Like few entertainers, Bill Murray makes people laugh even before he says anything.
By just walking on a stage and looking around as if he isn’t supposed to be there, Murray emotes an amiable cool, a perspicacity that provokes excitement and punchy anticipation. Fresh off his Oscar nomination for best actor in “Lost in Translation,” Murray has become the Everyman entertainer, and audiences adore him.
In an appearance last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Murray headlined an event that may have seemed outlandish a decade ago: an actual film festival titled “What About Bill Murray?”
It took four years of cajoling by BAM, the cultural center in the borough’s burgeoning art district, to lure the notoriously evasive Wilmette native to participate in the three-week, eight-film series. Reflecting Murray’s popularity, the talk and film screenings, which run until May 5, were sold out before the series began this week.
Dressed in a light blue suit with a blue shirt and no tie, Murray walked on stage to the cheers and hollers of a crowd giddy like a college audience, albeit a bit older. His coy deadpan stare made those in attendance wonder: Is he in a good mood? A bad one? Why doesn’t he smile? Is he being himself, or is he acting?
Feigning an effort to quiet the applause, Murray kept his face frozen before allowing his trademark smirk to burst uncontrollably into a full smile. “Yes, and I love every one of you,” he said.
With New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell asking the questions, Murray said that it was while making the movie “Meatballs” that he recognized he could get beyond the written words. “That’s when I knew that I was better than the material,” he said.
“I used improv more back then because the scripts were worse — now the scripts are better,” he added. “You’re always improvising a little bit because scripts are two-dimensional, so you have to sort of jump it up a little bit so that the acting becomes physical.”
Often, Murray comes back to the word “calm” to describe the launching point from which he seeks to capture just the right combination of energy and creativity. When Mitchell asked where that calm comes from, Murray, sensing that maybe the conversation had become a bit too serious, answered, “It comes from `Bed, Bath and Beyond.'”
“I like to use the expression `to get out of your own way,'” he continued. “If I get out of my way, I won’t make any mistakes, I won’t have any regrets, and I can do something I believed I could do but I didn’t know what I would do. I find that works for me in film, and it works for me in life.”
Among the many things about Murray that audiences seem to find deliciously irresistible are his stories.
There’s the one about trying to impress Hunter Thompson by attempting a Houdini-like escape while tied to a chair underwater in a swimming pool. “I wanted to do some escape work, it was summertime, it was hot,” he explained. “I almost drowned until Hunter knew enough to pick up the chair so I could breath.”
On making “Caddyshack” in Florida in the early-1980s: “They gave me this great green Lincoln Continental rent-a-car with green upholstery, and back then there was no one living in Florida so you could drive at 90, and get really hammered. It was a good time to be an American.”
Murray’s career has moved from the nearly legendary Second City improv troupe to “Saturday Night Live” in 1976-77, just in its second season. “Stripes,” “Caddyshack” and “Ghostbusters” put Murray in the forefront of modern comedy. A small part in “Tootsie” (1982) revealed there might indeed be much more to Murray than slapstick. Dramatic roles in “Ed Wood,” “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” established Murray as an actor who happens to be funny, rather than simply as a comedian who does some acting.
“There’s a fearlessness about him,” said Howard Franklin, director of “Quick Change,” one of five film producers and writers who joined Murray and Mitchell onstage. “There’s this sense that he gets away with things that we can’t, and there’s something loveable about that.” Talking about Murray’s evolution from “Meatballs” to “Lost in Translation,” Franklin added, “There’s a candidness there that basically was always there but has evolved into a richer form.” As for not winning the Oscar, Murray explained with the usual deadpan, “I’m OK with that. I got so drunk for so long. For me it hasn’t been so bad. I really enjoy making movies.”
Ultimately, it comes back to that calmness, that knowing eye that excites Murray and his audiences.
“If you’re calm enough, and quiet enough, then the real stuff that’s changing can land and sort of bounce back to you,” he said. “I try to get calm so that something will appear, something will come up. If you can sort of get out of your own way, something good will come of it.”