Why Do People Love Bill Murray So Much?

bill murray

Our culture will go down in history as being obsessed with all sorts of celebrities—some worthwhile, others not so much. But actor Bill Murray inspires a different kind of fascination.

“The fact that you have to ask shows me you aren’t ready.” That’s a response I got to the question I asked Facebook about why so many of us seem strangely obsessed with Bill Murray. And that response feels a little right, like Bill Murray and his legion of fans are onto something special, something you either get immediately, or perhaps, sadly, not at all. Maybe I’ll never get it, but I won’t stop trying to understand what makes this man so appreciated. And it’s not just me who thinks he’s so unique. A Google search for the actor returns results like:

20 Reasons Bill Murray is the Coolest Human Being Alive

The 9 Greatest (Real) Bill Murray Stories Ever Told

10 Reasons Why Every Man Should Be More Like Bill Murray (*bookmark!)

My dad put it in a context I’d never considered before, “He’s James Stewart with a modern snarkiness,” he said. As a classic movie fiend as much as I love modern films, that comment made a lot of sense once I thought about Bill Murray playing George Bailey, which he kind of sort of did in “Groundhog Day.” Stewart’s work was always unimpeachable and Bill Murray exudes that same enigmatic quality, even if it’s a bit more awkward and unpredictable. And it seems more likely that if Stewart were acting today he’d be a lot more Bill Murray-esque than, say, Tom Hanks.

“He does crazy and cool shit because he wants to and has the leverage to,” another friend wrote in response to my query. EcoSalon’s own Scott Adelson called him the “total package.” My brother commented on the way he presents himself, “he appears to have no inhibition,” he said.

“For over 30 years, he’s played outside of Hollywood’s rules, appearing in blockbuster films and indies alike. He’s also reinvented himself several times over, but you get the sense he’s not doing it to conform, but to keep himself entertained,” said Bram, another Facebook friend.

“He’s very outside the box,” wrote Autumn. “[H]is brand of deadpan and quiet personal life let us like him and project what we want onto him,” my friend Paul wrote.

And it’s that off-screen personal life that also inspires a bit of our cultural obsession. Stunts like getting into strangers’ cars and letting them film it, playing guitar with Eric Clapton, leading a school marching band, or appearing behind the bar at parties serving up drinks just because he can, make us wonder why he doesn’t have better things to do.

I had my own off-screen encounter with the actor that if I hadn’t been there myself, I wouldn’t have believed because it felt so strange. He didn’t behave like a celebrity having an interaction with an ordinary person (I’ve had a few of those to know the difference), but more like, an ordinary person who just happened to be a celebrity. That may be a testament to his acting skills, but it’s also really easy to believe that’s just who he is: an ordinary guy with an extraordinary life doing both ordinary and extraordinary things.

bill murray

“His energy encapsulates the combination of hope and hopelessness that feels descriptive of contemporary American rasa,” my friend Regina said on Facebook. “[He is] disenfranchised, but a spark of snark remaining lit within,” she noted. And watching him on screen does impart a sense of hope and hopelessness all at once, particularly in roles like Bob Wiley in “What About Bob?”, Frank Cross in “Scrooged”, Raleigh St. Clair in “The Royal Tenenbaums” and of course, Phil in “Groundhog Day.” We fall in love with him even when he’s a perpetual source of frustration for other characters. He takes us full circle through our angst and discomfort. Is it cheesy to say that we may even love ourselves a little bit more after watching him in roles like these on screen? I’m saying it anyway: Bill Murray makes us better people.

Call him snarky or strange or just downright hilarious, but Bill Murray offers us reprieve from the ordinary through his commonplace awkwardness and unabashed relationship with his characters, something we desperately need today as we drown in pop culture and fabricated celebrity nonsense. Another Facebook comment, from Ashlie, noted that in almost every film, he looks directly at the camera as if he is saying, “I get you, and can you believe this?” And that may also be why he’s so valuable to modernity. We want to believe in something that’s both ordinary and special all at the same time because so much of our other options are utterly inflated episodes of bullshit – all while very real issues are competing against the nonsense for our attention. Bill Murray delivers performances–on screen and off–that say “your time is valuable.” And that it’s okay to take time to be entertained in the midst of the world’s chronic insanity.

Back to my dad’s comparison to Jimmy Stewart, it’s that old-school integrity where actors respected appearing on the screen for what it was: a job that mattered to lots of people, not a means to inflate self-importance. “One of the things I like about acting is that, in a funny way, I come back to myself,” he’s said. He’s also been quoted as saying, “No one really wants to admit they are lonely, and it is never really addressed very much between friends and family. But I have felt lonely many times in my life.” And perhaps that also informs his performances on and off screen. Maybe he’s hoping to keep us from feeling lonely as much as he’s doing it for his own sense of community.

Whatever our reasons, our love for Bill Murray falls somewhere between respect and gratitude and is probably a little bit of both. It’s akin to the feelings we have for the person who always makes those awkward social or family gatherings feel less awkward and more delightfully special. Not in the there-he-goes-again-crazy-drunk-naked-in-the-streets sense (although, that’s special in its own way), but as the person who makes us feel like we are experiencing something meaningful because we all matter, even when we’re doing nothing more than watching a movie about busting ghosts. Or gophers. They matter because we want them to. Maybe Bill Murray does too.

“The more relaxed you are, the better you are at everything: the better you are with your loved ones, the better you are with enemies, the better you are at your job, the better you are with yourself.” – Bill Murray

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Images: djp3000, francis storr

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.