I wish Harold Ramis had done more acting. Although his brightest creative talents were as a writer and director of some of the most significant comedies of the 80’s and 90’s, his handful of appearances in front of the camera is what I’ve found myself missing the most since he passed away.
It wasn’t just Ghostbusters, although that movie, and its sequel gave Ramis his biggest and best-known acting roles. He’s brilliant in both. Ramis had a voice and a presence that made him immediately identifiable, even in small parts in movies like Airheads (he’s in my favorite scene),Orange County, Walk Hard, Baby Boom, and As Good As It Gets. Owing perhaps to Ghostbusters, to playing a character who almost always had a certain grip on things, there was something comforting about just seeing and hearing him. Was it just a matter of “Hey, Egon’s here. It’s gonna be okay”? Maybe.
As a comedic actor though, Ramis never got quite the same level of praise that his Second City peers and Saturday Night Live contemporaries received. To that end, I would suggest watchingStripes again, if you haven’t recently. The movie holds up as one of the greatest ensemble comedies of the 80’s. It’s certainly one of Bill Murray’s definitive roles. Watch it again, and pay attention to Ramis. As funny and brilliant as Murray was, his best scenes in Stripes are almost always with Ramis. There’s a reason for that. When he did step in front of the camera, Ramis had a quiet way of being the funniest person in the movie. Murray is electric in Stripes, but that’s often because Ramis is right there, speaking volumes of how his character feels with slight changes to his facial expressions, minimal body language, and lines that express horror and amusement in equal volumes.
My favorite line in Stripes remains “We’re not gay, but we’re willing to learn.” The timing and tone of the line are flawless. On paper, it’s faintly amusing. Being delivered by Ramis, it’s one of the funniest lines in a movie overflowing with funny lines.
Ramis played characters that only seemed like they weren’t paying attention. When they spoke, you knew they had been aware of what was going on all along. Ramis’ career as a writer and director, which include some of the most culturally significant comedies of the past 30 years, is full of subversive, quiet, reactionary humor. Misfits populate the world of his best writing and directing examples, but they were almost never losers. They were ugly, loud, occasionally dishonest, but at least they had a moral core. They were certainly more passionate about things than the rest of their respective worlds. Caddyshack and Animal House may not seem like films with that kind of philosophy at play, but it’s there.
After all, this is the man who took meth to get of the Vietnam draft. He was a writer who could take extremely broad concepts, and then fill them with characters who had personality and depth enough for a dozen movies. Beneath the big laughs were ideas that combined philosophy and spirituality with the ridiculous. His work often sought a joyful destruction of traditional views of normalcy. Ramis didn’t attack society in his work in the way that someone like David Cronenberg might, but the same kind of disgust with the status quo is there. Ramis had his own singular interest in seeing what happens when things take a savage, weird turn. His most personal projects looked at those who met the impending crisis with humor and determination, as well as the ones who simply shit their pants and died. Even on films he either co-wrote, or at least leant some ideas to (Ghostbusters and National Lampoon’s Vacation spring to mind), you can find a lot of very sneaky social commentary, under even the biggest laughs and weirdest comedic plot twists. It’s good that people are appreciating just how remarkable it is when someone is able to do that. Yet the laughs were never sacrificed.
Harold Ramis could also lend himself to projects that were purely entertainment, that didn’t need anything going on beneath the surface. I can’t imagine anyone is going to make the argument thatAnalyze This (or its sequel) is one of the paramount movies of all time, but it’s funny. It’s still the best example of De Niro sending up the cinematic persona he had built up at that point. It’s a strong example of Ramis’ versatility with comedy. The four episodes of The Office he directed near the end of his career also qualify. Those are easily some of the funniest episodes of the series, and that’s saying something. The Office reminded people that he was particularly creative with ensemble projects, consisting of people that could be trusted to be inventive with the material. It’s not a weird coincidence that his best films involved improv geniuses. You only have to look to his Second City background, not to mention his work on SCTV as a writer and performer, to notice the trend.
I’m not shocked that several generations of writers, actors, comics, and others have stepped forward to praise Ramis’ work, cite his films and his style of humor as a significant influence. I’m not surprised that people are still discovering Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Animal House, and others. Ramis had a signature voice that could bring structure to a vague idea (Ghostbusters) or unique suggestions to something that already had a lot of talented individuals involved (National Lampoon’s Vacation). The sum total of his career has several classics, a small handful of movies that weren’t very good, and several things that were better for having him involved. It would seem that he had a good time for the most part, and that comes across in his filmography more often than not.
I’ve seen several interviews with him over the years. They tended to showcase a man who couldn’t stop laughing or smiling. His demeanor was one of constant delight with things. As fans, we should be grateful he was able to focus that view of the world into comedy. The impact of his work is naturally being appreciated in the weeks following his passing. We’re not going to see that impact dissipate for a long time. As kids continue to discover his movies, they’re going to understand that each movie has better things to do than exist purely in their time and place. They’re going to laugh their asses off, because those movies are never going to suddenly find themselves without a potential audience. Some things get to subscribe to the notion that what’s funny now will always be funny. Harold Ramis kicked in a profound array of contributions to that idea. He created atmospheres that allowed celebrated icons like Bill Murray to reinvent the comedy wheel. That’s as good a consolation in the wake of his death as we could ever hope to get.
Ghostbusters (1984): A+
It’s impossible to talk about Harold Ramis without discussing Ghostbusters. Murray steals the show, but Ramis has several moments in the film as an actor that adds to the movie’s enduring appeal. Dan Aykroyd originally conceived Ghostbusters as a vast epic that traveled across time and space, for both him and John Belushi. When Ramis and director Ivan Reitman came on board, the story was changed dramatically. A lot of that came from Ramis, although it’s difficult to know for certain just how much he actually brought to the screenplay, given the wealth of talent that was involved. It’s reasonable to assume that he helped create much stronger characters, leaving room for the cast to use their own sensibilities to fill in the blanks. Ramis wrote a lot of things about losers who weren’t really losers. They were just people who were either waiting for an opportunity to prove themselves, or who were going to have the opportunity thrust upon them regardless. Ghostbusters is a story about scientists banding together to save the world from paranormal forces, but it’s also a vehicle for every single person in the main cast. Murray is clearly the star, but everyone gets their moments. Ramis’ Twinkie scene, in which he explains the level of spiritual activity in New York City, in terms of how large a Twinkie it would be, is one of the best moments in the film. Ramis delivers the speech with an odd mix of nonchalance and grave concern, capping the moment by raising his eyebrows, when Ernie Hudson remarks “That’s a big Twinkie.” Ghostbusters is still a credit to its genre, and that’s not because of nostalgia. It’s a near-perfect mix of humor and horror. Ramis would never have a huge acting career, but here, his deadpan delivery (“Sorry, Ray, I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought”) is one perfect component out of many. Ghostbusters isn’t his best writing work, but it’s up there.
Groundhog Day (1993): A+
The British Academy Film Award gave Groundhog Day an award for Best Original Screenplay. It should have won a hell of a lot more than that. Poorly marketed at the time of its release, it performed well enough at the box office, giving Bill Murray what would be his last significant hit for a few years. It was still initially regarded as just a very funny movie. While there’s nothing wrong with just being funny, because Groundhog Day is one of the funniest films ever, it’s only been in the past few years that people have really grown to appreciate what Groundhog Day accomplished. Taken from a story by Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day is one of the most intelligent commentaries on redemption and philosophy ever slipped into what’s otherwise a movie about a guy, who has to be shown the error of his ways. Ramis was the perfect choice to direct, and help write the script. It’s hard to imagine anyone else would have given Murray the room necessary for what will likely be one of the best performances of his career. Much like Ghostbusters, Ramis brought his own sense of humor, and his ability to marry structure to chaos. This is an excellent example of his talent for presiding over a movie, in which everything could work together to create a classic.
Stuart Saves His Family (1995): C+
Stuart Saves His Family suffered from a backlash, beginning to mount against entire movies being built around Saturday Night Live characters. Taken from a character created and portrayed by Al Franken, that definitely overstayed its welcome on SNL, Stuart Saves His Family was ripped to pieces by critics, and completely ignored at the box office. The movie made less than a million off a budget of six million, and it’s been pretty much forgotten 20 years later. Ramis didn’t write or appear in Stuart Saves His Family. Franken’s character, a self-help junkie who has to deal with his ugly, dysfunctional family, is probably going to get on your nerves a little. Ramis was still a good fit for Stuart’s excellent ensemble cast (especially Harris Yulin, Laura San Giacomo, and Vincent D’Onofrio), and some fairly dark musings on the harm families can inflict. Stuart Saves His Family is big, ludicrous, caricature-driven comedy, but there several moments in the movie that are actually quite bleak and depressing. As we know, bleak and depressing can sometimes be extremely funny. That applies to most of Stuart Saves His Family. This isn’t a classic by any means, but it’s far better than it was considered to be in his time.
National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978): A-
Along with co-screenwriters Doug Kenny and Chris Miller, Ramis helped create one of the most important films of the 1970’s. It’s mostly remembered today as an example of Belushi’s cut-short-too-soon genius, but there are a lot of other wonderful things about Animal House, deserving of just as much affection. Another film that utilized a diverse cast, Animal House creates the illusion of dangerous lunacy from beginning to end. Those watching the movie for the first time are probably going to wonder if the fact that anything in this look at college life in the 50’s was committed to film by sheer happy accident. It wasn’t. The fact that it pulls off this illusion might be at least part of the reason why it’s still so much fun.
The Ice Harvest (2005): C+
When it comes to a tribute, it makes sense to focus on the movies that people know best. It goes without saying that you should see things like Stripes and National Lampoon’s Vacation, if you haven’t already. What I hope to accomplish here is to provide a small overview of Ramis’ career. That has to include films that you may not have even heard of. The Ice Harvest is another film, in which his only credit is that of director. It’s a mean-spirited comedy noir, in the best sense of that concept possible. Ramis handled the story of greed destroying everything it touches with the insight necessary to translate such dark material into a pretty amusing movie. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton have been desperate men in worsening circumstances before. They make the most out of a script that falters halfway through, and then saves itself at the last possible moment. This would be the last “pretty good” movie of Harold Ramis’ career. His last film, Year Zero was a misfire for everyone involved. It’s a small shame that it was the last movie he ever worked on. Only a small shame, because at that point, after everything he had already done, it was cool that he just wanted to keep working. I’m sad that he’s gone, but the work he left behind makes the concept of grieving for the loss of such a significant comedic voice just a little bit easier.