Greatish Performances #29


#29 — Bill Murray as Frank Cross in Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988)

It is entirely reasonable to disagree about the pivot point that moved Bill Murray from an engaging presence to a shrewdly effective actor. Enjoyable as he is in the various onscreen turns in the first portion of his film career, Murray got by on attitude and scampish charm more than honest immersion in his roles. It was a fitting enough extension of his foundational work with Second City, The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and Saturday Night Live, but it also confined his talent. Rather than stretching, he was holding back, relying on the safety and comfort of his well-honed comedic skills. To use a metaphor that speaks to Murray’s place as the nation’s most beloved Cubs fan, he was taking batting practice rather than stepping in against Major League pitching.

The career point to most safely point to as Murray’s emergence as a real actor is his portrayal of Herman Blume in Wes Anderson’s great Rushmore, if only because that’s surely the film that first earned him a significant number of votes for an Academy Award nomination (though he ultimately fell short in a highly competitive year in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category). I think there’s a more telling performance, delivered about a decade earlier. For me, Murray the actor arrived with Scrooged.

Directed by Richard Donner, Scrooged is, in many ways, as simple and straightforward as they come. A modernized take on the Charles Dickens mainstay A Christmas Carol, the holiday film casts Murray as Frank Cross, a network television executive who’s earning his Christmas curmudgeon reputation by enlisting most of his employees to toil on a massive live special that will keep them away from their families. He’s a prime contender for some ghostly visitations bent on correcting his dour outlook.

Scrooged arrived at an interesting time for Murray. Except for a couple of cameos (one of which is delightfully memorable, I will admit), he hadn’t been on the big screen in four years. In 1984, he starred in Ghostbusters, spinning the box office in wild circles. He also made a stab at a dramatic role, playing Larry Darrell in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maughham’s classic novel The Razor’s Edge, a film that Murray reportedly included as a condition for making the previously mentioned supernatural comedy. His heart was clearly with the more serious project (Murray also worked on the screenplay with director John Byrum), which had to make it a heavy disappointment when it proved to be a commercial and critical failure. It’s easy (if probably overly simplistic) to surmise that Murray spent the intervening years determining precisely who he wanted to be as a performer.

On the basis of his work in Scrooged, Murray figured out how to adhere just enough to expectations that he could play with the darker instincts that had always been buried deep within his array of pranksters. This was a major studio holiday release, so there would have been plenty of support for softening the lead character’s edges. Instead, Murray accentuates Frank’s more caustic qualities: his snappish temper, his contemptuous indifference to others, his ugly pettiness. I love the seething impatience Murray brings to the scene in which Frank is tracking through his Christmas gift-giving list with his assistant (Alfre Woodard), determining who will receive a lowly towel and who will find a high-end VCR under the tree (this is 1988, remember). There are jokes, to be sure, but the ones Murray leans into most forcefully leave throbbing purple marks. Murray hadn’t yet become everyone’s favorite performance artist of impromptu social joy, but he already operated with the thundering confidence of an actor who could do everything possible to make the audience dislike him only to reclaim their sympathies when the narrative demanded it.

Maybe nothing demonstrates Murray’s astounding authority more than when he breaks the fourth wall at the end of the film, directly and knowingly addressing the audience with an incongruous Little Shop of Horrors quote and slightly bullying leadership of a singalong. Murray is in character and yet isn’t. There’s a slight brutality to his admonitions for moviegoers to join in the fun, as if Frank wasn’t exactly redeemed by his haunted Christmas Eve, but only learned how to turn his power towards spreading cheer instead of fun. Murray’s not winking anymore, nor sloughing off responsibility. He’s in charge, and he knows it. His career was hardly free of unfortunate digressions and the occasional weirdly indifferent performance from that point on. Showbiz is a field of constant compromise, after all. Still, Scrooged signaled a newfound certainty in Murray’s craft, forecasting the achievements to come.



About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave

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