The Many Faces of Bill

Long the king of deadpan wit, Murray proves to be the undisputed master of comedic strife with his role in The Life Aquatic

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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 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 d??cor ("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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