Eddie Murphy’s acting career deserves recognition. That’s what the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) – the organizer of the Golden Globes – decided when it awarded Murphy the Cecil B. DeMille for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment” at January’s ceremony. The 61-year-old – who has a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for the musical Dreamgirls (2006) – received the award with surprising solemnity. The seriousness of his speech was only broken at the end when he cracked a joke about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars. With the Cecil B. DeMille award, Murphy has confirmed his new status as a respected actor – a recognition that he has earned after being mocked for years about his declining career.
“I had stopped making movies in 2011,” Murphy recalled on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2021. “Because I was making these shitty movies, and it was like, ‘This shit ain’t fun.’ They giving me Razzies; I think these motherfuckers gave me the Worst Actor Ever Razzie.” In 2010, Murphy was awarded the Razzie – a parody award for cinematic failures – for worst actor of the decade. The snub came after Murphy, who had been one of the biggest film stars in the world, fell out of favor with the public and began starring in a string of family-friendly movies that were both critical and commercial failures. But interestingly, the Razzies also recognized Murphy’s comeback, awarding him the 2020 Redeemer Award for his role in Dolemite Is My Name (2019).
Murphy may be known for crass jokes, such as his fart scenes in The Nutty Professor movies, but he takes his reputation seriously. In 2007, he stormed out of the Oscars after losing the award for Best Supporting Actor to Alan Arkin. Murphy had been a favorite to win for his role in Dreamgirls, but it was rumored that the bad publicity surrounding his comedy Norbit (2007) ruined his chances. Indeed, Norbit won Murphy the Razzie for Worst Actor, Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Supporting Actress for the three different characters he plays in the film: Norbit, his wife Rasputia and Mr. Wong.
A lot happened between 1984, when Murphy boasted on Saturday Night Live that he only agreed to star in the comedy Best Defense for the money, and 1995, when comedian David Spade did a skit on that same show, where he held up a photo of Murphy and said: “Look children, it’s a falling star. Make a wish!” Murphy was so angry about the joke that he severed his decades-long ties with the TV show.
“What really irritated me about it at the time was that it was a career shot,” he told The Rolling Stone in 2011. “It’s one thing for you guys to do a joke about some movie of mine, but my career? […] And you know every joke has to go through all the producers, and ultimately, you know Lorne [Michaels, Saturday Night Live producer] or whoever says, ‘OK, it’s OK to make this career crack…’”
On Saturday Night Live’s 25th anniversary special in 1999, Eddie Murphy was the show’s only breakout star who refused to participate. He did not return until the 40th anniversary, appearing only to receive an ovation – not to make any jokes. But in 2019, Murphy surprisingly agreed to host the Saturday Night Live Christmas program, which brought back his classic characters from the 1980s and joked about the controversial design of Sonic in the Sonic the Hedgehog movie. The program – which gave the show its highest ratings in more than a decade – won Murphy an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy. “This is the last episode of 2019. But if you’re Black, this is the first episode since I left back in 1984,” he said in his opening monologue.
“[Eddie Murphy] saved a beloved TV show and blazed a trail for Black performers, all without a road map. Better to pay tribute to him for his great work than prosecute him for his flops and youthful offenses,” wrote journalist David Kamp in a 2020 article in The Atlantic. The report – titled The Return of Eddie Murphy – recalled how Murphy took a stand against the lack of diversity at the Oscars while presenting the Best Picture award in 1988. During his speech, he pointed out that only three Black actors – Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Potier and Lou Gosset Jr. – had won the award in 60 years. “I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this, but hey, what the hey – I gotta say it,” he said.
Murphy starred in Saturday Night Live at a time when the show seemed doomed. But he was able to win over a new audience with his quick jokes, swearing and quips about racism in America. In one of his most famous jokes, he talked about what the first Black president would have to do to avoid being assassinated.
While some leading Black voices, such as director Spike Lee, accused Murphy of not being socially aware, his jokes from that time carry a surprising amount of political punch. Other jokes – such as his 1983 routine on homosexuality and AIDS, for which Murphy later apologized – have not stood the test of time.
Murphy’s comeback is also important as he is one of the few remaining stars of his generation. “Michael [Jackson] …and Prince…and Whitney [Houston], those are my contemporaries. And they’re gone,” Murphy said in a 2020 interview with Vanity Fair.
Following a large private dinner hosted by a group of Black comedians including Chris Rock and Chris Tucker, actor Kevin Hart remembered the silence – only broken by laughter – with which everyone listened to their idol, Eddie Murphy. “We shared a bond, but it was one of respect, looking at Eddie and going ‘you’re the reason why we can sit at this table.’ These doors got kicked opened because of what you did,” Hart told interviewer Howard Stern.
With a new movie, You People, out on Netflix, another one – Beverly Hills Cop: Axel Foley – set to be released, and a sequel to Twins (where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito meet a third brother played by Murphy) in the works, Murphy is back in the game. His movie comeback mirrors the fighting spirit of the real-life character in Dolemite Is My Name, who after starring in a series of blaxploitation films, convinces a radio station that he still has what it takes to be a star.
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