Monday, September 21, 2015

Birthday Take: Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation" (2003)

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Bill Murray
Born: September 21, 1950 (65 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor (nominated) for Lost in Translation as Bob Harris

The Take

Among the figures in pop culture, there are few in American comedy quite as lasting as Bill Murray. While he got his start on Saturday Night Live, he has evolved beyond his movie starring work and has become an all around adventurer. He has been countless times in the news for showing up to peoples' parties and doing thankless deeds to please strangers. He has evolved from the niche of an actor with a solid persona to someone who cares to make the world a better place. When The Late Show saw host David Letterman say goodbye, he took to the streets to get everyone to sing a chant with him. If that's not indicative of the nature of Murray, then nothing is. He's more relevant for surprising us publicly than on film. While he recently won an Emmy for Olive Kitteridge, it's not his acting that we remember nowadays.

Then again, there's director Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which was probably the turning point for his career in general. While he had been making a comeback thanks to his long time collaborator Wes Anderson, it was this film that pushed him into a different stratosphere. He was suddenly able to be respected as something that the various other cast members of Saturday Night Live from 1975 couldn't (save for Dan Aykroyd). He was a serious dramatic actor. More than that, he was now an Oscar nominee. It wasn't from a fluke performance, but from a role that saw his every man role take on new, challenging material far from home. The story was just as much distanced from comfort as Murray doing drama was.

It could just be that Coppola's style had yet to isolate people for its introspective nature. However, the film largely works because it's about visitors having to relate to each other in a strange environment. There were people who spoke English, but nobody understood their needs quite like each other. It's as a result that happiness was found predominantly in those hours where they wandered the streets, talking to each other and joking about anything and everything. It may not be Murray's funniest movie, but it isn't without its charm. He manages to win us over slowly, making us wonder what's going on with him when the two depart. They have grown comfortable together and cannot stand to depart. Yet they do, leaving us to wonder what their futures hold.

Murray has randomly popped up in dramas since, to less acclaim. While he continues to have varying degrees of appearances in Anderson's films, he has become one of those surprise success stories. He started off as a rebellious replacement on Saturday Night Live, appeared in various comedy classics for the next two decades, then transferred into one  of the best ensemble actors in almost every film he is in. While many deemed St. Vincent as his potential next Oscar, it wasn't. Maybe for good reason, as it saw him playing a very familiar schlubby character that he had mastered long ago. Even if he hasn't been the lead in a great movie in some time, he remains one of the most revered figures in pop culture, even at 65 years old.

It is one of those enigmatic things that may never make sense. Yet, it's a legacy that has spawned a lot of clout, stories, and unique experiences. Many people likely will try to live the life of Murray, but not come close. Even if Lost in Translation is the only Oscar nomination he ever gets, it's nice to know that he got it for a deserved role, even if the "comedian playing serious" novelty likely fueled his campaign. It was a role that was nuanced, proving that he had something more to offer than his initial silly jokes. Is he the greatest actor? Probably not. However, he is probably the one you want to be around the most. That is probably the biggest compliment you can give him. He's won at living life to its fullest extent. Thankfully he's a good actor, too.

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