In Part One of Friday Film Review’s examination of Hunter S. Thompson on the big screen, Steph argues why there’s no better gonzo than Johnny Depp.
In the battle of which actor plays a better Hunter S. Thompson, aka America’s doctor of gonzo journalism, I’d long thought the answer was obvious. I’d seen Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam once many years ago, and underwhelmed with the film never picked it up again. I’ve watched Johnny Depp play in Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas meanwhile countless times, and am still always ready and willing to go back for more.
But when I actually sat down to write this article I realized; comparing the work of Bill Murray and Johnny Depp and arguing why one is better is not an easy task. Anyone who’s even remotely interested in pop culture cannot deny the enormous influence both these men have had in the world of cinema. Though more difficult then I initially thought, in the end I still believe that Depp emerges the victor of the battling Hunters.
In high school I had a friend named Ashley. Ashley lived in a small apartment with her mother, and their downstairs neighbor was a red headed man with one leg. While she lived in Montreal I spent allot of time at Ashley’s house, which had exactly five VHS Cassettes: The original Star Wars Trilogy, Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke and Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas. These films are special to me because I watched them each many times with someone who sadly I don’t know anymore but will always care about.
I worried going into this article that my preference was simply bias because of the fond memories Fear and Loathing evokes in me. I will forever love Bill Murray for giving us Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, but as Hunter S. Thompson Murray never completely wins me over. So what makes it better then? After a fun night recently where I watched both the Depp and Murray films as well as the 2008 documentary Gonzo: The Life and Times of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson I think I’ve figured it out.
In Where the Buffalo Roam, Bill Murray is trying to be a carbon copy of Thompson. In Fear and Loathing Depp is the character of gonzo, the rock star version of himself that Thompson created in the articles he would write. In the fantasy world of cinema Depp embraces the myth and becoming Raoul Duke makes sense. Trying to be the real man meanwhile is ridiculous because who could ever be a better Hunter S. Thompson then Hunter S. Thompson himself?
And I know that it’s largely due in part to the fact that the films are made twenty years apart but I also feel Depp’s performance is much more fearless. Depp allows himself to look like a drunken fool whose insane rants manage somehow to come off as gospel.
Murray’s performance while amusing, comes off too polished. What it really comes down to is compared to Depp’s performance there’s not enough anarchy in it. Murray performance ” look at me I’m Bill Murray, and I’m doing a cool role”.
In conclusion while both actors have made important contributions to pop culture history, Johnny Depp emerges the victor of the best onscreen Hunter S. Thompson. Depp achieves this with his maniac fearlessness and understanding that he is playing a version of the myth of Thompson, never Thompson himself.
I’ve had a similar relationship with Fear & Loathing, the movie. In my early 20s, I had this perverse ritual that involved getting so fucked up while watching it that I wouldn’t remember the jokes and would be guaranteed a laugh the next time around.
Then last Halloween, I went out as HST from Fear & Loathing. I’d spent years studying the film, so getting into character was no problem. I ran into a much better HST later than night, but he was all costume and no Raoul Duke. I was in character, though, and I really creeped him out, and it then took me a week to drop the act.
It was fun, and it was good for a laugh to think I walked around for a week talking like that, but I don’t think I’ll do that again. I don’t think my liver could handle it.