I am on record in this space about my disdain for the notion of “Cancel Culture.”
That’s the phrase people fall back on when they complain about having to pay the consequences for their actions. When someone says or does something stupid or offensive, something that really pisses people off or hurts them, and then their job or certain opportunities are taken away, they predictably cry foul and claim victimhood. These “victims” believe they’re being persecuted by an overly sensitive, woke society of snowflakes who are out to get them and impede their First Amendment rights, even though the First Amendment has nothing to do with this.
What they might have done and who they might have hurt to become “canceled” in the first place is strictly immaterial to these people, because to them, it’s society that has changed, not them. They’ve been wrongly accused. Heck, they’re the victim! The real problem is that the world no longer ignores bad behavior like it used to…
… except the world doesn’t work this way anymore, and it’s not just isolated instances of bad behavior that are being rightfully singled out and punished, but, more impactfully, it’s patterns of bad behavior.
Which brings me to Bill Murray.
Let it be known that, as a child of the ’70s who grew up in the ’80s and became an adult in the ’90s, I adore Bill Murray. He has appeared in some of my favorite films, films that were a seminal part of my youth. From his work on Saturday Night Live to Meatballs, Caddyshack, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, Scrooged, Groundhog Day, Kingpin, Rushmore (for which he deserved an Oscar nomination), Lost in Translation, and Zombieland, the list goes on and on. He’s right up there with any comedic performer in any era in the history of film.
By any conceivable definition, the man is a living legend… but now, maybe it’s time for him to ride off into the sunset.
The news that emerged about six months ago that Aziz Ansari’s directorial debut, an adaptation of the 2014 non-fiction tome Being Mortal, had been paused mid-shoot because of something Murray did was surprising to some, but for those of us who keep track of such things, it rang an alarm bell or two. When I heard it, I immediately thought of the story that emerged from the making of McG’s Charlie’s Angels movie, in which Murray starred as Bosley opposite Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu.
Entertainment journalism was different then, and so the story of an on-set altercation between Murray and Liu came out after the movie had already hit theaters, and even then not much was said about it by the parties themselves. Whatever happened remained something of a mystery until last year, when Liu first discussed it before Barrymore backed her up, pointedly making it clear that, without getting into specifics about the altercation itself, the incident was entirely Murray’s fault.
If you’re as familiar with Murray’s career as I am then that tracks, especially when other stories from other actors are recalled. Richard Dreyfus has talked about how awful Murray was to him while making What About Bob? Anjelica Huston said the same about working with him on The Life Aquatic, and even his longtime friend and collaborator Harold Ramis — a man known as one of the nicest in show business while he was alive — had enough of Murray and fell out with him over the actor’s behavior making Groundhog Day. Meanwhile, Dan Aykroyd, who has worked and been friends with Murray for nearly 50 years, refers to him as “The Murricane.”
So when this Being Mortal news was first reported earlier this year, I thought, “Uh oh,” and wondered if maybe Murray needed to be pulled aside and told that the things he used to get away with, the things that people ignored or rewarded because of his status as a legend and all the cache he brings to any project he’s working on, were no longer acceptable. Clearly, with the pausing of the film shoot — a pause that continues six months later as the entire project languishes in purgatory since Searchlight Pictures has no interest in the surrounding controversy — and recent news of a six-figure settlement, that much has sunk in. The question is whether a more permanent solution must be found.
For the record, on the set of Being Mortal, Murray reportedly had a close relationship with a much younger female production staffer, one he thought was overly flirty with him. So, in a moment when the two stood close to each other near a bed that was part of the production, he started kissing her body and straddling her, then kissed her on the mouth, though they were both wearing masks due to Covid protocols.
Murray thought he was being funny. The young woman didn’t find anything funny about it. I like to think I’m no prude, but it doesn’t sound terribly funny to me, either. Being grabbed and held down while someone does something to you against your will? Pass. That’s just not something remotely defensible.
Almost immediately after this news came to light, Geena Davis told stories about working with him on his one directorial effort, 1990’s Quick Change, in which they co-starred as bank-robbing lovers who find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation, to great comedic effect. In her new memoir, the actress and activist describes Murray’s insulting and abusive behavior on set — he screamed at her for being late while she was actually waiting for wardrobe, and, when they first met in a hotel suite, used a massage device called The Thumper on her even though she repeatedly asked him not to — and it’s of a piece with everything else we’ve heard.
He often claims, as he did with the Being Mortal situation, that he thought he was being funny, but the fact that so many people find him anything but in these situations hasn’t seemed to sink in. He apparently has had some kind of “Come to Jesus” moment following the latest incident, as it occurred to him that his behavior led to the loss of a lot of jobs for people working on the project. He even went to arbitration with the young woman who made the complaint and ended up paying her north of $100,000 to settle it and prevent any further legal issues. It seems he was also hoping this would get the project up and running again, but no luck there. Yet.
After all these years, I still enjoy seeing Bill Murray on the big screen, but I am increasingly disgusted by the stories I hear about his behavior offscreen. The fact that he continues to be a jerk, and the industry continues to reward him for it because of what he brings to the table, is increasingly disturbing.
Last year, while writing for our sister site Below the Line, I wrote a piece about a credo of mine, that being, “Don’t be a dick.” It was mostly aimed at Kevin Spacey, but it’s just as relevant here. Bill Murray has behaved like a dick for decades, and he’s gotten away with it because he’s funny, which made him bulletproof in the eyes of the industry.
Well, that kevlar he has been hiding behind for so long is clearly no longer effective these days — and that’s a good thing. Bill Murray either needs to clean up his act, or go away and spare us any further nonsense. If he hurt people, he should pay the consequences. It doesn’t appear to be a lesson Murray has ever learned, until now. Let’s hope that it takes.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.