It’s late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday, and a question popped into my head: who portrayed him better on film, Johnny Depp or Bill Murray?
Depp, of course, starred as Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s surreal 1998 adaptation of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Murray headlined the less well-known but still really good HST flick Where The Buffalo Roam in 1980.
I feel that to determine who did the Thompson role best really comes down to an assessment of how the acting styles of Depp and Murray differ.
Depp is a chameleon-type actor who disappears into his roles. Depp rarely plays “Depp”—instead, he portrays (nay, inhabits) a complete “character.” Edward Scissorhands, Captain Jack Sparrow, The Mad Hatter, and yes, even Hunter S. Thompson are “characters.” And even if many of these characters share similar quirks (or: are all sort of “quirky”)—I never feel like they are representative of Depp specifically or any other “real” person (this assessment might sound slightly harsh, but it isn’t meant to be).
Murray, on the other hand…is very often Murray. Or, more accurately, “Murray”—a sort of public “approximation” of what Bill Murray is really like. Consequently, characters like Peter Venkman, Phil Connors, and even highly-acerbic Frank Cross “feel” like various shades of Bill Murray. There is a “naturalistic” quality of his acting in these roles.
So while Depp’s Thompson is vivid, unforgettable, and very funny (or: weird-funny)…Murray’s “feels” more like a real person. Depp in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas performed the better HST “impression,” but Murray’s delivery—albeit a “take” on Thompson highly-infused with Murrayisms—produced the more human version of the man.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying: your mileage will vary on all this.
It would be a cop-out, I know, to end this post at this point, so here are my personal preferences: Depp’s HST is the one I go to when I want a “slice” of HST via a clip, but in terms of sitting down to watch an entire movie, I prefer Murray’s Where The Buffalo Roam.