Groundhog Day The Movie, Buddhism and Me
Harold Ramis New Yorker Profile
A profile of Harold Ramis appeared in The New Yorker of April 19 and 26, 2004. This is less than 10% of that article, and appears here for private, non-commercial educational use. Copyright 2004 by Conde Nast.
On May 15, 1984, Harold Ramis wrote two words in capital letters on a red index card and taped the card to the inside of a kitchen cabinet in the house that he and Anne shared in Santa Monica. Anne Ramis has preserved the memento in situ, and with a faint smile she opened the cabinet door to show me its message: "NEW LIFE."
"That resolution was inspired by a combination of marital discontent and being hung over in some way," Ramis says. "The image I was cultivating was Last Man Standing, but I realized I felt sick most of the time, that anhedonia had set in, just as it did with Doug near the end." Ramis left Anne, forswore drugs and, later, cigarettes, and, in 1989, married Erica Mann, his former assistant. Erica and her mother had both spent time at Buddhist retreats, and Ramis began to move in that direction. "I'm Buddh-ish," he likes to say, acknowledging that he has been unable to divest himself of "sarcasm, cruelty, self-indulgence, and torpor." He developed a laminated "5 minute Buddhist" card that he hands out, enjoying the joke of presenting the path to salvation-"The Four Sublime States," "The Five Hindrances"- as if it were a Chinese menu.
When the script for "Groundhog Day," by a writer named Danny Rubin, came along, in 1991, Ramis was ready for the next phase of his career: the "redemption comedies." (His later films about a man's search for meaning include "Multiplicity," "Analyze This," and "Bedazzled.") Rubin's script about Phil the weatherman was smart and unusual, but his ending was a cosmic irony of a sort that, in Ramis's experience, audiences dislike: Rita, Phil's producer and love interest, reveals that she's trapped in her own endless repetition, and that there's no existential relief in sight. About midway through Rubin's original draft, Phil realizes what he really wants:
PHIL VOICE OVER
And me and Rita-together-was the most obvious thing in the world.
Have you ever felt like you were reliving the same day over and over again?
Like deja vu?
More like-deja, deja, deja, deja. ..
So, you still think you've been here before?
And how does this evening turn out?
I'll tell you what I do know. Even in a day as long as this, even in a lifetime of endless repetition, there's still room for possibilities.
Ramis made Phil less homiletic and more charmingly hopeful, and had Rita layout the road map for how Phil needed to change.
What are you looking for? Who's your perfect guy?
Well. First of all, he's too humble to know he's perfect.
He's intelligent, supportive, funny.
Intelligent, supportive, funny. Me, me, me.
He's romantic and courageous.
Me, me also.
He has a good body but he doesn't have to look in the mirror every two minutes.
I have a great body and I never look at it.
He's kind and sensitive and gentle and considerate. And he's not afraid to cry in front of me.
This is a man we're talking about, right?
By pointing up Phil's smugness and the way he Uses humor to keep people at a distance, Ramis's rewrite, which brought Bill Murray aboard, turned Phil into a classic comic hero: a man in need of comeuppance. Rubin says, "Harold built it into a three-act studio movie by giving it a very clear arc: 'This is the worst day of Phil's life. What would make it even worse? Repeating it every day;' " Phil is ultimately unable to impress Rita with his accomplishments-he learns to play the piano, speak French, and sculpt ice--and wins her over only when he stops trying, when he begins to care about helping other people. The movie became not only a hit but also a touchstone for rabbis, Zen masters, and psychoanalysts.
Offscreen, Ramis and Bill Murray were trapped in a cycle of personal strains. Murray's marriage was breaking up, and he was behaving erratically-the whirling, unpredictable personality that. Dan Aykroyd calls "the Murricane." Ramis sent Rubin to New York to work with Murray on the script, because he was tired of taking his star's 2 A.M. calls. Rubin says that when Ramis phoned him to check in, Murray would shake his head and mouth the words "I'm not here." "They were like two brothers who weren't getting along," Rubin says. "And they were pretty far apart on what the movie was about-Bill wanted it to be more philosophical, and Harold kept reminding him it was a comedy;" "At times, Bill was just really irrationally mean and unavailable; he was constantly late on set," Ramis says. "What I'd want to say to him is just what we tell our children: 'You don't have to throw tantrums to get what you want. Just say what you want.
After the film wrapped, Murray stopped speaking to Ramis. Some of the pair's friends believe that Murray resents how large a role Ramis had in creating the Murray persona. Michael Shamberg, a Hollywood producer who has known Ramis since college and who used to let Murray sleep on his couch, says, "Bill owes everything to Harold, and he probably has a thimbleful of gratitude."
Except for brief exchanges at a wake and a bar mitzvah, the two men haven't talked in eleven years. "It's a huge hole in my life," Ramis says, "but there are so many pride issues about reaching out. Bill would give you his kidney if you needed it, but he wouldn't necessarily return your phone calls."
In early March, Ramis prevailed on Brian Doyle-Murray to ask his brother if he would take part in "The Ice Harvest." Brian reported that Bill said no, thanks. When Ramis asked if Bill had said anything more, anything personal, Brian said that his brother hadn't mentioned Ramis at all.
At around the same time, I reached Murray, after several attempts, and told him that I was writing about Ramis and would love to talk to him. "Really?" Murray said. It was hard to tell what he meant by that "really." He suggested that I call back in a week. When I did, he said, "I've thought about it, and I really don't have anything to say:"
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Other material. This is a chronological "blog" of new Groundhog Day material as it accumulates; much of it once resided on the home page, but that page had become too large.
Groundhog Day essay in Stephen Simon's book, The Force Is With You: Mystical Movie Messages That Inspire Our Lives
Groundhog Day essay by Mario Sesti in the Museum of Modern Art catalog for, The Hidden God: Film and Faith
Groundhog Day by Ryan Gilbey, published by the British Film Institute and the University of California Press.
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