The Many Faces of Bill

  • (5 of 5)

    Throughout the '90s, Murray popped up in small parts in movies as distinct as the raunchy Farrelly brothers' bowling comedy Kingpin, the quirky Tim Burton-directed bio-pic Ed Wood, and Wild Things, a film he succeeded in hijacking despite the heavily marketed presence of a lesbian schoolgirl love scene. The movies were O.K., but Murray was better, and in Rushmore he finally found something worthy of his skill. Anderson conceived the role of the pitiable, contemptible but redeemable Herman Blume specifically for Murray (in part because he loved him in The Razor's Edge). Murray was a revelation as a man fighting off soul death.

    The acclaim from Rushmore brought an avalanche of offers, almost all of which Murray ignored. In a typically idiosyncratic move, he decided to go agentless in 1999. (Michael Ovitz represented him until 1995.) He has since replaced a powerful talent agency with an automated voice mailbox. He gives out the 800 number sparingly and monitors the messages from his home overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York. "I check in regularly," he says. But then adds, "Sometimes I don't check in. Things get busy. I got stuff to do. But you just can't have the phone ringing in your house all the time. I like to be accessible, but on my own terms."

    In Hollywood, that 800 number is held up as Murray's ultimate declaration of independence. It's also good business. By creating an aura of aggressive indifference, Murray is now extremely well paid for his occasional dalliances in grade-Z films. (See Charlie's Angels and Garfield; better yet, don't.) He has also ensured that people who want to work with him really want to work with him. "I've had people say, 'I need you in this movie. You're the only one who can do it,'" says Murray. "And as soon as you say no, they've moved on to George Chakiris."

    Sofia Coppola distinguished herself as uncommonly persistent. She left hundreds of messages for Murray before he called her back about her offer to star him in Lost in Translation. "When I finally spoke to him," says Coppola, "he was nice, charming, slightly interested but also vague and mysterious." She says she wasn't certain that Murray had actually agreed to take the part of aging movie star Bob Harris until he showed up in Tokyo on the first day of shooting.

    Lost in Translation offered conclusive proof that Murray has made himself into a superb actor. He plays a man who, understanding little of what's being said to him and even less about his actions, forges a relationship with a similarly confused young woman (Scarlett Johansson). Midway through the movie, Harris finds himself half-drunk in a private Tokyo karaoke room singing Roxy Music's More Than This to a group of passed-out Japanese salarymen less than half his age.

    Murray, the creator of Nick the SNL lounge cretin, never veers from character and never winks at the audience for sympathy. Instead, he turns the song into an awkward, agonizing moment of realization and regret. "That performance," says Hoffman, "is just unbelievable."

    Although humor is only a subtle part of his recent film performances, Murray still enjoys making people laugh, and he treats any kind of public appearance—a spot on Letterman, throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game, his frequent rounds at charity golf tournaments—as a chance to recreate the spontaneous charge of Second City. "The best thing I do all year is Pebble Beach," he says. "There's 18 greens and 18 tees. That's like 36 shows—and that's just the formal rooms."

    But Murray has the power to turn space any place into his stage. After a long day of talking about himself, he walks into one of New York's fancier restaurants just before closing, with no reservation, dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt and an aggressively unstylish vest. There are no tables immediately available, and so Murray launches into his version of singing for his supper. He makes fun of the hostess's Carolina accent ("Golly, you from around here?"), jokes about the restaurant's decor ("I feel a little overdressed") and shakes hands with everyone who comes up to him. In a few seconds, the restaurant is electric, and the employees have disappeared to find a place for him to sit. As they scurry off, he whispers, "I cannot be denied."

    Like anyone would want to try.

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