40 Years Ago: Bill Murray Goes Gonzo in ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’
Johnny Depp's depiction of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may be more ingrained in recent memory, but Bill Murray got there first with Where the Buffalo Roam, which premiered on April 25, 1980.
It was Murray who first brought to the screen Thompson's slurry, dissociative speech, his cigarette holder and his conviction that only through a devotion to drugs and alcohol would the true weirdness of the world reveal itself. And it was Where the Buffalo Roam, directed by renowned producer Art Linson, that first tried to translate Thompson's crypto-herculean prose into something like a movie.
The film also stars Peter Boyle as Thompson's lawyer and associate in debauchery, Oscar "Zeta" Acosta, here named Carl Lazlo. It's composed of three episodes loosely strung together. The first takes place in San Francisco in 1968, where Thompson is holed up in a hospital room with a nurse, doing copious amounts of drugs and drinking whisky out of an IV drip. Lazlo shows up because he wants Thompson to write an article about a group of young hippies whom Lazlo is due to defend against outrageous marijuana possession charges. The two climb out the window – whisky IV in tow – and head to the courthouse.
The trial goes badly. Lazlo refuses to plea-bargain the youths and instead makes the argument that doing three years in prison for possession of a joint is ridiculous. The judge, not impressed by his hippie antics, ups the kids' sentences. Meanwhile, Thompson only barely manages to deliver the article to his long-suffering editor at Blast Magazine, a fictionalized version of Rolling Stone, with Bruno Kirby playing editor Marty Lewis, the stand-in for Jann Wenner). On the last day of the trial, Lazlo goes crazy at hearing the sentences and attacks the judge and the prosecutor, ending up in prison himself. Thompson doesn't see him again for four years.
The second episode takes place in 1972 in Los Angeles, where Thompson holes up in a hotel room, drinking whisky and doing copious amounts of drugs, to cover Super Bowl VI between the Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys (which was actually played in New Orleans.) He's only barely had time to trash his hotel suite when Lazlo appears out of the blue, wearing a Richard Nixon mask, and convinces Thompson that instead of attending the game he's supposed to he writing about he should go out to the desert and meet some revolutionaries. Thompson agrees, only to find that the revolutionaries Lazlo has assembled are making money by selling arms to other revolutionaries, these ones from south of the border. The feds show up in a helicopter, Lazlo and both sets of revolutionaries climb into a plane and disappear into the sky, and Thompson is left with his cigarettes and a car that won't start.
The third takes place later in 1972, when Thompson is covering the campaign of his arch-nemesis, Richard Nixon. (At one point in the film Thompson has a Doberman Pinscher that he has trained to attack the groin of his assailant; the command word is "Nixon!") After being kicked off the press airplane due to his substance abuse, Thompson waylays a Washington Post reporter by telling him that Quaaludes are aspirin, and steals his suit and press credential. While he's in the bathroom changing into this new outfit, in comes Tricky Dick himself. Thompson launches into a peroration about the "Screwheads" (the bad guys) and the "Doomed" (the misfits.) Nixon calls him over, grabs him by the collar, and declares, "Fuck the doomed."
It's on the heels of this moment that Lazlo materializes for the last time, emerging from out of nowhere to come strolling across the tarmac. He manages to get Thompson thrown off the press plane (again) and begs him to come join him in the desert with more revolutionaries. Thompson is aghast at the idea; but he doesn't he make his way back to join Nixon's convoy, despite, as he says in the closing moments, the fact that "It still hasn't gotten weird enough for me."
Where the Buffalo Roam, to say the least, batty. Despite the extraordinary talents of Murray and Boyle, there are moments when it is dull. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are places where it lapses into indulgence. But it retains a genuine and affecting strangeness worthy of its main character.
And the stories about it are the things of legend. Thompson only sold the rights, based on his 1977 Rolling Stone article "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat," because he wanted the money and was certain it could never get made. Murray and Thompson developed a strangely fraternal/possibly homicidal relationship; at one point Thompson tied Murray to a chair and hurled him into a swimming pool, nearly killing him. When Murray returned to the set of Saturday Night Live after filming, he remained in character as Thompson.
Neil Young recorded the soundtrack, which includes a stunning rendition of "Home on the Range." Not to be outdone, at one point Murray and legendary actor René Auberjonois sing the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" in the cockpit of an airplane.
And yet despite all of this zaniness, at the heart of the film is the strangely touching story of a friendship. Thompson is bedeviled by his friend Lazlo. (In real life, Oscar Acosta was a civil rights activist and novelist who once received 100,000 votes when he ran for sheriff of Los Angeles County on the platform that he would abolish the Sheriff's Department if elected; he disappeared on a mysterious trip to Mexico in 1974). In the same way that Thompson torments the straight world, dragging them into his madcap misadventures, Lazlo torments Thompson. He's a fiend for the next horizon, never satisfied. But he's also Thompson's friend. The best moment in the film is when Lazlo begs Thompson to leave the press junket and join him in his obviously doomed desert quest. Thompson cannot join him – it's too much this time – nor can he desert him, and when Lazlo's briefcase flies open and his papers cascade down the runway Thompson throws himself on the ground to stop them from getting away.
It's a wonderfully human moment and it manages to finally turn Thompson from a caricature into a person, which, given the madness that had preceded it, is no small feat.