Writer/Director Sofia Coppola said that she wrote the character of Bob Harris with no one but Bill Murray in mind and that she may have not gone through with making the movie if he wasn’t in it. It makes perfect sense given that the character is essentially Bill Murray.
Why Sofia Coppola chose Bill Murray to the Bob Harris role
Murray had to look at his own career, which was started to fade and he was playing smaller roles and caricatures of himself. It was far from the heights of his career that saw him play major roles in the 80s and 90s. Bill had to look within himself and confront what his career became in order to understand the mentality of the character Bob Harris from Lost in Translation.
While that might sound easy enough, it is a daunting task for any actor to have to do. Most of the time it can be difficult to accept this truth for many actors, but this wasn’t enough to stop Bill Murray. Rather, he took that perspective and made use of it by channelling his own disappointment about his career into the character of Bob. This is what makes the character so genuine to the audience at home, as we are essentially watching Bill Murray begrudgingly accept and understand who he is. It is by channelling these emotions that his role became so compelling and honest.
Something else that added to the mentality of the performance was Murray’s own style of acting. He is known to come off as bored or disengaged in his roles. This is something that has made Murray a unique talent in the acting world as he is able to instil the idea that he doesn’t care into his roles, and it’s something that’s generally proven to be effective for him. It proved to be perfect for Lost in Translation, but if you look closely enough you can see Bill Murray manipulate this acting style by parodying himself and making it part of the persona of Bob Harris. This is what makes his acting engaging compared to his other roles and shows his understanding of the character.
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In the now-iconic “photo-shoot” scene for example, Bob is filming a whiskey commercial and incorporating Bill Murray’s style of comedy. It would appear that he is just portraying himself on screen, but Murray is doing something extraordinary with the scene. Murray used his comedy to fuse frustration and sadness into his delivery to emphasise how lost he really feels.
The dialogue may be hilarious but it’s also indicative of someone that has come to the understanding that their own thoughts and feelings are completely irrelevant, and that people only care about his name and what he did in the past. In an ironic move Bob is discouraged from acting like himself and is told to act more like Roger Moore through his body language. It’s something that Murray uses for comedic effect, but it also subtly emphasizes the sadness that he feels over being unable to even film a simple commercial without being asked to channel another actor.
Coppola made the perfect decision when she allowed Murray to inject his comedy into his performance. For example, there’s a scene with Murray and Johansson where he’s talking about an awful Shiatsu massage that he got. The scene was improvised entirely by Bill Murray. The scene gave Murray the chance to incorporate his own personal experiences and personality into the performance. The scene provides some laughs for the viewers of course, but is also provides a look at the budding friendship between the characters, who is laughing along with the film viewers at what is being said by Murray’s character.
This adds some extra authenticity to Murray’s performance compared to other actors that would have to rely on a script in that kind of scene. To be able to generate a genuine laugh from a co-star, which allows her own character to trust him and be more open about her insecurities, provides viewers with an organic and simple visual of their blossoming friendship. Friendships are built on a solid foundation of trust, which is something that must be earned and not established. How Murray and Johansson act together in their scenes does the complete opposite; his acting shows the viewers the obvious trust between the two, and it allows the viewer to believe in the trust as well.
One of the most important parts of Bill Murray’s acting in the movie – something that could have changed the entire dynamic for Lost in Translation – was keeping the context of friendship for the movie. While there is some sexual tension between the characters, Bill acted in such a way that it showed his character would never advance on it. This was one of the smartest parts of his performance as putting a sexual subtext to the friendship he had with Charlotte would have cheapened the entire movie, not just their friendship.
There’s one scene in particular that Murray made use of to establish this when their characters have a fight. Scarlett’s character, frustrated that he spent time with someone else, is met with the response “Wasn’t there someone else to shower you with attention?” referring to her husband. Murray shifts his tone dramatically from any other line in the movie, suggesting that what he means with the line is “I’m not your boyfriend.” It was vital that the friendship stayed plutonic, otherwise the film would become nothing more than another Hollywood movie about a love that could never be. Lost in Translation deviates from the Hollywood norms and the friendship between the characters had to stay platonic to keep the integrity of the narrative.
The film ends with Bob Harris leaving Tokyo, leaving viewers unsure whether or not he and Charlotte will remain friends, which mirrors how ambiguous real life can be. To put it simply, we just don’t know. Even so, film viewers can come to a conclusion of their own based on how the characters part. What is so beautiful about the movie is that they say goodbye twice; once in an almost generic and formulaic manner, and then again in a pure Hollywood way. Bob wants to provide Charlotte with a genuine goodbye but his professional obligations don’t allow him to.
There is another goodbye as Bob is headed to the airport and spots Charlotte walking into the Tokyo market. He gets out of the car and gives the goodbye that he originally wanted to. This is the moment where the true beauty of Murray’s performance shines through. He hugs the emotional Charlotte, whispers something that we can’t hear, and gives her a kiss that has the tonality of him thanking her for being his friend. This is such a subtle but beautiful scene. The characters were there for each other when they needed someone most, and this is where they get to say thank you to one another without having to say the words.
The scene is made even more brilliant as the kiss between the pair was entirely improvised and was not part of the script. Murray and Johansson had both developed such an understanding of their characters that they knew the two of them could kiss without it being anything sexual. The kiss between the characters symbolizes the final experience between the two; a final remembrance of the time they spent together. It works perfectly with the cryptic message that Harris gives Charlotte that we couldn’t hear, another brilliant aspect of Sofia’s writing. By not letting us hear what Bob said, it keeps the friendship alive to the audience, who are left without knowing for sure if the pair will continue to be friends when they are back in the United States.