The 30th anniversary of Groundhog Day arrives this weekend overshadowed by recent reports of, and renewed attention to, allegations of inappropriate behavior by Bill Murray. Last month Geena Davis offered new details about an incident mentioned in her 2021 memoir in which Murray pressured her into letting him use a massage device called the Thumper on her while shooting the 1990 crime comedy Quick Change. A few months earlier, video of Murray and Davis promoting the movie on “The Arsenio Hall Show” received new scrutiny after Davis described the moment as “stunning” and “awful.” In the video Murray nuzzles and strokes Davis, pulling her dress strap off her shoulder — all on nationally syndicated television. Nor is it all old news: In April 2022, production on a film called Being Mortal was suspended after a female production assistant alleged that the 72-year-old actor began kissing her body through the mask he was wearing, then straddled her and kissed her on her also masked mouth. Murray said his actions were meant to be “funny, and it wasn’t taken that way.”
The creepiness of these incidents contrasts jarringly with the fond mythology around Murray as a benignly whimsical spirit, even an unlikely sage. Murray’s well-established penchant for unpredictable behavior both among his peers and with random people in public ranges from bizarre, almost surreal performance art — for example, shouting nonsense at passersby like “There’s a lobster loose!” or “You are on fire!” — to charmingly ordinary interactions at parties he wasn’t invited to. For many devotees, Murray’s unconventional behavior is connected to his affinity for the Armenian philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff, who maintained that most people live in a state of “waking sleep” and whose life teachings are a program for waking to higher consciousness. Titles like The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment and Party Crashing and The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man (respectively, a book by Gavin Edwards and a documentary by Tommy Avallone) well express Murray’s popular Zen mystique.
Yet this rarefied image has long coexisted with reports of Murray being inappropriate and abrasive. Notable incidents include allegedly screaming abuse at costars from Richard Dreyfuss (What About Bob?) to Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels) and grabbing Solange Knowles’s scalp with both hands after repeatedly asking if her hair was a wig (following a 2016 performance of her song Don’t Touch My Hair, no less). To an extent the two images do overlap and blend: Unlike, say, Tom Hanks or Keanu Reeves, with their gold-plated reputations for uncomplicated niceness, Murray’s image, both onscreen and off, has always juxtaposed charm and appeal with obnoxious, sometimes antisocial behavior. He comes across, in fact, as a charming jerk, even if over the years the “charming” side of the picture has come to predominate.
Groundhog Day looms so large in Murray’s career that it’s tempting to see it as a turning point personally as well as professionally. For over a dozen years prior to Groundhog Day, Murray’s caustic, anarchic persona anchored irreverent comedy blockbusters like Caddyshack, Stripes, and Scrooged. After Groundhog Day Murray stumbled in studio vehicles like The Man Who Knew Too Little, but found new success as a quieter, jaded presence in indies by Wes Anderson and Sophia Coppola, among others. It was during this period of self-reinvention that he fired his agent, and that his interactions with ordinary people began to shift from Dadaesque confrontation to random acts of generosity and affability that, for many, make the world a more magical place.
When we hear about Murray going to game 6 of the 2016 World Series in Cleveland with an extra ticket and ushering a surprised woman in a Cubs jersey with no ticket into the stadium and the seat next to his behind home plate, we may be reminded of Final Form Phil Connors, on the last, near-perfect iteration of Groundhog Day, surprising newlywed wrestling fans Debbie and Fred with tickets to WrestleMania. Lacking Phil’s foreknowledge of all events in Punxsutawney on February 2, Murray naturally can’t arrange to be at the right place at the right time to change a flat tire, catch a kid falling from a tree, or perform the Heimlich maneuver on a choking man. What he can do is show up and perhaps do whatever may be needful: play roadie for a band; drive a taxicab to let the driver practice playing saxophone; win over cops called over a noise complaint at a house party he crashed.
The flip side, alas, is that Day 1 Phil Connors crudely harassing Andie MacDowell’s Rita with lewd one-liners (“Would you help me with my pelvic tilt?”) seems uncomfortably akin to Murray in 1990 pressuring Davis to let him try the Thumper on her. Phil’s contempt and hostility toward his coworkers, notably Chris Elliot’s cameraman Larry, isn’t too far from Murray shouting “Everyone hates you! You are tolerated!” at Dreyfuss. Day 1 Phil is an arrogant, narcissistic jerk whose negative traits were at least partly tailored for Murray’s established screen persona at the time, which was in turn not entirely unreflective of his real-life disposition. But, equally, Final Form Phil is the most compelling realization of a quest for redemption running through earlier Murray films, notably Scrooged and his passion project The Razor’s Edge. Are the echoes of Final Form Phil in Murray’s later life a case of life imitating art? Art reflecting life aspirations? Coincidence? Some combination of all three? Whatever the case, later allegations of inappropriate behavior regarding Knowles and the production assistant suggest that Murray’s evolution may not be as complete as Final Form Phil’s.
If such incidents aren’t necessarily Day 1 Phil behavior, perhaps there’s some Transitional Phil in the mix: for example, the iterations of Phil who sucker-punch Stephen Tobolowsky’s Ned Ryerson or embrace him a little too affectionately; who warmly salute Ken Hudson Campbell’s Man in Hallway with a kiss on each cheek and a poetic benediction from Coleridge. These versions of Transitional Phil startlingly defy social norms, because, of course, there are no lasting consequences (“I’m not going to live by their rules anymore”). A level of immunity to consequences also comes with celebrity and artistic eccentricity. Sigourney Weaver has said that when she first met Murray on location for Ghostbusters, he immediately scooped her up and carried her down the block over his shoulder. While Weaver regards Murray as “pure fun” and says there’s “nothing malicious about him,” someone else might reasonably feel differently about such treatment. According to Davis, when she finally submitted to the Thumper, Murray used it on her for just a second and then didn’t ask her how it felt, leading her to conclude that “it was just to see if he could force me to do something inappropriate.”
Gavin Edwards, author of The Tao of Bill Murray, thinks the bizarre behavior more associated with the younger Murray and the disarmingly normal interactions with ordinary people over the last couple of decades may be closer akin than they may seem. “While once he needed to wrestle passersby to the ground or rant about lobsters on the loose to get a reaction from strangers,” he wrote to me via email, “I suspect that at a certain point he realized that he could get a similar jolt (with a different texture) by just showing up.” But perhaps with a celebrity like Knowles, or even a production assistant, showing up isn’t enough. Yet, in the #MeToo era, Murray’s history of immunity to consequences also isn’t enough, and there’s wider recognition that the way he treated Davis was never okay. By the same token, Day 1 Phil’s gross harassment of Rita feels ickier today than it was meant to 30 years ago. (Likewise Transitional Phil’s cynical, manipulative seduction of Marita Geraghty’s Nancy Taylor, played for laughs in the film’s consequence-free zone. The musical adaptation, which I saw on Broadway in 2017, includes a memorable ballad called “Playing Nancy” that implicitly critiques the disposable treatment of the character in the original film.)
Given these complications, how persuasive is Groundhog Day’s redemptive arc in 2023? That’s a knotty type of question for any film, but perhaps particularly for this one, given the diversity of responses and interpretations it inspires. Part of the film’s staying power, in fact, is the metaphorical open-endedness of the time-bending premise, which is crucially left unexplained, along with the secret of Phil’s ultimate release. Groundhog Day has been compared to It’s a Wonderful Life, but there’s no Clarence explaining what’s going on and spelling out the moral. As a result, commenting on the film’s meaning has a bit of a Rorschach vibe, particularly regarding its much-discussed spiritual or religious resonances.
To Buddhists (and the Buddhism-adjacent, including Jewish director Harold Ramis, who was married to Buddhist actress Erica Mann), the cyclical pattern in which Phil finds himself, from which even death is no release, naturally suggests a parable about reincarnation and karma. More specifically, if imprecisely, the stages Phil passes through on his journey — starting with hedonism and selfishness, leading to despair, followed by efforts at self-improvement culminating in compassion and enlightenment — are reminiscent of the paths of desire and renunciation in Hinduism, with their successive stages of seeking pleasure, pursuing worldly success, embracing duty, and finally achieving liberation. For Catholics, on the other hand, it’s natural to see an image of purgatory in Phil’s gradual progression from egocentrism and ambition to unselfishness, generosity, and love.
A subtheme notable for Christian viewers is hubris and humility. From Day 1, Phil shows hints of a deity complex. “I make the weather!” he snaps at a state trooper over a highway closing. “Chance of departure today: 100%,” he had quipped that morning to the landlady at his bed and breakfast, recalling the aphorism about making God laugh by telling him your plans. Later, after amassing encyclopedic knowledge of everyone in Punxsutawney and everything that happens on that day, Phil tells a skeptical Rita he’s “a god … I’m not the God — I don’t think.” Yet minutes later he admits that his crazy story has to be the truth because “I’m not that smart.” Finally, in a poignant late sequence, Phil discovers that the homeless beggar he often dodged first thing in the morning dies that evening in an alley, and spends an unknown number of iterations trying to save his life. “Sometimes people just die,” a nurse tells him, but Phil resists this: “Not today.” Yet no matter what he does, he can’t save this man’s life. This haunting failure is immediately followed by the final Groundhog Day and the liberation of the next day. The last lesson for Phil, dramatically speaking, is his own finitude and his inability to control everything, no matter how many chances he might be given.
Part of my own response to the film, as the credits roll, is reflecting that Phil has learned the secret of living supremely well … on February 2 of one particular year. The dawning of February 3 is obviously an occasion of euphoric joy, and hard-won habits of contentment, gratitude, and generosity will doubtless ease the days ahead — but every new day will also present Phil with surprises and new challenges, and it’s been a very long time since anything surprised or challenged him. Phil’s redemptive arc, then, is not yet complete; he remains a work in progress. So, I hope, am I, and Bill Murray.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.