The way artistic canonization works is similar to the way history works in general: people slowly establish a consensus about which works of art (or people, or events) are worth remembering, and then immediately and comprehensively forget everything else. So it’s always a shock checking in on the cultural conversation from a few years, decades, or centuries ago: Occasionally, a film or book or tv show that has settled comfortably into masterpiece status in the ensuing years makes an appearance, but the midlist and the middlebrow are another country. Which is why the vintage clip Saturday Night Live posted this week of Bill Murray handicapping the 1981 Oscar race—remembered today mostly as the year Ordinary People beat Raging Bull—is a treasury of rabbit holes.
A little context: This sketch aired on March 7, 1981, during SNL’s disastrous sixth season: Murray was the host, not a cast member. Lorne Michaels had left the show in 1980 and almost all of the original cast and writers followed, leaving writer (and Bill Murray’s brother) Brian Doyle-Murray as the last surviving member of the original writers and performers. Michaels’ replacement, Jean Doumanian, lasted less than a year; at the end of the season, the entire cast except Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo was fired. In James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ history of the show, Live From New York, Bill Murray explains his decision to host the show the year after quitting:
I knew Jean and liked her. I’d known her a long time. … She was struggling, and they were having a hard time getting quality hosts. So I called up and I said, “I can’t get arrested. Is there any way I could work on your show?” So I went in there. It was a tough week. We worked really hard writing and rewriting, and the show turned out good, and I thought, “This could work.”
That’s very sweet of Bill Murray, but in the end an Oscar prediction sketch entirely devoted to the show’s departed cast members wasn’t enough to save the season. The Monday after Murray hosted, NBC fired Doumanian and put SNL on hiatus; it returned for a single episode on April 11 (with no host), and then a writer’s strike wiped out the rest of the season. That’s one rabbit hole. The other—an elaborate network of rabbit tunnels, really—is that Murray’s decision to highlight the things the original cast had been up to in 1980 means that this is the rare Saturday Night Live sketch worth annotating. Let’s stipulate that the list of 1981 Oscar losers is a warren for another day, and further assume that everyone is already exactly as familiar with The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack as they ever will be. Here are the other movies Bill Murray was rooting for in the 1981 Oscar race.
Bob Newhart plays the president, Madeline Kahn plays the first lady, Gilda Radner plays the first daughter, and director Buck Henry plays hell with the audience’s racial sensitivities in this loathsome political farce. The supporting cast is extraordinary—Fred Willard! Harvey Korman! Rip Torn!—but no amount of comedy talent can overcome a plot in which the President travels to a fictional African nation that appears to have been airlifted in from old Abbott & Costello movies.
Mike Nichol’s filmed version of Gilda Radner’s Broadway show, Gilda Live offered people who weren’t lucky enough to have been in New York City in the summer of 1979 the opportunity to see Radner perform some of her SNL characters without network censorship. While this did lead to an extraordinary performance of “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals,” a song written by Michael O’Donoghue that contains the memorable lyric “Go tell a chicken ‘Suck my dick,’ and / Give him chicken pox,” it did not lead to critical or commercial success.
How to Beat the High Cost of Living
Jane Curtin has mostly worked in television since Saturday Night Live, but in the summer of 1980, she hit the silver screen in this ensemble crime comedy from director Robert Scheerer. Curtin’s next film appearance was a teen sex comedy from Robert Altman that sat on studio shelves until 1987, but by then she’d been paired with her How to Beat the High Cost of Living co-star Susan Saint James on Kate & Allie, so all’s well that ends well. As for the third member of the ensemble, a starlet named Jessica Lange, it’s unclear what happened to her.
Oh! Heavenly Dog
Chevy Chase joined director Joe Camp’s long-running Benji franchise for its first PG-rated installment, in which Chase gets stabbed to death, then sent back to Earth in the body of a dog to solve his own murder. What else could you possibly need to know about this movie before picking up a copy?
This comedy, from veteran SNL short film director Gary Weis, looks like an unfunny riff on 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and that’s how it was received at the time of release. But it is also pretty strong evidence of a glitch in the matrix, because the flow of ideas here seems to be a Terminator-style time loop. Star Dudley Moore first rose to fame in the U.K. in the 1960 stage revue Beyond the Fringe, which had an enormous influence on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which had an enormous influence on Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which had an enormous influence on Wholly Moses!, whose star, Dudley Moore, first rose to fame in the U.K. in the 1960 stage revue Beyond the Fringe, which had an enormous influence on, etc. Roll the timeline forward and things get even weirder: Life of Brian was produced by George Harrison—he’s got a cameo, even—so it would be odd for him to be a big fan of Wholly Moses! But within a few years, Harrison hired Weis to direct both versions of the video for Harrison’s “(Got My Mind) Set on You.” You probably know the VMA-winning haunted house version, but how long has it been since you’ve seen the original video?
That’s right: in the first version of the video, George Harrison is trapped inside a Mutoscope, an immensely popular coin-operated device for viewing short films invented in the 1890s. The Mutoscope’s financial success paved the way for future developments in motion picture technology, including the cameras and projectors that would one day be used to create and distribute Wholly Moses! The conclusion seems inescapable: Gary Weis is a powerful wizard who used dark magic to imprison George Harrison’s soul in a haunted boardwalk arcade, presumably after a dispute over Wholly Moses!, then travelled back in time and made a fortune in the Mutoscope business. Time really is a flat circle!
If Bill Murray’s Oscar picks for 1981 didn’t send you sailing off into enough historical backwaters to get you through a week of office work, don’t worry: He returned to the show with more Oscar predictions in 1987:
The most interesting threads to pull here all come up during the discussion of the (non-competitive) Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award the Academy gave Steven Spielberg that year. Murray puts John Derek in the running: Derek was a well-known actor in the 1940s and 1950s, but by 1987, he was mostly known for his marriages to Ursula Andress, Linda Evans, and Bo Derek. John left Evans for Bo Derek when she was 16 and he was 49; the couple lived in Germany until Bo turned 18 to avoid running afoul of statutory rape laws, and the 1980 interview they gave People is a total nightmare:
John is her round-the-clock male chauvinist Pygmalion. “Let’s say Bo gets fat,” Derek explains. “I don’t like her fat, so I tell her. I know I’m hard on her, but Bo knows I’m a zillion percent behind her. There’s no medallion I wave before her eyes. I care about her and I care about the pleasure I get from her. It’s a very selfish thing,” he concedes. “But I love her and she loves me. Most people don’t have this, and that’s why they put it down.”
As for Irving Broder, he was a talent manager who claimed to have discovered Eddie Murphy and sued him for $30 million; they ultimately settled, after Murphy spent an hour cracking the judge up in court. And if that’s still not enough Bill Murray/Saturday Night Live rabbit holes for you, here are Murray’s predictions for 1999, when he tried to stir up tensions between the United States and Great Britain and correctly predicted Shakespeare in Love’s upset Best Picture win.
But Murray’s most famous, most public, and most incorrect Oscar prediction came in 2004, when Sean Penn beat him for Best Actor. Murray later confessed that he’d thought himself likely to win—his performance in Lost In Translation won the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, and a handful of critic’s awards in the runup to the Oscars—but it’s all there in his face:
Well, at least he was right about Shakespeare in Love.