Somewhere down the line, Eddie Murphy (b. 1961) went from being a mere comedy star to a national institution. And I’ve realized something startling — Murphy may have set a record for the longest-lasting screen comedian of the sound era. The only comparable person I can think of is Bob Hope (34 years, 1938-1972. 38 years if you include the obscure shorts he began making in 1934, but why do that?). Murphy’s been a star since 1982, making him at least tied with Hope, but he’s got at least another decade or two in him. With 40 films under his belt he has a ways to go before he breaks Hope’s record for the number of starring comedy vehicles however, but there’s little doubt he’ll get there. There are SNL contemporaries, like Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, who started out slightly before him, but they’re supporting players most of the time, and some of their films are dramas, some are indies (in Murray’s case). Murphy has made 40 mainstream big-budget comedies. Someone else to whom he might be compared is Bill Cosby, but again, Cosby starred in relatively few films over a 20 year period; most of his stardom was on television.
Furthermore, unlike, say, Hope, Murphy is a Great Actor, capitals intentional. He is the person I always have in mind when I annually opine that there should be a Comedy Acting Oscar, either a special category within the Academy Awards, or its own special awards apparatus. Not that comedy acting is deserving of less respect, but let’s face it, it never receives any, so let’s not pretend that a great comedy performance will ever win Best Actor, or what have you, But I can think of several performances of Murphy’s when I’ve been dazzled down to my socks by his virtuosity. He has said that one of his childhood heroes was Peter Sellers, but though Sellers was indeed a genius of characterization, he lacked soul — one is never tempted to empathize with him. I’d have to compare Murphy to someone like Charles Laughton or Olivier and I’m not overstating that. He’s someone who can play big characters outside of himself but still produce pathos and real emotions in audiences. As opposed to Robin Williams, who used to beg and mince for our sympathy, Murphy earns it. He has enormous control and focus and dignity as an actor. His roles don’t always give him the opportunity but when they do, he nails it. I’m thinking of moments in Trading Places (1982), The Nutty Professor (1996), Dreamgirls (2006), and Dolemite is My Name (2019) in particular.
Murphy is just a little older than I am, and became famous when he was a kid. People of my generation have had the amazing experience of watching him grow for four decades. Raised in Bushwick, Brooklyn and Nassau County, Long Island, he began doing stand-up as a teenager (inspired by Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx), and was cast on Saturday Night Live when only 18. His gift for impressions and broad characters made him a stand-out, and proved the salvation of SNL after the departure of the original cast. During the years he was there (1980-84), the dynamic changed entirely. It was no longer an ensemble show, it was a show with a single star (Murphy), or two, if you count the now-forgotten Joe Piscopo. He overlapped with some people who would later be giants, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus (and her husband Brad Hall) and Christine Ebersol, and some who would do okay, like Brian Doyle-Murray, but at the time these performers were not given much chance to distinguish themselves. So Murphy was the best thing about a mediocre experience, a kind of godsend. Mostly I found myself rooting for the show to be better than it was, for it was never as glorious during those years as it had been during its original incarnation. It felt, if anything, sort of culturally regressive, very much in tune with the Reagan Era. Murphy, talented as he was, was a case in point. A lot of stuff he did, like Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, and even Gumby, was the sort of material racists were all too comfortable laughing at, and for racist reasons. A short time later, when we got to experience his stand-up material in concert films and records, homophobia was added to the mix. He has since repudiated, or at least, qualified some of this early work, as insensitive youthful folly.
But acting in films, I think, Murphy is in his true glory. That’s funny to say, because his body of work is often unfairly dismissed or scorned as a joke. I began working on this post by scanning his body of work trying to find, “At what point did he go wrong? Whence begins the decline?” And I’m here to tell you I quickly realized that it’s not like that. There is no decline. The graph is a roller coaster, not a downward slope. Just when you think he’s on the way out, finished, comes the next comeback, almost like he purposefully sees himself going wrong and then corrects himself. His worst movies, to my way of thinking, are his family comedies. He seems very disengaged and aloof in those films, just phoning it in for a paycheck, and there’s a disconcerting LOT of them. I found I could only watch about ten minutes of Haunted Mansion (2003), for example. And think about it: when has Eddie Murphy ever been a middle-class, suburban dad? He went from childhood to being a famous millionaire in a heartbeat. “Normality” is not his comfort zone. Why go there? Above this in esteem, but second to the bottom, I would put his many cop/action comedies, a genre in which he started out strong (48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop), but which has delivered diminishing returns over the decades due to the formulaic nature of these films and the fact that we have seen him do it so many times. But it must be added that some movies critics have not embraced, such as Boomerang (1992) and Norbit (2007) have been enormous hits at the box office.
Often, when Murphy’s films are not good, the choices are at least interesting. Some of his movies seem like they are in response to something, like cinematic answer songs. For example, there is his one directorial effort, Harlem Nights (1989) which always felt to me like it was in dialogue with Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984). I actually watch both these movies praying for them to be good every time because the subject deserves it. But rather than being true and authentic, Murphy’s take on Harlem in the ’20s is self-indulgent and ahistorical. Still, it’s full of eye-candy. Likewise, there is his collaboration with horror director Wes Craven, Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), which feels to me like it is part of a subgenre with Interview with the Vampire (1994), and Innocent Blood (1992), the latter made by John Landis, who had earlier directed Murphy’s Trading Places (1982), Coming to America (1988), and Beverly Hills Cop III (1994). Murphy has worked with an impressive list of directors: in addition to Craven and Landis, it includes Walter Hill, Martin Brest, Michael Ritchie, Tony Scott (Ridley Scott’s brother), Robert Townsend, Frank Oz, and Betty Thomas (of Hill Street Blues!). Major comedians he has collaborated with include Jerry Lewis, Steve Martin, Martin Lawrence, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, etc etc.
At this writing he is working on his next release, Coming 2 America, the sequel to his 1988 hit Coming to America. Do you remember the mishigas at the time, when columnist Art Buchwald sued him for plagiarism? Art Buchwald! Suing Eddie Murphy for copying his comedy ideas! That may have been the funniest thing Art Buchwald ever did.
.For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.