In early ’80s Hollywood, director John Byrum set about making a film set in ’20s Paris. Coming down from the nouveau bohemian high of filming 1980’s Heart Beat, a film based on Carolyn Cassidy’s accounts of Jack Kerouac, Byrum was fully prepared to tickle the underbelly of the poetic avant-garde. He aimed to do so through a film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.
The Razor’s Edge tells the story of Larry Darrell, a young American who has just returned from war and decided to loaf around Paris to find the meaning of his life. From there, Maugham unravels some of the most misunderstood fibers of the human condition: jealousy, love, antipathy, lust, greed, and spirituality. Steeped in sex, drugs, murder, and philosophy, the novel had been the basis for a 1946 film starring Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter. Byrum brought a copy of the book to his friend Margaret “Mickey” Kelley, who was holed up in the hospital after giving birth.
“The very next night around four in the morning, the phone rings and it was Mickey’s husband, Bill [Murray],” Byrum remembers, via phone from his home in Connecticut. “All he said was, ‘This is Larry, Larry Darrell.’”
That sealed the deal. With a marquee name in tow, Byrum was set to remake The Razor’s Edge, starring Bill Murray — in his first-ever dramatic role. Throwing conventional script-writing out the passenger side window, the pair soon drove across America to write the screenplay. Murray and Byrum returned with a script that bore no resemblance to the 1946 film version. They even wove a farewell speech to Murray’s late friend John Belushi into the text.
There was just one problem: they had to find someone to let them make the thing. “I’ll tell you who got this movie made,” Byrum says. “It was Dan Aykroyd. Dan pointed out that we could give Ghostbusters to Columbia in exchange for a green light on The Razor’s Edge — Bill was convinced. Forty-five minutes later we had a caterer.” This devil’s bargain is par for the course. Hollywood legend has it that Tyrone Power committed to do one more Zorro movie for the privilege of playing Larry Darrell.
The film that took a drive around the country to write would soon take a trip around the world to film — the boys found the rest of their cast and set out. With Theresa Russell, Catherine Hicks, and Denholm Elliott in tow, the next year and a half would see the crew touch down in France, Switzerland, and India. The moment the last shot wrapped, Murray was on a plane to the set of Ghostbusters.
The Razor’s Edge — starring Bill Murray and shot entirely on location with a $12 million budget and a ridiculously talented cast — bombed. In a big way. Ghostbusters, the film Murray agreed to do only to get this one made, was released just weeks before, and it more than eclipsed Byrum and Murray’s labor of love, which ultimately ended up grossing only $6.5 million.
“I knew we weren’t going to get Oscars and fame from it,” says Byrum. “But when the film tanked so badly, Bill went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne because he was sick of the movie business.”
Twenty years later, Bill Murray has established himself as a master of dramatic roles, and the irony isn’t lost on Byrum, who at least gets to enjoy The Razor’s Edge’s ascendant cult movie status. “I wish I hadn’t gotten there first,” he says. “But when you get to do all these things making a movie, who cares if it’s a hit? I mean, it helps — but who cares?”
THE RAZOR’S EDGE
Tues/15, 7 and 9:30 p.m. (part of the Castro’s “70mm Series,” Aug. 11–19)
429 Castro, SF