J. A. Bernstein

On the Erotic Appeal of Bill Murray

The problem with Bill Murray films is that they don't involve enough sex. Now, anyone versed in the canon of Caddyshack, Meatballs, Kingpin, and Stripes will certainly dispute this, as all involve a fair amount of flesh. After all, in Stripes, which is probably the crowning achievement of his oeuvre, Murray accompanies a young John Candy to a strip-club, where they not only engage a team of vixens in full-on, no quarter mud wrestling, but they proceed to win and then taunt the young ladies by parading their tops around the ring—a feat that not even Andy Kauffman would dare.

Murray, for his part, probably encapsulates his worldview best when he tells Andie MacDowell, his doubting désirée in Groundhog Day, "I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank pina coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters." And yet, the obvious problem with the film, aside from the presence of Chris Elliot, which is a disturbing sight in any motion picture, given his peculiarly otter-like complexion, is that Murray and McDowell never openly bed. Indeed, the very thesis of the film—to the extent Bill Murray and thesis can exist in the same sentence—is that he's somehow transcended his squirmy, rakish past and risen to become a gentleman. He even helps out the homeless. Casts ice sculptures, in fact. These scenes killed what was otherwise an outstanding production. That, and the lack of sex, I contend.

As far back as the stone age, or the very least Humphrey Bogart, the values of which overlap, burly-chested men with baritone voices became Hollywood sex stars. This would explain the likes of Fabio, George Clooney, Robert Mitchum, and even Mel Gibson, post-mullet. What it doesn't explain are the quirkier little guys who also became heart-throbbing favorites: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Woody Allen on a good day, Sean Astin from Goonies, what have you. Generally speaking, machismo carries the way.

Then there's Bill Murray. He's something of a conflation of the two. Or neither, really. Somehow he got cast in the role of philanderer in Ghostbusters, and we were led to believe—plausibly, I think—that a fine, full-bosomed, Yale-educated brunette like Sigourney Weaver, who evidently doubled as lead cello at the Phil, would fall for a schlump like him. Even more ridiculous is the prospect of him getting into a fistfight with Robert DeNiro, as he does, now being the head of the Chicago mob in Mad Dog and Glory. Murray loses of course, but one has to ask two questions upon seeing it:

  1. Who, in their right mind, thought that Bobby DeNiro could be cast in the role of Chicago cop while deigning Murray the mafia kingpin? Has this person ever been to Chicago?
  2. What would Uma Thurman—the female lead, and presumably the source of their brawling—have possibly expected upon choosing to loan herself out to a gangster with Murray's comportment? Had she not seen Meatballs? For Christ's sake, Scrooged? Let's just say she's fortunate that Tarantino happened around, several months later, to revive her benighted career.

Back to Mr. Murray. The man oozes sexuality, although it's not in the conventional, DeNiro-Pacino-Brando sort of way. Nor is it in the comic, gesticulating Woody Allen-Steven Martin-Gene Wilder sort of manner. Yes, he's funny, and no, he's not fat, but there's something fundamentally dark about Bill Murray's past life, about his bouts with cocaine, his constant state of recovery, coupled with the self-depredation, that suggests he has indeed been through much more than your conventional Hollywood actor. He also has an air of lingering guilt about him—it comes from being Irish—and that's something that neither Allen nor Brando could ever possess. In short, Bill Murray is repentant. Eternally. And yet seething. This is also why his films have both served him well as an actor and yet left the audience unsatisfied. It's not that anyone wants to see Bill Murry shirtless. But that's also part of the appeal.

Who can forget Broken Flowers, the film that re-launched his career—aside from that other horrid film in Japan; more on that later—where Bill Murray emerges in swim trunks, smokes a cigarette on a thirty-foot diving board, and plunges into a leaf-covered pool. This is our modern Michelangelo. Or a nude descending a platform, as it were?

The latest picture, Moonrise Kingdom, again refuses to take him seriously, casting him as a sterile, alcoholic New England lawyer who struts around shirtless with an axe, clutching a bottle of wine and casting devilish stares at a daughter to whom he doesn't properly speak. About the only part of this that seems dishonest is the axe. He's also married to Frances McDormand, which should explain things, particularly his crippling diffidence and unremitting penchant for drink. The movie itself is spectacular, to the extent that a quasi-pedophilic romance set on a New England island in the 60's can be spectacular, and the reason it's spectacular, apart from the duly contrasting role of its heroine, the 12-year-old stunner, Kara Hayward, is that Bill Murray is once again cast against type as the verbally abusive and consciously indifferent father with a bathrobe and pipe. Actually, he's the only one in the film who doesn't sport a pipe, including the campers, but you get the point. Bill Murray, as a prototypical father in a harsh, Presbyterian environment—or whatever the denomination is in New England—is so ludicrous that it makes for brilliant art.

And yet it's depressing. Not that we, as viewers, would like to see Bill Murray settling into bed with Frances McDormand. Indeed, she has Bruce Willis for that, to which one could never rightfully object. But there's something grim, if not distressing, about the way Bill Murray hunkers down next to a tree trunk, drunkenly, while the rest of the standard objects flit by him: the cub scouts, his daughter, the island police, and presumably even his wife. It's as if the world has passed him by, and he knows this. And doesn't care. What will become of Hollywood without him?

And why does the man not have sex? Isn't that the mystery for us, and indeed, the source of his appeal? That he's so grotesque and vulgar, and yet, unrepentant about it, and upfront, and honest, and endearing, that one has to find him redemptive? Is this not what Scarlett Johanson found so enticing in Lost in Translation? And yet, all they ever do in the film is kiss. Granted, it is a magical kiss, probably the most powerful one in film of the last decade. But really. The man does whiskey commercials for a living. Would it kill us to see a bit of skin? (And preferably hers.)

This is not to deny Murray's astounding comic appeal, nor is it to say that he should be taken entirely seriously as an actor (once you've fought against the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and crossed beams with Spengler, the role is perennially denied).

Recently, however, Aubrey Plaza, one of the lesser-known comics, did a marvelous deadpan routine where she announced she was carrying Bill Murray's child. Is that so implausible? Would it be an understatement to say that for most women, at least those raised in the post-pill, post-Steinem era, Bill Murray is the equivalent of Bogart sipping his glass in a tux, or better yet, William Holden, tipping his hat to Gloria Swanson and then slipping out the door for a nightcap with Nancy Olsen? Is it possible that Bill Murray has banked more shots than Wilt Chamberlain? He would be the first to admit it.

Word has it that Murray will be appearing as Frank Delano Roosevelt in an upcoming historical drama, and if history is any standpoint, Eleanor will not be inviting him in for a girl-based menage. This is disappointing, if only because:

  1. Eleanor, in an equine sort of way, invites all sorts of lurid fantasies to which only Murray could be part.
  2. It signals the end of an era—one of unbridled fertility, in which the aging male sex star was both mocked and loved. Now he's just loved. And Murray's just mocked. And what do we have to replace him? Orlando Bloom? Jake Gyllenhal? That pop star whose name rhymes with booger?

At least Pacino has settled into second-rate films about gangsters (Gotti is coming). And he's entertaining his thespian gods, starring as Lear, a billing of which Shakespeare himself would approve. After all, who besides Michael Corleone could properly deal with Cordelia?

Bill Murray certainly can't. May he go peacefully, or at least up into that great, mud-wrestling venue in the sky.

J. A. Bernstein is the pen name of Rob Lowe. When he isn't wooing starlets, he's pursuing a doctorate in English at the University of Southern California. He would like to add that his eyelashes are real.