Tom Burns on why he wanted to be like the guy who got all the best lines.
In a 2009 interview with Esquire, Arrested Development and Scott Pilgrim star Michael Cera says that he “wanted to be Dr. Pete Venkman when I grew up.” I know exactly what he’s talking about. Bill Murray’s lead performance in 1984’s Ghostbusters was not only a comedic tour de force, but when I first saw the movie when I was 8 years old it was also the coolest fucking thing I’d ever seen in my life.
I am a man who was raised by women. My dad was constantly sick when I was younger and died when I was 10. If you were to ask me to name one other male role model or mentor I had during my youth, I’ve got nothing: no kindly uncles, no inspirational Mr. Miyagi-esque neighbors. Heck, I can’t even name you a single male teacher I had that was worth a damn until maybe 11th grade.
When I was young, everything I learned about being a man came from cultural osmosis. I looked at the images of men I saw in TV, movies, music, and books and I tried to extract the relevant snippets of masculinity that seemed to make sense to me. It wasn’t easy. I came of age in the 1980s, and the testosterone-drenched male icons of the era—yuppies, Ronald Reagan, Hulk Hogan, Stallone—never felt right to me, so I sought out male role models wherever I could find them.
But those role models were rarely perfect fits. I yearned to possess the devil may care attitude of Han Solo, even though I really wanted to be the guy holding the lightsaber. I coveted Dennis Miller’s verbal intellectualism on SNL’s “Weekend Update,” but I didn’t understand 60% of his references. I spent a long, embarrassing period trying to adopt the attitudes and affectations of Christian Slater in Heathers until I realized years later that the point of that movie is that he’s kind of an asshole.
However, the second I saw Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman in a tiny second-run theatre on the outskirts of Detroit in 1985, I knew I’d found my male role model. Like Michael Cera said, this was the guy I wanted to grow up to be.
It’s easy to overlook the brilliance of the Venkman character. Ghostbusters is a big, bombastic comedy filled with cool set pieces and 50-foot marshmallow men. There’s so much going on in the film that I can understand how some people might mentally reduce Peter Venkman’s role down to something as simple as “the guy who got all the best lines.” And he did get all the best lines, but thanks to Bill Murray and a great script by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, Dr. Venkman is so much more than just a funny leading man.
He’s a scientist and proudly so. He refuses to suffer fools, though he rarely wins outright. He gets rejected, he gets fired, he gets slimed, and yet not even a moldy Babylonian god can knock that smirk off his face. (Sorry: Sumerian, not Babylonian. Big difference.) Long before Jeff Bridges’ Dude ever existed, Venkman abided.
Bill Murray’s performance in Ghostbusters transformed Peter Venkman into this brilliant hybrid of the stereotypical alpha male and the classic, unassuming underdog, a hybrid that subverted the hell out of both archetypes and, for me at least, presented this wholly new definition of what it meant to be a man.
There are not many film protagonists like Peter Venkman. From the first second you see him, right after we pull in past his office door that has “VENKMAN BURN IN HELL” written on it in lipstick, it is obvious that he is the coolest man in the room; that he’s going to be the coolest man in any room. He’s a scientist who is purposely rigging an experiment just to impress a girl, but, and this is one of the best things about Venkman, there is never anything predatory or aggressive about what he’s doing.
Venkman is undeniably dominant in almost any situation he’s in. He’s perpetually “alpha” in the sense that you can’t take your eyes off him, but his dominance doesn’t come from size, stature, or his ability to intimidate. He’s just such a confident, charismatic beast of a man that he innately bowls over every environment he enters.
As a young kid searching for a vision of maleness that made sense to me, it was fantastic to see this man, this scientist— a profession devoid of the boring, manufactured egotism of sports heroes or rock stars — who could be so “alpha” without having to cycle through all of the familiar clichéd trappings of dominant males. Peter Venkman didn’t have money, fame, size, or status, and at the time, neither did I. Ghostbusters opens with Venkman, a normal looking guy by all accounts, missing out on his date with the girl, running in terror from a ghost, losing his job, and having to talk his friend into taking out three mortgages on a family home just so they can open a risky small business.
Peter Venkman isn’t an all A student. He never studied. He’s never going to be a guaranteed winner, and yet during all of those inglorious moments, Venkman never, ever relinquishes his social dominance. He never kowtows to anyone and, in an inspired subversion of traditional alpha-maleness, even though Venkman is constantly losing throughout Ghostbusters, it never once shakes his self-confidence. He might groan, wince, and occasionally get slimed, but, no matter what happens, Peter Venkman can shrug off anything. Even when he loses, Pete Venkman swaggers like a winner because the experience never changes who he is.
And that swagger aspect is important because Venkman very definitely is not an unassuming underdog. Venkman is all about assuming: he walks into a room and owns it, regardless of who has the most power, status, or god-like supernatural powers. That attitude was a revelation for me, at the time. During my adolescence my natural inclination was to play the “Duckie from Pretty in Pink” role, to be the shy guy who’s constantly waiting for the world to notice him and, thus, never gets what he wants.
But that’s not Venkman. Bill Murray is not going to shyly pine after Sigourney Weaver. He’s going to declare that he’s madly in love with her minutes after meeting her. He’s going to bug her until she cracks a smile or agrees to a cup of coffee, but his forthrightness isn’t hostile or predatory. Instead, Murray replaced Venkman’s aggression with this playful tenacity; this well-intentioned, oddly-principled swagger that, in my mind, any growing young boy would be lucky to have. Venkman was a non-aggressive, alpha geek male icon decades before geeks crawled out of the shadows and asserted their dominance on Comic Con stages or CBS sitcoms.
And, while, yeah, he carried an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back and made great dick jokes too, it was Bill Murray’s unflappable sense of Venkman-ness that was really affecting to my younger self.
As a kid, it felt like I felt everything. I obsessed over every failure or slight. I was constantly aware of the people around me and how I was being perceived, judged, and categorized. The idea that I could one day be like Peter Venkman was an incredibly freeing notion. It was something to aspire to, this idea that I could, one day, look around and find myself surrounded by all my friends who were smarter than me (Ray and Egon), institutional bullies (Walter Peck), and people I had no chance of ever understanding (Louis Tully, most girls) and yet still have such a secure sense of myself that I could walk into the mayor’s office and tell him how to do his job. That’s a powerful notion.
Yes, Pete Venkman can occasionally be weak, manipulative, and broke, but he perseveres. He endures. And while he’s doing it, he’s the quickest, funniest, most self-possessed person in the room. Venkman dominates in the most charming way possible, whether he’s talking with a pretty girl or with the Gatekeeper of Gozer who’s currently occupying the pretty girl’s body.
Other popular male movie icons teach kids the power of competing, of winning, of being honorable. And that’s great if you’re a kid who’s good at competing or winning or being honorable, but most of us aren’t.
Peter Venkman teaches kids to just enjoy being themselves, to revel in it, to be giddy about it, and to never let anything—be it terror dogs, the EPA, or mass hysteria—convince you that you’re not the coolest fucking man in the room. And that has nothing to do with ego; rather, it has everything to do with being comfortable in your own skin. I can’t think of a film character who feels more comfortable in his own skin than Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, which, in my mind, makes him an ideal role model for anyone from Michael Cera to an impressionable kid from Detroit.