Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Guest Post: Sheila O'Malley on Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION

Jason Bailey recently wrote an article over at Flavorwire entitled 15 Great Female Film Critics You Should be Reading and my guest blogger Sheila O'Malley was rightfully featured on that list. For my own thoughts on Sheila, take away the 'female' in that title. She is, simply put, one of the best writers on film and music in the world and is a huge inspiration to me so I am so honored by her appearing here again at Moon in the Gutter. I don't know what to say about this piece on Bill all of Sheila's personal pieces it is engaging, haunting, intelligent and poetic. I am beyond thrilled to present here today and thanks so much to Sheila for sharing it with us.                       


It's the day before Bill Murray shows up in Tokyo to start filming Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, and Coppola, talking to the camera, wells up with tears in excitement. Even the way she says "Bill" shows her emotion about the man. She says, and she suddenly seems 11, 12 years old, "It's my fantasy ... I can't wait to see Bill in his kimono. I can't believe he's coming to do this movie. It's my dream." Bill Murray is famously elusive. He has no representation, no agent or manager. How did Coppola "get to Bill" with the offer of Lost in Translation? "Perseverance," she says. She has been open about the fact that he was her only choice for the role of Bob Harris, the sleep-deprived movie star shipwrecked in Tokyo. She didn't want to do the movie if he didn't play the role. Great things come out of such risks, such gambles, and often the great ones are the ones who have no Plan B. In a career as diverse as Murray's, there haven't been too many mis-steps, which is rare. Like Cary Grant, who managed his own career, Bill Murray keeps his own counsel, does what pleases him, and is self-protective to the point of being a total mystery. He started out in films playing weirdos, grumps, and detached anti-social anti-heroes. Ghostbusters shot him into the stratosphere, but for me, it was his sidekick role in Tootsie that showed Bill Murray's uncanny smarts about his own career.

It's a small role, but, in looking back, I think Tootsie was even more important than Ghostbusters or Stripes in Bill Murray's career. It helped to express what he was really all about. I started watching Saturday Night Live regularly during Bill Murray's first season. I was a kid, and much of the show went over my head, but there were two Bill Murray characters which struck a deep chord, both comedically (I understood why they were funny, in other words), and emotionally (I had a huge crush on him, in other words). The first one was the lounge singer, Nick Winters, whose gigs involve performing in truck stops outside the Vegas strip, a moving railway car, and other depressing venues.

Nick Winters is Dean Martin and Elvis Presley in his own mind, and he bellows out his songs with gusto and flourishes, the results often being totally ridiculous. But the trick is that he honestly believes he is playing at The International Hotel in front of thousands of people. Nick Winters is totally delusional, and yet the character is not tragic, we don't feel sorry for him. What I am left with, when I watch the Nick Winters sketches, to this day, is an overwhelming sense of Bill Murray's essence. It feels laid-bare there, in a way I don't get from his other popular sketches, like the Ex-Police, or the co-anchor on Weekend Update. A real key to Bill Murray's long-lasting appeal is in Nick Winters. The other sketch that made a huge impression on me was the "nerds" sketch, with Bill Murray as Todd DiLaMuca, the geek with the pocket protector, who was best friends with Gilda Radner's snuffling-nosed nerd Lisa. What is so great about both of their performances is that underneath the awkward nerdiness and bad jokes, what they are actually playing is an ongoing subtextual love story. Every time he makes fun of her flat chest, every time he grabs her and gives her a "noogie attack", there's a tension of what might happen next. There's a hope/fear that Todd might finally do what he has always wanted to do from the beginning, which is take Lisa in his arms and kiss her like a maniac. It's a character-based sketch, the kind I love best. Bill Murray and Gilda Radner got a ton of laughs as Todd and Lisa, but there are also moments where the sketches almost move into bittersweet poignant territory. In the sketch where Lisa is in the hospital for an operation to correct her "deviated septum", Todd visits her, but unfortunately another student, Charles (played by host Steve Martin) also visits her. Charles has brought Lisa's homework for her, and Todd tries to denigrate his rival's thoughtfulness by sticking his finger down his throat over how gross it all is. But what's really going on is Todd is bummed out that he didn't think to bring Lisa's homework. That nerdy girl lying in the hospital bed is the hottest girl in town: men are fighting over her. And finally, in the "coda" of the sketch, when the rivals have finally left her alone in the room, she turns off the light and lies there for a minute. Then, she turns on the light, gets out of bed, goes to a chair by the door to pick up her teddy bear, walks back to the bed, and crawls into it, snuggling the teddy bear close to her. It's sweet and quiet, and the silence of the audience as they watch her shows that they will follow these two characters anywhere. Would Todd and Lisa ever kiss? Would they ever break through the joshing almost-violent dynamic they have with each other? It's vulnerable work from both of them. And in Todd DiLaMuca, we can see Bill Murray as Leading Man. Not everyone is a Leading Man, but he is, he always was.

Bill Murray carries with him a slight potential of danger, we sense he could turn cruel at any moment. His detachment makes him a natural commentator on the human condition, but it can also isolate him, it can also make him unsympathetic towards his fellow creatures. Often comedians, so used to having to "get laughs", try to be likable in their film roles, they want the audience to be on their side. Bill Murray never had that problem. Groundhog Day tapped into his darkness, an essential part of him. Years of character parts solidified Murray's position as one of the most interesting actors working today, and Wes Anderson jump-started a third (or fourth) wave of his career with Rushmore. There we get Bill Murray's essence, too, only now shaded with middle-aged melancholy and sour cynicism. But what would have happened to Bill Murray's career if he hadn't been convinced by Sofia Coppola's "perseverance" to play Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, which brought him his first Oscar nod? It's not a given that a role like that would have come along for him, in the natural course of things. His days as a Ghostbusters superstar were seemingly in the past. Someone had to think it up, someone had to dream about him in that way. Coppola did. I always felt fluttery with excitement when Bill Murray showed up in a movie, and this sensation has lasted, what, 30 years? That's insane longevity. Coppola was very smart in how she utilized that in Lost in Translation. Murray had to recognize that this, this role ... this one would change things for him. He said that he read the script and immediately thought, "Yes. I know this. I already know this." Murray was right to trust her with his carefully guarded persona. She pulled back any veils that might be between us and him and revealed all of those elements we have sensed in him from the beginning: his caustic outsider status, his world-weary eye-roll (that could either be hostile or affectionately inclusive), his well-known ambivalence about his own fame, and his surprising capacity for piercing sudden tenderness (which is what I always felt reverberating beneath his shenanigans with Gilda Radner in the "nerds").

While there are so many moments I love in Lost in Translation, it is in the karaoke scene where, by some magic trick of mood, music, performance, and free-floating associations, we can see the history of his entire career, poured into the vessel created for him by Coppola. The first time I saw the scene, I honestly felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I couldn't believe it was actually happening. This ... exists now? If the scene had been self-conscious or arch in any way, it wouldn't have worked. Coppola loves him, and you can tell she does by what she allowed to happen in that scene. Let him go, let him be, let him be himself, and stand back. Marvel at him. You can feel Coppola marveling at him in the way she films that scene. And she doesn't give him just one song to sing. She lets him sing two.

The first song he sings is Elvis Costello's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding?" The first time I saw the scene, of course, Nick Winters from so many years ago flashed through my mind, and how happy Nick Winters was, in his own fantasy of being two steps away from being a member of the Rat Pack even though he's singing in a dive, wearing Elvis knock-offs and silk shirts opened to the navel. Bill Murray launches himself into Costello's song with gusto, and suddenly, somehow, the space gets tremendously emotional. It's almost chaotic. The emotions are there in how he sings the song, certainly, but it's how Coppola films him as well. It's almost like he's in a stadium, singing to the cheering masses. While you get the sense that this is the most fun Bob Harris has had in years, there is also a wild sadness underneath it, so wild that it is probably frightening to even acknowledge its existence. That wild sadness was always there in Bill Murray's work. It's never more palpable than in this scene. Scarlett Johansson, in her pink wig, then gets up and sings The Pretenders "Brass in Pocket", expressly doing it for Bob, who is so relaxed by this point that the openness of his face is actually a little bit heartbreaking.

But Coppola is not done with this location, this event. We then see Scarlett, holding the mike, and saying, to an imaginary crowd in an ultra-serious voice, "Ladies and gentlemen. Bob Harris." He takes the mike, and admits to her, "This is hard." The way he says that line encapsulates everything I have loved about Bill Murray from the very start of his long career. Again, it's like he's Nick Winters, lost in the fantasy of being some tormented rock star about to sing a ballad he wrote that means a lot to him and it's going to be "hard" to get through it. Bill Murray knows it's funny, Bob Harris knows it's funny, and then, like quicksilver, the moment passes, and he starts to sing "More Than This", and this signifies a swoon into another mood, a quieter one. He's no longer standing, like he was for the Costello number, but sitting beside the pink-wigged young woman who has suddenly come into his life, and he hasn't slept in four days, and the way he sings the song makes it sound like it is coming from out of the dream he wishes he was having.

"I could feel at the time There was no way of knowing
Fallen leaves in the night Who can say where they're blowing
As free as the wind Hopefully learning
Why the sea on the tide Has no way of turning More than this you know there's nothing
More than this tell me one thing More than this there is nothing."

Bill Murray has always been a little bit hard to pin down. I think he likes it that way. I think it's one of the reasons why his career has lasted so long, and has had so many interesting dips and turns. He resists classification, and has always stood a little bit outside of the normal path. If he is going to lend his persona to a director it has to be for a damn good reason. Sofia Coppola gave him a damn good reason. She had been dreaming about him for years. It shows. There's a reason why Bill Murray refers to her as "The Boss".

***Thanks again Shelia for this incredibly moving and wonderfully informative piece!***

1 comment:

Steve Langton said...

Fascinating, beautifully written insight into Bill Murray and exactly why this role could only be his.