Comeback?

11.02.11

Eddie Murphy's Road to Redemption

Eddie Murphy went from top of the Hollywood heap to flops, prostitution, and paternity scandals. Now he’s back in the blockbuster Tower Heist and hosting the Oscars—but what a long, strange trip it’s been.

After receiving huge laughs as a presenter on the awards circuit, Eddie Murphy, who had recently been heralded as one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars after the blockbusters 48 Hrs., Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop, was asked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to present the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 1988 ceremony. On Oscar night, Murphy stood up at the podium to present the award. He flashed his signature ear-to-ear grin and opened with a few funny quips about how the losers must feel stupid sitting in their tuxedos. Then things got serious.

“So I came down here to give the award, but I feel that we have to be recognized as a people,” said Murphy in front of a stunned audience. “I want you to know that I’m going to give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society and we will not bring up the rear anymore. I want you to recognize that.”

Murphy had a valid point, of course, but according to reports, then Academy President Robert Wise was so infuriated by Murphy’s speech that he wanted to ban him from the Oscars for life. And almost 20 years later, Murphy stormed out of the 2007 Academy Awards ceremony after losing the best-supporting-actor Oscar for his riveting performance in Dreamgirls to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine.

Now the comedy legend has been tapped to host the 2012 Oscars by the ceremony’s coproducer, Brett Ratner, who also directed Murphy in the blockbuster Tower Heist, opening Friday. “I knew before Eddie’s name was in the pot, I needed a single comedian,” Ratner, who claims the Oscar gig wasn’t a PR stunt for his movie, told the Los Angeles Times. “Then I kind of casually mentioned it to Eddie, and he thought it was a great idea.”

With two high-profile gigs in his back pocket, Murphy, who has risen from the dead more times than the killer in a horror movie, seems poised for yet another comeback. It’s been a wild ride, to say the least.

After his stint as a cast regular on Saturday Night Live, Murphy rose to become arguably the biggest movie star of the 1980s, with roles in the first buddy-cop action-comedy, 48 Hrs., the hilarious satire Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop. He achieved such notoriety that even his Rick James–produced (and hilarious) single, “Party All the Time,” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985. But then Murphy’s hot streak came to a grinding halt. John Landis, who directed Murphy in Trading Places and Coming to America, said in a 2005 interview with Collider that the actor had transformed into a diva. “The guy on Trading Places was young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great,” he said. “The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world—the most unpleasant, arrogant, bullshit entourage … just an asshole.”

The funnyman then went all Orson Welles, writing, directing, and starring in his passion project: the 1989 period film Harlem Nights opposite his idol, Richard Pryor. Gene Siskel called it one of the worst films of the year, while the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Eddie Murphy may have gotten so tangled up in the myths and myopia of high-power moviemaking that he can’t get back to the gritty, pungent, kick-in-the-throat awareness earlier audiences loved.”

Four consecutive films that were savaged by critics followed, culminating with the disastrous 1995 comedy Vampire in Brooklyn, which even prompted Saturday Night Live’s David Spade to crack a joke at Murphy’s expense on the program. Showing a picture of Murphy, Spade quipped, “Look, children, a falling star ... quick, make a wish.” Spade’s joke royally pissed off Murphy, who hasn’t attended any SNL functions since.

Although Murphy bounced right back the following year with The Nutty Professor, which grossed more than $273 million in worldwide box office, his reinvention as a family film star hit a snag in 1997 when police pulled him over at 4:45 a.m. with someone who appeared to be a female prostitute. The woman was actually 20-year-old Atisone Seiuli—a man—whom Murphy said he was just offering a ride home, according to People. “I saw this Hawaiian-looking woman and said, ‘What are you doing out here?’ She said, ‘I’m working.’ I said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing that [soliciting].’ And badda-bing … I’m never giving anyone a lift again.”

Police let the actor go and didn’t press charges, but People later reported that Murphy’s car was pulled over past the prostitute’s residence, and also quoted a business associate of Murphy’s as saying, “I believe we all know what he was doing, and what he wanted to do. I think he could be a self-destructive guy reaching out for help and about to blow up. But he said he’s not going to do that. He knows he’s in a second-chance phase of his career, and he’s not going to blow it.”

Then Murphy blew it. He starred opposite Robert De Niro in the dreadful 2002 comedy Showtime, which earned him a Razzie nomination and just $38 million in North America. But that was nothing compared with his next film, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, a high-concept sci-fi comedy made for $100 million that grossed just over $7 million worldwide and was later dubbed “The Biggest Flop of the Decade” by The Hollywood Reporter.

In 2006, Murphy seemed like he was back in his perch on top of the world with his magnetic turn as James “Thunder” Early in the musical Dreamgirls. It was arguably Murphy’s most complicated, nuanced performance to date, playing a former R&B titan who succumbs to drug addiction. But he lost the Oscar in an upset to Alan Arkin.

“This is the rude, confrontational, wiseass Murphy audiences have nearly forgotten after all the silly kid comedies and heavy-makeup outings of recent years.”

It probably didn’t help that just prior to the Oscars, in December 2006, Murphy was embroiled in a dispute with his ex-girlfriend, former Spice Girl Melanie Brown, about whether the child she was carrying was his. “I don’t know whose child that is, until it comes out and has a blood test,” Murphy said at the time. “You shouldn’t jump to conclusions, sir.” The child was later revealed to be Murphy’s, and he recently reconnected with his estranged daughter, inviting her, along with Brown’s family, to the premiere of Shrek: Forever After.

The atrocious comedy Norbit, which saw Murphy donning several fat suits and eventually won him the Razzie, was released just one month prior to the Oscar ceremony, another hiccup in his Oscar campaign.

Murphy then became a punching bag around Hollywood. The Ben Stiller–directed Tropic Thunder featured an imbecilic character named Jeff Portnoy, known for his asinine family movies playing multiple characters in fat suits spewing fart jokes—an obvious crack at Murphy. And future rap star Drake even dissed Norbit on an early track, “Man of the Year”: “That’s why I’m ready, man / I’d never copy Norbit like Eddie, man.”

Murphy shrugged off the criticisms, churning out the back-to-back flops Meet Dave and Imagine That, neither of which cracked $17 million at the domestic box office. Forbes put Murphy at No. 2 on its 2010 list of Hollywood’s Most Overpaid Actors, with studios getting a $4.45 return for every $1 he gets paid.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Murphy said, “I don’t think I’m gonna be doing a lot of family stuff for a while … I’m trying to do some edgy stuff.” The first edgy offering is Tower Heist, a comedy opposite Ben Stiller about a group of hotel employees who seek vengeance on their boss, who embezzled their pension funds in a Madoff-like scam. The film, and Murphy’s performance, have so far received positive reviews, with The Hollywood Reporter’s venerable critic Todd McCarthy writing, “This is the rude, confrontational, wiseass Murphy audiences have nearly forgotten after all the silly kid comedies and heavy-makeup outings of recent years.”

Given Murphy’s stand-up and sketch-comedy prowess, his hosting gig at the 2012 Academy Awards in February should be an interesting night. Fortunately for him, expectations are incredibly low following last year’s lackluster effort by co-hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway. He’ll also star in the March comedy release A Thousand Words, about a man who learns he has just 1,000 words to speak before he dies. And, he told Rolling Stone, he is writing an alien-abduction comedy that he’s tentatively calling Jamal and Tyrell and Omar and Brick and Michael’s Wack-Ass Weekend; he wants Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Martin Lawrence to star alongside him.

Eddie, we can’t wait.