Acting Spotlight: Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003)

Is it possible for someone to offer an incredibly subtle and restrained performance that perfectly captures the complicated atmosphere of friendship, the type when one needs companionship at a time of need? Yes, and the answer comes in the most unlikely of names: Bill Murray.

While there have been many films that aim to capture the concept of friendship and its ever close bond, never before was there a performance so organic that captured how a friendship could start and evolve into something truly special between two different people. Lost in Translation is a film about a washed-up actor, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who arrives in Tokyo to film a whiskey commercial. Due to being a stranger amidst a culture he doesn’t fully comprehend, it only exacerbates his internalized insecurities about his self-worth.

Bob Harris is a lonely man, yet doesn’t openly acknowledge it to himself. He goes through the motions and accepts life for what it has become. That is until his path crosses with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a neglected wife who is emotionally lost as to where she wants her life to be. What starts as chance encounters between the two of them soon turns into a budding friendship that pulls them both out of their depression and allows them to find an understanding of themselves.

Bill Murray Lost in Translation

Writer/Director Sofia Coppola has stated in the past that she wrote ‘Bob Harris’ with only Bill Murray in mind and she may have not made the film if he had turned down the script. This makes perfect sense considering ‘Bob Harris’ essentially is Bill Murray.

Murray had to look upon his career, which had grossly faded and reduced him to small supporting roles or caricatured cameos of himself. This was far from the height of his career that started with Saturday Night Live and had him as a major film headliner throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Bill Murray had to look within himself and confront what his career had become in order to understand the mentality of ‘Bob Harris’ within Lost in Translation.

While this may seem to lack any difficulty, this is actually a daunting task for any actor to do. Many times the truth is too painful to accept as reality, yet this didn’t stop Bill Murray. Instead, he took this perspective and used it to his advantage by channeling that disappointment into his performance. That is what makes ‘Bob Harris’ a genuine character to film viewers: we are witnessing Bill Murray’s own begrudging understanding of himself. Channeling such emotions is what makes this role both compelling and honest.

What added to the mentality of this performance was Bill Murray’s own style of acting that oftentimes has come off as bored or lacking any engagement. This is partially what has always made Bill Murray a uniquely talented actor in how he has always been able to instill the notion that he doesn’t care into his performance, which has always proved to be effective with the majority of his roles. This worked perfectly for Lost in Translation, yet if one looks close enough, they can recognize Bill Murray actually manipulated this style of acting to his benefit by parodying himself and having ‘Bob Harris’ embody that very persona. Due to this, in contrast to his other films, Bill Murray’s acting is actually engaging and imparts a careful understanding of the character.

Lost in Translation whiskey

For instance, the now-iconic ‘photo shoot’ scene where Bob Harris is filming a whiskey commercial incorporates the typical Bill Murray style of comedy, to which on the surface it would appear he is portraying himself on camera, yet Murray does something extraordinary in this sequence. Through his comedic lines, Murray fused both frustration and profound sadness into his delivery that truly emphasizes how lost he feels. His dialogue, while hilarious, is indicative of someone who has come to understand that his thoughts and feelings are irrelevant, and people only care about what his name is and his former achievements. Ironically he is discouraged from being himself and is instead encouraged to ‘act’ more like Roger Moore in his body language, which Murray further uses for comedic purposes, but also subtly emphasizes his sadness that he cannot film even a commercial without being asked to channel someone else instead.

Lost in Translation friendship

Sofia Coppola made an excellent decision in allowing Murray to interject comedy into his performance. For instance, there is a scene between Murray and Johansson where he converses with her about an awful Shiatsu massage he received, a scene that is entirely improvised by Bill Murray. This scene in the film gave Murray an opportunity to incorporate his personality and experiences into the performance. Not only does this scene provide laughs between the character and film viewers, but it provided a visual of Bob Harris’ budding friendship with Charlotte, who is laughing with film viewers as to what Murray’s character is saying.

This is what adds to the authenticity of Bill Murray’s performance opposed to other actors who would need to rely upon a script at such moments. To be able to garner a genuine laugh from his co-star, which allows her character to trust him more with her inner insecurities, offers film viewers a more organic and simple visual of a blossoming friendship. A true friendship stems from a foundation of trust, which has to be earned, not established. Many films aim to establish a friendship rather than allowing for it to organically grow. Murray’s acting with Scarlett Johansson in their scenes together does precisely the opposite: his acting not only shows viewers there is an obvious trust between them, but the film viewer is also privy to believe this trust as well.

Yet the most important aspect to Bill Murray’s acting in Lost in Translation, which could have easily changed the entire dynamic of the film, was keeping the film within the context of friendship. While there is minimal sexual tension between the two characters, Bill Murray was sure to never let his acting suggest his character would advance upon it. This was the smartest decision of his performance in that providing a sexualized subtext to his friendship with Charlotte would have not only cheapened their friendship, but it would have cheapened the film.

Lost in Translation fight

There is one particular scene that Murray used to his advantage to establish this when his character and Charlotte have a brief fight. Her character, frustrated he spent time with another individual, is met with him saying to her, “Wasn’t there someone else to shower you with attention?” In this moment, Murray’s tone dramatically shifts from any other line he speaks in the film, nearly suggesting in subtext to his co-star, ‘I’m not your boyfriend.’ It was important for this friendship to stay platonic, otherwise this film would have become another Hollywood-ized storyline of love-that-could-not-be. Lost in Translation is a film that deviated away from Hollywood conventions and the friendship had to stay platonic in order for the narrative to maintain integrity.

The film concludes with Bob Harris having to leave Tokyo, which leaves film viewers with the ambiguity as to whether he will remain friends with Charlotte in a way that mirrors the ambiguity of real life. Simply put, we don’t know. Yet film viewers can deduce about this ambiguity based upon how the two characters say goodbye. The beauty of this film is that their goodbye is done twice: one in a generic, almost formulaic manner, one that is almost pure Hollywood. Bob Harris wants to offer Charlotte a genuine goodbye, but cannot due his professional obligations.

The second goodbye occurs when Bob is headed to the airport and sees Charlotte walking into the Tokyo market as his limo is passing the street, to which he promptly gets out to give his friend the goodbye he initially intended. It is in this moment that the true beauty of Bill Murray’s performance shines. He hugs an emotional Charlotte, whispers in her ear a message we are denied hearing, and concludes with a kiss that has a tonality of ‘thank you for being my friend.’ This scene is so subtle yet remarkably beautiful at the same time. These characters were there for each other when they needed someone to guide them, and it is in this moment they both say thank you without ever having to utter the words.

What further makes this scene brilliant is that the kiss between them was improvised and not in the script. Both Murray and Johansson had crafted such an understanding for their characters that they knew a kiss could be done between them without it having to indicate sexual desire. The kiss symbolizes a final experience between the two of them, a final remembrance of their time together. It works perfectly along with the cryptic message Bob Harris offers Charlotte that we aren’t given access to hearing, which is brilliance on the part of Sofia Coppola’s writing. By us not being aware of what was said, it keeps the friendship alive to some capacity for the film viewer, to which we are left with uncertainty as to whether Bob and Charlotte will continue their friendship back in the United States.

Lost in Translation ending

What film viewers are privy to is Bill Murray smiling at Charlotte as he walks backwards to his limo, which is subtle acting at its finest. This is because it emphasizes Bob Harris now has an understanding of what he wants from life. Whether he actually advances upon these changes in his life is ambiguous, but one can at least acknowledge that his experience with Charlotte changed his outlook on life. The film begins with Bob Harris arriving in Tokyo and being astonished at the dazzling city life surrounding him. The film ends with Bob Harris leaving Tokyo with the same look of awe and wonder on his face, but he isn’t looking at the city around him this time. He is in awe of what he has discovered within himself. That is the true beauty of Bill Murray’s performance and why it is his finest work.

Bill Murray’s career reignited after starring in Lost in Translation, renewing interest in his career and finding himself with newfound respect from both critics and film viewers. Bill Murray was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Bob Harris, sadly losing to Sean Penn for Mystic River. However, Bill Murray did not walk away empty handed from the award season, having won the Golden Globe for Lead Actor in a Comedy/Musical and also took home that year’s BAFTA award. More importantly, Bill Murray proved himself to be a relevant and extraordinary actor with his Lost in Translation work. While many will ultimately argue as to what Bill Murray will be remembered most for, Lost in Translation should be part of the top contenders of such debates.

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1 Comments

  1. Fantastic article

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