800 number. And while others cultivate the movie-star mystique, he goofs on it, mingling with the public to the point where his crazy pop-up appearances—from crashing student house parties to hanging at Toronto’s Bovine Sex Club—have become legendary.
Onscreen, Murray projects the same freewheeling attitude, often giving the impression that he’s trying to get away with as little acting as possible. That’s what makes Hyde Park on Hudson, his new film opening this Friday, so unexpected. In recent years, Murray has seemed content to play small, quirky supporting parts with a minimum of heavy lifting. And yet here he is, carrying a historical biopic in the kind of showy starring role tailored to win awards. What was Murray thinking, letting himself be cast as U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a feat that would require a carefully studied accent, gobs of makeup, heaps of research—all that Daniel Day-Lewis/Meryl Streep stuff?
It could be that, in deciding to play FDR, Murray has tipped his hand. In his three-decade career in movies, the Saturday Night Live alumnus has been a huge box-office star, an indie darling, and a hipster icon, but he’s never established himself as a Serious Actor. His closest brush with Oscar glory was his 2004 nomination for Lost in Translation, in which he gave the most moving of his minimalist performances as a melancholy movie star—a role that could easily be construed as a self-portrait. Maybe now, at 62, he hears the clock ticking and feels the stirring of some old ambitions.
Behind that impish, world-weary façade, Bill Murray really does give a damn about his art. It helps explain why, those two Garfield cartoons aside, he’s almost never made a bad film choice. And why, since the late 1990s, he’s chosen to ally himself with artistic filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch, and, especially, Wes Anderson. In fact, Hyde Park on Hudson may be the culmination of a desire to prove his acting chops that dates back to the start of his movie career.
Like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and his other peers from the original SNL crew, Murray made the jump to the big screen in coarse, gag-laden comedies like Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), and Stripes (1981). But their wild success wasn’t enough for him and in 1984 he took a big risk, co-writing and starring in The Razor’s Edge, a drama based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel about a war veteran’s spiritual quest. Murray couldn’t get studio backing for the film until his old SNL colleague Dan Aykroyd suggested he sign on to play the lead in Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters comedy and offer both movies to Columbia Pictures as a package deal.
Ghostbusters, of course, became a box-office record buster. The Razor’s Edge, in which Murray tried to remould Maugham’s character to fit his own wisecracking style, irritated the critics and confused his fans. Its failure was a rebuke to his dramatic aspirations and he retreated into a two-year hiatus to lick his wounds. When he came back, he channelled the “bastard” side of his screen personality into comedies like Scrooged (1988) and the initially under-appreciated Groundhog Day (1993). It felt, though, as if he was fated to decline into irrelevance, à la Chevy Chase—that is, until a young Wes Anderson convinced him to co-star as the jaded industrialist in his 1998 breakthrough, Rushmore. That charming film heralded the surprise second act of Murray’s career, one that has seen him go on to refine his low-key, deadpan style to sublime effect in pictures like Lost in Translation, Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005), and Anderson’s recent Moonrise Kingdom.
Now he’s taken another Razor’s Edge–style gamble with Hyde Park on Hudson. And this time it clicks. Whether or not his FDR gets a well-deserved Oscar nod, it’s one of Murray’s most inspired performances. He nails the look, the patrician accent, the signature chin-thrusting grin, but he also finds his own wry qualities in the beloved president.
Murray has finally achieved what he tried to do back in the ’80s, successfully marrying his comic persona to a substantial dramatic role. Having done that, he may be content. But let’s hope this is just the beginning of a new and rewarding phase in his career, where he takes on more challenges and steps into the front rank of great film actors. We’re rooting for Bill Murray, Act 3.