On a Saturday a few weeks ago, I found myself at the theater watching The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them and The Skeleton Twins back-to-back. Among their many similarities (both plots prominently involve suicide, both track two troubled protagonists who are tied together by their histories) was the fact that Bill Hader appears in both films. His role in Rigby (at least, the version of it I saw) is fairly limited, but important. His role in The Skeleton Twins is major, and in some ways feels like it might be career defining. Walking out of those two films, there was one thought I couldn’t get out of my head: I hope Bill Hader is the next Bill Murray.
To say I want Hader to be “the next Bill Murray” is not, of course, to suggest that I want them to have the same career. The two are very different performers, Murray laconic and detached, Hader manic and absurd, with very different skill sets and likely very different artistic sensibilities. But Bill Murray is a figure who must be on the minds of every SNL alumnus as they try to make the jump to film. Among the most successful stars to have made the leap from the series to the silver screen (just where he falls depends on what metric you use to measure success), Murray also boasts a surprisingly prolific body of work, from his ‘80s classics Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters to his ‘90s work in films like What About Bob? and the masterpiece Groundhog Day, to a new millennium renaissance in films like Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Broken Flowers.
Murray can handle not just various genres, he can also make the most of whatever material he’s given. Though he is a fascinating and funny leading man, he also lights up the screen in smaller roles, like his glorified cameos in films such as Coffee and Cigarettes and Zombieland. Murray is one of the few personalities that I think can make a claim to actually being a National Treasure, a beloved cultural institution in addition to being an excellent comedian and stellar performer. He’s revealed himself to not just be prolific and varied, but also wise, mercurial, and committed to doing good work (there are exceptions of course, among them Garfield and Hyde Park on Hudson, though the latter falls into a personal exception that gives any actor a pass for choosing to play the President).
Similarly, Bill Hader has shown a facility for scene stealing, creating a series of memorable and hilarious characters even when he is given little screen time. His supporting turns in films like Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad, and The To Do List show his uncanny ability to deliver a fully formed personality in the blink of an eye (this is also what made him SNL’s MVP for several seasons of his tenure). He’s fairly new as a leading man, but a little over a year into his post-Saturday Night Live career, he has already proven himself to be one of the most distinctive comedic performers working currently.
Watching him in The Skeleton Twins, where he is marvelous, I couldn’t help but think that Hader is well equipped to have the sort of diverse, genre-bending career that few actors in American cinema can manage. He leaps ably from absurdist antics (like Stefon, deservedly his most famous creation from his SNL days) to more grounded comedy of the sort he exhibited in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He also has serious dramatic chops, with a sharp eye for when to dial back his performance and when to go for the jugular.
The Skeleton Twins itself is a solid if unexceptional film, but it is every bit a star-making vehicle for Hader, at least if there is any justice in the world (his Skeleton co-star Kristen Wiig had hers a few years back with Bridesmaids, and another worthy piece could be written about her). His Milo is gay, but that never becomes a defining characteristic. Rather, Milo comes across as lost, caustic, and a little desperate for attention, a man torn between his quickly deflating dreams of the future and the poisoned nostalgia of his past. Hader is often hysterical in the role (as when he clears brush one stick at a time or lip-sync’s Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” to cheer his sister, in one of the most joyous and bittersweet sequences you’ll see this fall), but he also keeps Milo constantly grounded in a suicidal depression. Milo claims to just be overly dramatic, but Hader never lapses into melodrama. He seems to innately understand Milo’s suffering, and his empathy for the character is contagious.
Trying to predict the trajectory of anyone’s career, especially in Hollywood, is a fool’s errand, but more importantly, that isn’t my intent here. This piece is purely speculative, a celebration of a “what if…” that might still come true. Hader doesn’t have Murray’s same ability to disarm viewers; rather, he excels at worming his way under your skin, jabbing at moments then receding until his work leaves an indelible mark. I’ve never seen him give a performance that was anything less than solid, and he’s often been exceptional even when the material required little more than adequate. He’s memorable even when the film around him is not. Everybody leaving SNL probably wants to grow up to be Bill Murray on some level (he’s certainly a better pick for longevity than the financially more successful Eddie Murphy). But Bill Hader may just have the talent, the taste, and the verve to pull it off. And a career that lets Hader play to all of his strengths, across genres and in roles of various prominence could be something to behold. Let’s all hope nothing’s gonna stop him now.