This essay began as a retrospective on Eddie Murphy, meant to honor his career as he was scheduled to host Hollywood’s biggest night, the 84th annual Academy Awards. Director Brett Ratner, a former mentee of Russell Simmons, was hired to coproduce the show, and he promised to make it young and modern, an attempt the Academy awkwardly made in 2010 with cohosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway. Ratner’s selection of Eddie Murphy, who is 50, seemed full of promise. Murphy has not done stand-up in over 20 years, but his two concert ﬁlms are his most brilliant work. Would the edgy Murphy return and begin the night in a tight leather suit in shadow, the way he’d ended Raw? Would there be bleeps? A caped, hot tub tribute to James Brown? Or, better, a pastel cardigan and a song performed as Mr. Rogers?
Hosting the Oscars is as close to winning one as most comedians ever get. Unlike the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose Golden Globes’ musical/comedy categories honor the hilarious, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has let some of its biggest stars die without an Oscar because of their stoic refusal to acknowledge cinema’s lighter fare. The night also promised to bestow permanent dignity on Murphy, who has doggedly worked his way back from scandal and waning popularity by paying penance at the altar of PG, with more than a decade of ﬁlms meant to render the former foulmouth family-friendly.
Alas, Ratner was forced to resign from coproducing the Oscars after he told a reporter that rehearsals are “for fags,” an oﬀ ense even most of today’s rappers would manage to avoid making. A day after Ratner’s resignation, Murphy walked away from hosting duties, too, even though Brian Grazer, who produced Murphy in the two Nutty Professor ﬁlms and his latest, Tower Heist, stepped in to replace Ratner. Now the night will be helmed by Billy Crystal, who, like Murphy, grew up on Long Island but will undoubtedly commit to the same songand-dance opening number he’s performed many other times as host. Murphy, in a recent Rolling Stone interview talked about not needing to prove himself anymore, and perhaps that’s what informed his decision to follow Ratner out of the job. It is, indeed, a missed opportunity.
In more ways than he’s ever been given credit for, Eddie Murphy transformed Hollywood. Depending on who’s doing the math, he’s either the second or third-highest-grossing actor of all time. He’s certainly Saturday Night Live’s highestearning graduate, if not its most successful alum on other levels. His stint there, from 1980 to 1984, was exhaustively creative, and obviously and always about race. The Brooklyn-born, Long Island–raised teenager had, like most from his era, grown up sneaking listens to the genius recordings of Richard Pryor’s stand-up. Pryor’s revolutionary approach to comedy, one that privileged and centralized his black audience, granted a generation, led by Eddie Murphy, permission to be completely fearless and un-selfaware. One of Murphy’s most popular SNL characters took Buckwheat from the Depression-era Little Rascals series and recast the caricature as a rebel with agency. Murphy’s Buckwheat “talked back” to Hollywood’s earliest racist casting, and his Gumby character as a militant post–black power movement cynic was as radical as anything that’s ever been seen in the sketch comedy show’s long history.
When Hollywood inevitably came courting, they oﬀered Murphy the same buddy movie they’d offered black men before him, including Richard Pryor. But unlike Gene Wilder, who led his dances with Pryor, Murphy made his costar Nick Nolte— the box oﬃce draw at the time—seem like an extra in his own ﬁlm. 48 Hours led to Trading Places, where Murphy played oﬀ fellow SNL vet Dan Aykroyd. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking about Trading Places’ story. It was a rescue fable that made its social experiment about race and class an explicit part of the story, but there was no burying Murphy’s laser-sharp intelligence beneath a bum’s rags. Many of the ﬁlms best moments, like his legless Ray Charles impersonation, seemed unscripted, improvised by the comedian. By the time Murphy starred in Beverly Hills Cop (originally intended to be a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone), there seemed little reason to even carry on the pretense that he needed a bigger, white costar. Again, there’s nothing revolutionary about black actors doing their best work playing cops, but in 1984 the mainstream success of Cop with Murphy leading—not merely cast as the lead—was indeed a revelation.
Murphy then took his considerable cache in Hollywood and created Coming to America with an entirely black cast. It remains a cult classic, referenced in pop (i.e., hip-hop) culture countless times. With America Murphy created a buddy ﬁlm that starred his real-life friend Arsenio Hall, whose variety show would serve as a mainstream
stage for an emerging generation of rap stars. With America, Murphy also couched a romantic comedy in a story about African royalty, reﬂecting (in a fun house mirror type of way) the cultural nationalism of the ’60s, which begat a problack ethos in the ’80s that informed everything from Public Enemy to The Cosby Show.
He’d go on to write, executive produce, and direct Harlem Nights, a project meant to honor his heroes, costars Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Della Reese, but somehow managed to render them all unfunny. Mo re convincing was Boomerang, where Murphy shone as romantic leading man opposite Halle Berry, who did some of the ﬁnest acting of her career in the ﬁ lm. Boomerang was a more mature Love Jones (which would come later), and it helped make possible many of Tyler Perry’s ﬁlms, though none quite as sophisticated as Boomerang.
Even as Eddie Murphy was breaking box oﬃce records with reworked Hollywood clichés, his stand-up work, ﬁlmed as Delirious and then Raw four years later, were truly revolutionary. The ﬁrst, in 1983, came well before rap’s entrance into the mainstream, and it took Pryor’s license to ill so far that Pryor himself called it “excessive.” In his stand-up, Murphy pushed with language, sure, but more importantly with posture. This was beyond self-possession; Murphy owned the stage with a sense of entitlement not seen since comedian Lenny Bruce’s then-shocking and sometimes illegal routines in the ’50s and ’60s. Where Bruce made assumptions about his audience’s intellectual capacity, Murphy did no bridge work to blackness; he performed with the assumption that deep-inside cultural jokes were transferable to the mainstream with no unpacking.
This kind of self-centering (the “self ” here being black life) assumed a shared humanity, one that didn’t need to be explained. Bill Cosby had worked hard to establish black folks’ humanity; his stand-up shows insisted black men were husbands and fathers who changed diapers, acquiesced to nagging wives, and wore tweed just like everyone else. Where Pryor was a rogue in the tradition of Redd Foxx, his physique was slight and often sunken, as if he’d snuck onstage, the harmless jester who hid an awesome arsenal beneath his clown hat. Murphy, however, sauntered onstage with the swagger of a rock star. His ridiculous leather getups were meant to be hyper-masculine reworkings of Michael Jackson costumes (M.J. being the most successful entertainer of the time).
Where Pryor gave Murphy permission to center black language, Murphy’s stand-up gave a whole generation, the emerging hip-hop generation, permission to center black (masculine) life. Like Ratner, Murphy would later be made to apologize for his more homophobic material (though never his misogynistic stuﬀ ). Subject matter and swag aside, with Delirious and Raw Murphy’s technical skills and uncanny ability to circle back to the markers of his narrative—his mother’s ﬂying shoe, for example—belie a deft and nimble genius never seen in his other ﬁlm work. His two stand-up ﬁlms earned him top 10 positions on numerous all-time-best lists, but more than that, they are inﬁnitely watchable. Leather suits notwithstanding, they are timeless.
Murphy’s missteps have been colossal, too, from box oﬃce bombs like The Golden Child and The Adventures of Pluto Nash to the sex scandal that nearly cost him his career. When he oﬀered as a defense for having a transgendered prostitute in his car that he was merely giving her a ride home, it was as if he were barely making an eﬀort. In many ways, there was no defense. While Hollywood rightly insisted Ratner apologize for his homophobic slur, it has never made a space for openly gay and/or bisexual actors in its mainstream. Longtime rumors that the once-married father of eight is gay seemed implausible. But the rumors that he may be bisexual, and that Johnny Gill, his longtime guesthouse resident, was his lover are fallout from the night of his arrest. The fact is, bisexual men exist. They love and marry women, father children. They may be monogamous or not; they may alternate between aﬀairs with men and women, or have them simultaneously. But the idea that there is a safe space in American culture, let alone the black community, to do or be this, is itself laughable. There is, of course, the idea that Murphy is truly a nocturnal Samaritan who gives sex workers rides home and shares his living compound with a faded R&B singer who is just his buddy.
Murphy’s solution to the speculation, admirably, was more work. Stand-up tends to ward the nakedly autobiographical, so he retired that exceptional muscle, seemingly for good. Instead, he slid beneath a fat suit for The Nutty Professor. The prosthetic layers protected him while developing his other muscle, the ability to disappear into a character, a talent he’d ﬂawlessly employed in his impersonations on SNL. Murphy has performed with beautiful black leading actresses, among them Janet Jackson, but he’s also gone for the cheapest laughs by himself, playing the stereotypical loud, fat, black woman, sometimes more than one at a time. These career lows have been harder to accept than any illicit sex act in a car.
His more recent real-life scandals have involved women and have suggested he’s a cad. After his divorce from wife Nicole Murphy, he had the briefest of marriages to Babyface’s ex, ﬁlm executive Tracey Edmonds; he then fathered a
child with former Spice Girl Melanie Brown, a daughter he has reportedly refused to meet and had to be court ordered to support. In the self-confessional Oprah-age, his silence on these matters has been quite astounding. He only recently granted his ﬁrst extensive print interview in many years, and judging by what Rolling Stone published it came with a list of untouchable subjects.
Still, Murphy’s steady climb back to Hollywood’s A-list (which he barely left) has allowed him what he called a life of “leisure,” where he can pick and choose projects. His instincts ﬂuctuate wildly: from this year’s uneven Tower Heist, which largely relies on many of the clichés he began his career dismantling, to his stellar, Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls, for which he won a Golden Globe. Eddie Murphy may never return to the stage to do stand-up, and he’ll likely not be reinvited to host Hollywood’s biggest night, but eventually there will come a time when Hollywood will honor his groundbreaking career.