It’s easy to love Peter Venkman. He’s Bill Murray playing Han Solo. He’s a cowboy. Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, nice shootin’ Tex! Like Han Solo, Peter just can’t quite believe this is all happening, and takes every moment he can to prod at the movie’s holes.
What really makes Peter great as a character, however, are his immediately obvious flaws. From an objective standpoint, Peter is probably the least likeable Ghostbuster. He toys with people. He treats academia, and then the private sector, like his own lawless wasteland, thriving on anarchy and disorder. Look at the way he practically spits in the face of Walter Peck. In that initial meeting, Peck is amicable, even forgiving. He came to inspect the containment unit. That is his job. When Peter makes Peck “say the magic word” for access, he laughs with a disbelieving chuckle, but gets on with the affair. Peter doesn’t let it go. He pushes Peck to the point of breaking him, and when that containment unit overloads there’s a sense that it’s Peter’s fault as much as anyone’s.
But for all his posturing, he’s still a white hatted cowboy. He never does anything truly heinous and has a moral code that compels him to eventually do the right thing. Zuul (using Dana) offers Peter the chance for some wild sex, and while the offer is tempting, Peter knows he can’t. It’s not Dana – there is no Dana! Say what you will of his moral ambiguity in other parts of his life, his stance on consensual sex never strays from what’s right.
While “no job is too big, no fee is too big” is his mantra, he’ll just as quickly stand up for the little guy as well. Him waving fees or pointing admiration in a direction other than his own is seen over and over again in The Real Ghostbusters. And no one is more involved in actually taking down Gozer than Peter Venkman. Egon says to cross the streams and everyone is silent until Peter digs deep inside himself and leads the charge. He’s the first to exclaim how he loves this suicide mission, how he can’t wait to be apart of it! For a man that believes this is a battle he won’t survive, he runs at it with open arms. His selflessness saves that day and gets the girl.
Peter is a character who is well and truly different in The Real Ghostbusters. Lorenzo Music had his own take on the character. Peter is still the face of the Ghostbusters, still a womanizer (or at least trying to be), and still a little sketchy when it comes time to write up a bill, but there’s a hell of a lot more heart in the character. Watch The Thing In Mrs. Faversham’s Attic if you don’t believe me. This is a Peter whose sleazier moments are shown as a by-product of growing up with his literal con-man father.
In his animated form, his unfavourable characteristics aren’t always used to manipulate and coerce. Sometimes it just slips out and he does what he can to correct his mistakes as they appear. Again, The Thing in Mrs. Faversham’s Attic is a great example. When Mrs. Faversham invites them in for tea but they have to head off to another case, Peter stays behind, citing “she reminds me of my mom and how she was always alone”. He regrets not being there for his mother, but he can be there for Mrs. Faversham. Better late than never.
And what about Ghostbusters II? According to Dana, Peter is a man incapable of settling down. As if that’s any surprise. He loses both the woman he fought so hard to get and the job/company he helped create and he seems a hollower man for the two losses. He’s hesitant to re-enter ghostbusting because it was one half of what hurt him so badly before. It’s cowboy Peter Venkman in Unforgiven. Maybe I’m looking to deeply at a movie that featured a dancing toaster, but I choose to believe Peter’s more sensitive than what he lets on.
If Ray is the heart, Egon is the brain, and Winston is the hands, Peter is the cajones. Ray put up the money, Egon put up the technology, but Peter puts on a show. He’s the public face of the company, the PR man, the lawyer on retainer, the man that takes the appointments because Egon or Ray would either confuse, frighten, or cause a bout of uproarious, derisive laughter from the average person off. Maybe he doesn’t always go about his position in the best ways, but he’ll at least always find a way to fix his mistakes.