Murray is Cool Again

By Jeffrey Wells

Things just aren't the same these days for Bill Murray, not with all this Rushmore Oscar buzz and the guy taking a Shakespearean turn. Shakespeare?

Long known as a quirky, mercurial, intensely private type, Murray has been nursing a conflict for years between broad commercial comedies and quieter, more low-key parts. In the words of one colleague, Murray "takes himself very seriously as an actor." Of course, comedies were always where the money was, even though Murray was sometimes "embarrassed" about their quality.

Murray's box-office heyday came in the early to mid-'80s, when he traded up on his Saturday Night Live fame to score in Meatballs, Stripes, the two Ghostbusters movies, and Tootsie, the latter of which he took no screen credit for, even though it was easily his best performance to date.

Murray's one stab at more-or-less straight drama, The Razor's Edge, was seen as an indulgent misfire, and the film became synonymous with all that's wrong with star-driven vanity projects.

The '90s started out promisingly with Groundhog Day-Murray's unalloyed triumph-and Mad Dog and Glory, in which he gave one of his best noncomic performances, playing a Chicago mobster who sidelines as a stand-up comic.

Then things started to sag. During the mid-'90s Murray seemed trapped in a string of lowbrow comedies: What About Bob?, Kingpin (playing a yahoo bowler), Larger Than Life (opposite an elephant), and The Man Who Knew Too Little. One of the few bright spots was his performance as Bunny Breckenridge in the 1994 Tim Burton flop Ed Wood.

Now, with the acclaim over his Rushmore performance, things are happening again. Murray is suddenly a seriously cool, middle-aged, indie-flavored character actor. And he seems to have easily made the adjustment. According to Newsweek, Murray didn't pull any big star antics on the set of Rushmore, pitching in to help move equipment, singing "Happy Birthday" to the sound man, and offering director Wes Anderson a blank check when Disney balked at shelling out $75,000 for a helicopter shot (the scene was never filmed).

Last weekend Murray won his third Best Supporting Actor award (from the National Society of Film Critics, following tributes by the New York and L.A. film critics last month) for his sad-sack performance as Herman Blume in Rushmore. Add to this Murray's Golden Globe nomination in the same category, and it's virtually guaranteed that he'll be nominated for an Oscar-he could actually win.

The chances that Murray will ever play second banana to a pachyderm again seem remote now that he's proved that he's at his best and most cunning-his most hilarious, really-when he's playing it subtle.

Former Daily News film critic Dave Kehr says Murray was "absolutely astonished" when he told the actor there was a "good chance" he'd win some acting awards for his Rushmore performance. "He gave me this look, like 'whaat?'" says Kehr. "Then he said, 'If you say so, that means it's not going to happen.'" (Indicating, it seems, Murray's fervent hope that it will.)

At the time, says Kehr, Murray had higher hopes for his acting in Tim Robbins The Cradle Will Rock, a '30s period drama about Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre colleagues that Disney will release later this year. "Wait'll you see this," Murray told Kehr.

There's also Murray's performance as Polonious in a contemporary, New-York-street version of Hamlet opposite Ethan Hawke. Miramax will release the film, directed by Michael Almereyda, sometime in the fall.

Speaking in pure (albeit abridged) Elizabethan prose, Murray played his part "very wellvery down-to-earth," according to producer Andy Fierberg. (His screen time amounts to roughly 15 minutes.) It's not giving anything away (not for Shakespeare scholars, certainly) to note that Murray will play his first death scene in Hamlet.

According to a rep for Murray's agent, CAA's Jessica Tuchinsky, and producer Peter Newman, Murray's next project will be Veeck as in Wreck-a period biopic about Bill Veeck, the P.T. Barnum-styled owner of the Chicago White Sox and the St. Louis Browns from the '40s through the '60s.

Veeck has been sitting in development hell for years, but Murray's newfound heat has uncovered financing. Murray's pal John McNaughton (Mad Dog and Glory, Wild Things) will direct. The star, a hardcore baseball fan who incidentally co-owns two or three minor-league baseball teams will exec produce. The movie is said to be eyeing a September or October start date.

Source: Mr. Showbiz

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