Today's Tribute: Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray
How These Two Actors Transcended Obselescence in a New Era
Steve Bessette, Entertainment Editor
Illustrations by Rose Feduk, Associate Editor
[If you're continuing this reading from the print version, skip down to, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is an important..." If not, just start here, dummy.]
As fame is not forever in the hearts and minds of the general population, neither is an image, a style. With this, most celebrities eventually get to a crux in their career. It’s reinvent or die. Much to Buster Keaton’s delight, he spent the latter end of his career taking small roles in Beach Blanket Bingo type flicks in the ’60s shortly before his death. Much to Ryan O’Neal’s regret, he did meth. It’s true that this moving picture business is, well, mostly business, but a creative note can only carry someone so long without tuckering out into a slobbering dwindling spit. Whether or not personal reinvention is the key, a change in public and creative persona can make all the difference. That’s why today I would like to pay tribute to two actors who I believe reinvented their lives and careers and transcended the norm of being just another star to fawn over to being a higher entity in and of themselves: Mr. Jeff Goldblum and Mr. Bill Murray.
After getting bags of death letters as Chevy Chase’s replacement on Saturday Night Live, Bill Murray made a nest for himself during the ’80s and early ’90s as a dichotomous deadpan king and unhinged manic. Stripes, Ghostbusters, Scrooged, and What About Bob? eventually became hits in their own right (maybe not What About Bob?, but I like it too much not to mention it) and cemented Murray as a seminal comic. He had the bone dryness of Jack Benny and the wild youthful joy of a kid waking up on Christmas who yells a lot. Then came Groundhog Day, the transition. Murray’s modern take on the Dickensian anti-hero in Scrooged showed a side of him that got pretty downtrodden, but a good portion of Groundhog Day is literally a guy trying to kill himself over and over again. Like Scrooged, the climax and denouement are positively inclined. Unlike Scrooged, where Murray is screaming with joy at the top of his lungs, in Groundhog Day he is serene, understated even. Cut a few years later to Wes Anderson’s sophomore wonder Rushmore. This is the linchpin for the full encompassing of what I would like to call post-modern Bill Murray.
Jeff Goldblum’s come a long way with rare a dull moment. In his very first onscreen role as Freak #1 in the masthead of the Death Wish series, he breaks into an apartment with a group of other “freaks” and spray paints Paul Kersey’s (Charles Bronson) daughter’s butt to criminally demarcate where they will gang rape her. Seeing Goldblum’s naked backside was simultaneously haunting (it’s rape for crying out loud) accompanied by the flat observation, “Well, that’s Jeff Goldblum’s butt.” Afterward he came into his own as a geek with stringy muscle. He played the sciency types and the tough types (classic Goldblum in The Fly, Jurassic Park, and Independence Day), but there was this underlying oddball quality to him that wouldn’t fully come to fruition until later. What was his linchpin? Another film of Wes Anderson’s? Also starring Bill Murray? Coincidence? Maybe, but perhaps my assumption that WesAndes is such a great director that he really brings the true inner being and consciousness that has been hiding away deep in the recesses of their pop culture likability is unfound and just a hunch. (But it could totally be true.)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is an important film in the fermenting of Murray and Goldblum’s reinvention. We have Murray as a whiskey-swilling melancholic misunderstood puppy dog, though he still won’t take any incantation of “go to hell” as a deserving exclamation. It was birthed in Rushmore, patented in The Royal Tenenbaums and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and firmly solidified as his new gold standard in Life Aquatic and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Of course bobbing and weaving between these pillars are the slummy likes of Charlie’s Angels and Garfield, but come on, those are low side notes on such a stellar resumé. They can’t be discounted as not in someway driving him in the direction of the Murray we know now, but no one will remember him as a sickly zoo groundsman with Chris Elliot in Osmosis Jones. (Unfortunately, people probably won’t remember Chris Elliot either.)
Alongside that we have the genuine spark of Goldblum as what I think would best be described as neurotically regal with a tinge of ambiguous sexuality. You always expect him to be letting the tannins breath and sniffing corks while exuberantly stuttering about a wine’s mediocre origin. He’s suave, wearing suits and scarves, letting people know he can scat (see his Funny or Die short where he scats Coachella’s ground rules with a baby grand piano on the campgrounds). He can add a classy touch to The League while mixing into the show’s abundance of sex puns and innuendo, almost upstaged a teensy tiny bit by an unusually tolerable Sarah Silverman in that same episode (“Thanksgiving”). He can make a surprise appearance at the 10th Anniversary finale of Campus MovieFest to ask if the audience knows how to play The Movie Game, where I immediately texted old Union Editor-in-Chief Kevin O’Brien, “JEFF GOLDBLUM. JEFF FREAKING GOLDBLUM.” He can appear on Conan and delicately clip the host’s fingernails without a wink. The prime magnum opus when all of his qualities coalesced so effortlessly and naturally was during his short but oh so sweet appearance on the obvious classic-in-the-making Portlandia. Donning a pink suit and bow tie as an artisan knot salesman, he’s all Jeff all the time. The quivering unbalanced phrasing of his words, the theatrical gesticulation and wide eyes, the polished eloquence of a renaissance man, all come nicely together with his closing line, “I think we’ve arrived.” Yes, you have, Jeff.
Okay, so why the change? I think only the only ones who will truly know the reasons and motivations will be these two individuals, but I have some theories. Goldblum’s always been kind of a goob, a goof, in person, but there was still an underlying class that was probably the real Jeff Goldblum. After being in the spotlight for a while and becoming such a prominent Hollywood figure, it got to a point where he wasn’t just Jeff Goldblum, Actor, but “Jeff Goldblum,” the commodity, the persona. He became a product and figure that superseded the bounds of being just another cog and became esteemed with a new self-consciousness. The classy suits and jazzy suave were most likely always a thing he liked, but until this awareness, both from himself and from generations of audiences, it hadn’t had the chance to fully emerge. His roles in The League and Portlandia aren’t funny solely because he’s a fantastic actor, a comedic actor, but also because he is “Jeff Goldblum.”
The same can be said for Bill Murray. The best crystal clear exploitation of Bill Murray as “The Entity That is Bill Murray” was in Zombieland, where he played a cameo as himself. “It’s Bill Murray!” Woody Harrelson exclaims. “Bill-Fuckin’-Murray!” But just like how Goldblum’s cool blurred the line between his onscreen and offscreen persona, Murray’s pathetic lonely deal sadly did the same thing. Eventually he got rid of his agents and the only way people could contact him for casting was by leaving him messages on an answering machine he rarely checked or shoving scripts into his P.O. box. According to an article from the UK news site The Times, Sofia Coppola called him hundreds of times to see if he was interested in her Lost in Translation script. He never returned her calls. He simply arrived on set in Tokyo the first day of shooting. An article on Filmdrunk gave an exposé, with a few photo submissions, on Murray crashing people’s karaoke parties. There were also rumors he would walk up to strangers and do something quirky, and then tell their shocked face, “No one will ever believe you.” I heard once that he would walk by restaurants, take a fry from someone’s plate, and then continue on. Another good one was that he would walk up behind people in Central Park, cover their eyes, and tell them to “guess who.” I wouldn’t doubt the “No one will ever believe you” pranks are fabrication, but what remains once wiped away is a symbol, is that persona, that entity of what Bill Murray has created for himself, so much that fans are intrigued enough to spin yarns with it. Murray is no longer playing those unabashed but earnest characters, but surly old men yearning for some sort of youthful release. Is it the old age? Personal troubles we don’t know about? Being fed up with the hobnob whack jobs who run the business? Goldblum’s self-consciousness about being cool is great, anyone would want that. Murray’s self-consciousness about being kind of a prickly weirdo isn’t as much. I think that’s why people want the “No one will ever believe you” stories to be true, because they’re cool. But so is being such a dynamic actor and a distinguished entity that he can survive in Hollywood without an agent or publicist and be more successful and engimatic than his contemporaries.
The simplest way to really caramelize it is like this: ask yourself, “Why is this funny? Why is this entertaining? Why do I feel like I’m having a spiritual experience vicariously through my Netflix right now?” The answer is, well, why wouldn’t you? It’s Jeff Goldblum and Bill “Fuckin’” Murray. That’s why. They have the act, the scat, the alcohol, glasses, cigarettes, knots, scarves, scarves in knots, folklore, guts, immense respect, but most of all, unmatched talent. And it all seems to run like clockwork for them.