Saturday Night At The Movies: Why Eddie Murphy Breaks My Heart

When I walked out of the first early screening of “Dreamgirls” that I attended, Bill Condon was standing there, and I walked over to share some thoughts with him.  I’ve known Bill for a while now, and I was just going to offer him some quick impressions, then let him go because I knew other people wanted to talk to him.  As I started to tell him what I thought, I was fine until I got to my feelings about Eddie Murphy in the film.  Suddenly, as I tried to articulate just what it meant to me to see a great performance from Eddie, I got choked up.  I found myself almost overwhelmed by emotion, and I couldn’t even fully explain why.  I just had to thank Bill for giving Eddie something to do, something worth his talent and my time, and then hurry to the car, embarrassed by the unexpected depth of my own feelings.

It’s not my fault, though.  Like many film fans, the relationships I have with the work that actors and directors and writers do is a personal one.  It means something very particular to me, and in the case of Eddie Murphy, I consider him an important part of my formative years, and the arc of his career has been almost crushingly sad to witness.

I mentioned Murphy briefly in one of the columns recently, and I would argue that very few “Saturday Night Live” alumni have ever started their film careers with quite the same degree of instant, overwhelming movie stardom.  Sure, “Animal House” was huge for Belushi right out of the gate, but that movie worked because of the large ensemble cast and the writing and the fact that no one had made a movie about the ’60s quite like that before and people who lived through it had to see it.  But with Murphy, if you were there for “48 HRS” and “Trading Places” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” you remember… those weren’t just hits.  Those were movies that instantly entered the pop lexicon, monster pop phenomenons that you couldn’t avoid.  It was amazing to see the nuclear-blast level impact they left on movies, and to be part of those audiences.

One of the things that attracted me to Murphy as soon as he showed up on “Saturday Night Live” was that he was dangerous in a way that show wasn’t at that point.  Murphy felt like anything could happen when he was performing, and that was part of the appeal of the series in the first place.  I don’t think anyone should ever underestimate the appeal of having “live” be part of that title.  Eddie was not above totally breaking up in the middle of a sketch, often dragging Joe Piscopo down with him, and it made him feel like a naughty kid who had somehow wandered onto the set.  It made him human.  It also made every kid who watched that show feel possessive of Eddie.  It helped that his comedy albums were so blisteringly filthy, so we knew what he was just barely holding back during the show, and part of what we watched for was the chance that one week he might just snap and start dropping f-bombs non-stop.

That’s one of the reasons we were all so thrilled when he moved from TV to film so quickly.  “48 HRS” is a hard-R even by today’s standards.  Walter Hill didn’t make mild-mannered movies, and from the moment Reggie Hammond appeared onscreen, butting heads with grizzled cop Jack Cates, the movie was so gloriously, resolutely not for kids that I think it might have accelerated my own personal puberty.  Violent, profane, and unafraid to stare America’s still-itchy race issues right in the face, “48 HRS” could not have been more carefully engineered to turn Murphy into an instant movie star, and for me, it was the moment where he borrowed Jack’s badge to work the country/western bar where I knew we’d be watching Eddie Murphy films until we were all old and grey.  He tears into that scene without apology, fully aware of what a great opportunity it is and what a release that moment was for audiences on both sides of the color line.

“Trading Places,” released in ’83, made great use of another “Saturday Night Live” veteran, Dan Aykroyd, who was always a hard person to build a movie around.  We’ll get into Aykroyd in another column, and I plan to write a full piece about just one of his films in the next few weeks.  For now, I’ll just say that he turned out to be an inspired co-star for a young and hungry Murphy.  Aykroyd was great at playing twits, and he makes Louis Winthorpe absolutely deserved to be deflated.  John Landis, who directed what I might personally consider the greatest SNL film of all time, made great use of both Murphy and Aykroyd, and one of the things that really made the films feel like events was the quotability.  In 1982, I knew people who could do Eddie Murphy’s impression of Sting singing “Roxanne,” but who had never heard the real song.  After “Trading Places,” so much of Billy Ray Valentine’s patter made its way into the vernacular of my friends that it felt like we could just recite the whole film at the slightest prompting.

It wasn’t until “Beverly Hills Cop” in 1984, though, that Eddie opened and carried a movie entirely on his own.  And, yes, I know I just skipped “Best Defense,” but so did everyone else when it came out, so that’s only fair.

“Beverly Hills Cop” is lightning in a bottle, one of those cases where a decent little programmer became something much bigger because of a number of elements working together.  Martin Brest was a promising young director at the time, and his breakthrough hit “Going In Style” is a gentle, human little movie with a nice high-concept hook.  It worked because Brest had a ’70s sensibility that made room for movie stars in a very smart way, and that’s exactly what distinguished “Beverly Hills Cop” as well.  Pick up the new Blu-ray of the movie and take a look at the opening title sequence.  What could just be throwaway shots of Detroit to set up the location of the film actually does a marvelous job of establishing what an alien planet Detroit is compared to the Beverly Hills we’ll see later in the movie.  The sequence is loaded with personality and wit, so by the time Murphy shows up as Axel Foley, it feels like we’re grounded in a real world.  And throughout the film, Brest is just as important to its success as Murphy is, something that hasn’t always been the case with his films.

It’s hard to believe that Murphy’s career started its implosion not long after the unfettered success of “Beverly Hills Cop,” and certainly there were a few moments after that where it looked like he was starting to get things back on track, but for the most part, he had those first three films, and then immediately, the rot started to set in.  I blame whoever managed Murphy in those days, whoever his agents were, because they strangled that golden goose with both hands.  It was obvious that he was scared to follow up “Beverly Hills Cop” because it took him two full years to release his next movie, which turned out to be the stunningly awful “The Golden Child,” and he almost immediately retreated to the safety of a sequel.  The problem is, Tony Scott’s “Beverly Hills Cop II” is as phony as the first film is sincere, an ugly, stupid, painful relic of all the worst excesses of the ’80s on film.  And the Axel Foley character, so fresh and simple the first time around, was an ego-driven asshole in the second film.

“Coming To America” is perhaps the most likable film Eddie ever made, and his only truly successful romance on film.  For the most part, Eddie always seems to be too into himself to be convincing opposite anyone in a love story, but “Coming To America” is so sweet and Prince Akeem is such a bright, simple spirit that it works.  The film is also significant because it marked the first collaboration between Eddie and Rick Baker, whose make-up transformed Eddie into several different supporting characters, including the old white Jewish guy, and it seemed to set Eddie free in some way.  I’m sad that Eddie and John Landis had a contentious relationship, so bad that at one point during the “Coming To America” trial Eddie actually said “John Landis has more of a chance of working with Vic Morrow again than me,” and I’m also sad that when they did work together again, it was the unwatchably awful “Beverly Hills Cop III.”

Whatever happened between Landis and Murphy, it led to the one time Eddie has ever directed, and “Harlem Nights” is a revealing look at the unbridled ego of a movie star who was already on the wane, even if he didn’t know it.  The film doesn’t work at all, but it was nice to see Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Eddie all in the same film.  I just wish it was a good film.  “Another 48 HRS” caught Eddie at the height of his Fat Elvis phase, and while I think the movie’s actually not bad, it’s more a case of Walter Hill making it work than anything else.  “Boomerang,” “The Distinguished Gentleman,” “Vampire In Brooklyn”… these are desperate, forgettable films that capture Eddie at his most disinterested.  He appears genuinely adrift in the films, not sure why he’s even on the set.

With “The Nutty Professor,” you can see Murphy enjoying himself again, and that’s due in part to his work with Baker again.  I have a theory that the more make-up you bury Eddie under, the more he can forget about being “Eddie Murphy” and simply enjoy the craft of acting again.  He’s got to be cool when he’s Eddie Murphy.  He can’t be unguarded and loose and allow himself to be a fool, but when he’s under make-up, anything goes.  The rest of Eddie’s career is almost too sad to detail.  There are films like “Life” and “Bowfinger” where he’s good and the films work in a low-key sort of way, but there are also a whole lot of movies like “Holy Man” and “Metro” and the “Dr. Dolittle” films that are genuinely terrible.  I would argue that if not for the “Shrek” films, Murphy would have vanished completely already, but those movies at least made giant money, and they kept him somewhat relevant.  Without them, what would have have to point at?  “I Spy”?  “Showtime”?  “The Adventures Of Pluto Nash”?  “The Haunted Mansion”?  “Daddy Day Care”?  “Meet Dave”?  “Imagine That”?  Good god, that’s a litany of shame and pain.

So when I was standing there talking to Condon in that parking lot at Paramount, the reason that emotion was so powerful, so unexpected, is because there was a point where Eddie Murphy, like Harrison Ford, meant something to me.  Where he was my generation’s movie star.  And I watched him throw that promise away and trash that goodwill, film after film after film, until it started to feel like I’d been wrong in the first place.  And to see that potential confirmed, even if only for one movie, was a powerful thing.  I still believe that Eddie Murphy could be great if he was willing to trust a filmmaker and if he took scripts that were about the material and not just about him being cool and not just easy family gigs that anyone could do.  I don’t think Eddie Murphy cares as much about his onscreen career as I do, though, and that might be the thing that hurts most.

And, please, Eddie… don’t make “Beverly Hills Cop IV.”  You’ve already killed Axel Foley.  No need to molest the dead body, too.

And for those of you new to this series… 

“‘MacGruber,’ ‘Wayne’s World,’ and the legacy of ‘Shrek'”

“‘Caddyshack’ hits Blu-ray… so it’s got that going for it”

“Riggle, O’Hara, Wilson, and the art of the supporting player”

“‘Despicable Me,’ ‘Megamind,’ ‘Shame Of The Jungle,’ and more”

“He’s Chevy Chase, and you’re not”

“Phil Hartman, Cheech & Chong, and Pee Wee Herman

“What the heck was ‘The Saturday Night Live Movie’?”

“Belushi, the Bully Boys, and Wired 2.0”

“Why ‘Noble Rot’ Died On The Vine”

“Is The Whole Purpose Of The Show To Make Movie Stars?”

“What SNL Faces Will You See In Movies This Summer?”

“Saturday Night At The Movies” runs here every Saturday night.  Appropriately enough.