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.
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.
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.
Phil Connors and Bill Murray before and after
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.