Wes Anderson and Bill Murray have been through a few decades together and collaborated on some all-time great films. If the question that brought you is “Will Bill Murray be in another Wes Anderson movie?”, you’ll find no answers here, but it’s fun to reflect on the past.
So slap on some grease paint and let’s discuss the life and career of a sad clown…
Wes Anderson movies are filled with sad clowns. Actors who are typically in comedies but, when placed in an Anderson production, are asked to be dour and more emotionally grounded.
But one sad clown looms largest in Anderson’s filmography…
In Murray’s first collaboration with Anderson, he plays Herman Blume, a wealthy Texas tycoon. James Caan shows up for a few scenes in Bottle Rocket, but Murray is really the first movie star that plays a main role in a Wes Anderson film.
But Murray isn’t just doing a favor for a director who’s relatively new to the scene. By the late ‘90s, Murray may have realized his career of starring in studio comedies was coming to a close, or he deliberately decided to make a career swerve. Probably a bit of both. 1997’s The Man Who Knew Too Little would be his last starring role in a major studio comedy.
Murray’s decision to join a low-budget indie comedy-drama directed by someone whose debut movie was a commercial flop was a key turning point in both their careers. Anderson gets a comedy legend to work for scale on his movie which all but guarantees more people will see it in a theater than ever heard about Bottle Rocket. Conversely, Murray gets a change of pace. He had been in dramatic roles before, like playing Bunny Breckinridge in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, but nothing this substantial.
His performance in the film acting opposite Jason Schwartzman and Olivia Williams is outstanding and revitalizes his career. But the director/actor partnership was far from over…
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS
In Anderson’s next movie, Murray plays neurologist author Raleigh St. Clair, unhappily married to Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Margot and constantly conducting experiments on a young boy named Dudley.
It’s a smaller role and the character has less dimensions than Herman Blume, but Murray still adds a nice texture to the film. The cast is large and he fits in nicely as one of the depressed family members whose life doesn’t seem to have much purpose.
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
And here’s the biggie. In their third collaboration, Anderson casts Murray as the main character of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou wherein he plays the titular character. It’s without a doubt the most significant presence Murray has had to date in a Wes Anderson film and he’s extending his depressed persona from the first two films.
In Matt Zoller Seitz’s book The Wes Anderson Collection, the director elaborates on what he saw in the comedy legend:
“He has this melancholy side to his screen personality. There’s a lot of sadness that just emanates from him, even though he’s so funny. You can’t get around it, really. He also has the ability to bring up a kind of brutal aggression if necessary. He’s a big guy. You wouldn’t want to get into a physical conflict with our imagination’s Bill Murray.”
Anderson puts our imagination’s Bill Murray to use by giving him a character who’s physically imposing, emotionally manipulative and, of course, incredibly sad.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED
In The Darjeeling Limited, Murray flies to India for a cameo, although an important one. The movie begins with him, a stressed-out unnamed businessman who’s late for the eponymous train. Although he tries, he doesn’t quite make it before it speeds off down the track. Adrien Brody doesn’t have to be so happy about it though.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Inevitably, Wes Anderson and Bill Murray go animated in The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Murray plays Clive Badger, Esq., an accomplished lawyer who dispenses advice to Mr. Fox throughout the movie. Pearls of wisdom like “Don’t move next to three farmers who want to hunt and kill you.” Of course, Mr. Fox is too smart to listen to him and without him ignoring his badger friend, we wouldn’t get a movie. Just remember not to cuss with him…
Murray must’ve enjoyed playing a lawyer because in his next collaboration with Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom, he plays another one. This time he’s Walt Bishop married to Francis McDormand’s Laura Bishop and father to Suzy Bishop, who regrettably goes missing. It’s a pretty similar character to Raleigh St. Clair in Royal Tenenbaums, except he has a different occupation. Both characters exist at the outskirts of the main storyline and both are having difficulties with their marriage. This performance doesn’t really add much to the catalogue, it’s basically Murray just doing his depressed upper-class schtick again, but it’s always nice to have him as part of the ensemble.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Next is another cameo. One of many in The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Society of the Crossed Keys sequence, which details the convoluted game of telephone a secret society of hotel concierges play to send aid to M. Gustave and Zero, played by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori. Murray plays M. Ivan, the concierge of the Excelsior Palace who helps the main characters in their time of need after they escape prison. Ivan provides them with safe passage, neckties for the dining car, and a spritz of L’Air de Panache. And does he require anything in return?
ISLE OF DOGS
Penultimately for this list, Murray goes to Japan to essay the role of Boss, the canine mascot of an undefeated high school baseball team. Although his character is living in a dog dystopia, he’s part of Chief’s pack and, at the outset of the movie, is successful in a squabble over a premium bag of garbage. If all that plot synopsis sounds ridiculous, just trust me that it definitely works and Murray does a good job grounding the movie in realism instead of letting it get too ridiculous.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH
And finally, Murray plays editor-in-chief of The French Dispatch, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. This might be recency bias, but it’s definitely my favorite role in his Wes Anderson journey. It’s not as significant as Herman Blume or Steve Zissou, but it’s the most affecting. The way he coaxes the best out of his writers is always gently affirming and it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling every time I hear him say…”Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”
And thus goes the wonderful, flourishing partnership between…what, what’s going on here?
Oh come on, Bill…
That’s right, as you can tell by the headlines flashing on screen, Bill Murray’s currently in hot water on the set of an Aziz Ansari-directed film called Being Mortal, where he reportedly “kissed and straddled a younger female production staffer on set.” Not a great look, particularly in the 2020s, and Murray has definitely stayed out of the spotlight since, other than giving an awkward interview to CNBC at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting. He just had to get Warren Buffet involved…
He’s since paid a settlement to the staffer but the question remains about his future in the film industry at large. In Wes Anderson news, Murray was the one who revealed the title of Anderson’s next movie, Asteroid City, which he was supposed to be in at the time, but has now been replaced by Steve Carell.
For non-Wes Anderson roles, it does say a lot that Kevin Feige and other Marvel brass didn’t recast him in the new Ant-Man movie, which will almost certainly be one of the ten biggest box office hits of 2023. That at least points to the fact that pop culture at large (or at least the comic book behemoth that seems to dictate pop culture at large) hasn’t canceled him yet.
So where does he stand with Wes Anderson? Did the director try to hedge his bets and cut his longtime creative muse out of a small part? I’m willing to bet the COVID story is legitimate since principal photography on Asteroid City wrapped in October 2021 and the news about his on-set behavior in Being Mortal dropped in April 2022. The idea that Anderson scrubbed him from the film and flew in Steve Carell to re-film everything under the cover of night seems suspect, especially given the exorbitant costs involved with reshoots.
But we can only really speculate. The real test to their fruitful partnership will be if Murray ever appears in another Anderson cinematic confection. Although it would be absurdly appropriate if Murray’s last appearance in Anderson’s filmography was the elegiac scene where Arthur Howitzer, Jr. is being memorialized by a cadre of eccentric reporters. One final obituary for a decades-long partnership.
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Until next time, always remember…the Sarris Wheel spins on.