If James Brown was the hardest-working man in show business, then Eddie Murphy—who rose to fame playing characters including Brown on Saturday Night Live, and later channeled the singer for his Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls in 2007—might just be the hardest-coasting man in show business.
It wasn’t always this way. Murphy rocketed to stardom in the early 80s, a cocky teenager plucked from obscurity whose outsized talent almost single-handedly saved S.N.L. from dying a painful death after the departure of its original cast. Then he quickly segued into film, starring in a series of zeitgeist-capturing, beloved hits like 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America, as well as the stand-up smash Eddie Murphy: Raw. Oh, and he also managed to score a hit song with “Party All the Time” while moonlighting as a part-time pop star.
Things changed, though, in the late 90s and early aughts, when Murphy’s output slowed—and his résumé began filling with middlebrow, family-friendly fare that hardly resembled his edgy classics: the Shrek films, Dr. Dolittle and its sequel, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Daddy Day Care. Those movies didn’t ask much of Murphy—and he didn’t seem to exert much effort in them, instead coasting easily on his innate charm. Soon enough, Murphy had become so synonymous with sleepwalking that his superior late-period vehicles, like 1999’s Bowfinger, were exciting partially because they seemed like the rare films in which Murphy was actually trying.
2006’s Dreamgirls, which has just been released on a Director’s Cut Blu-ray, was the ultimate “Eddie’s actually trying!” movie. The Oscar buzz seemed to begin the moment Murphy was cast in the flashy, Academy-friendly role of James “Thunder” Early, a brash R&B showman modeled on Brown—though the character was nowhere near as successful as his inspiration.
Murphy’s role was uncharacteristically demanding, a fully fleshed-out supporting part with an arc including such thespian-friendly elements as drug addiction, infidelities, disillusionment, betrayal, and a premature, tragic death; it also called upon Murphy to use his full powers as a comedian and a singer, as well as a dramatic actor.
Dreamgirls itself is often clunky, but it comes alive whenever it lets two performers burn up the screen: Jennifer Hudson and Murphy. These actors don’t seek the spotlight so much as angrily demand it. Murphy’s arc is particularly poignant: he begins the film full of soul-man bravado and brash humor. His business is seduction, both personal and professional, and he is very good at it. (Thunder’s pelvic thrusts alone are a danger to the established social order.) Yet as the years progress and his dreams drift increasingly out of his grasp, a deep sadness and resignation sets in. Murphy’s Thunder is a flesh-and-blood human being, but he also embodies the pain, frustration, and disillusionment of any number of performers whose extraordinary talents couldn’t overcome their even more extraordinary capacity for self-destruction.
The 10 minutes of new and altered footage in the Director’s Cut mostly don’t feature Murphy’s character. But there is a quick, wonderful sequence eliminated from the theatrical version that cuts between Murphy’s Thunder holding court on stage, delighting the crowd with single entendres about his lecherous intentions, and an off-stage Thunder putting those lascivious words into practice—until his target’s jealous boyfriend threatens him with the business end of a broken bottle. The montage underscores Thunder’s raw power, how his sexuality remains just as potent off stage—and Murphy brings it to life with enviable panache.
Critics imagined that Dreamgirls would be a game changer, one with “career-remaking brio,” as Slate’s Dana Stevens suggested. Alas, we all know what happened next: though Murphy cleaned up at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, he fell short of winning an Academy Award, perhaps because 2007’s universally reviled Norbit was released smack in the middle of Murphy’s Oscar campaign. (He’s not alone: other actors, too, have fallen victim to what’s been called the Norbit Effect.)
And since Dreamgirls, Murphy has only intermittently challenged himself to the same extent; he got good reviews for a supporting turn in the just-O.K. 2011 ensemble crime comedy Tower Heist, but fell short with the little-seen drama Mr. Church, which has a pathetic 17 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’d be nice to think another Dreamgirls-like comeback vehicle lurks in Murphy’s near future. Perhaps that movie is even closer than we think: Murphy has been attached to a Richard Pryor biopic, written by Dreamgirls writer-director Bill Condon for years. (He would play the legendary comedian’s father.) But that movie keeps shedding stars and directors, Lee Daniels—so there is a very good chance that it will never emerge from development hell.
The other films on Murphy’s upcoming slate—voice-over parts in the likes of Shrek 5 and Hong Kong Phooey, as well as a possible new Beverly Hills Cop movie—seem as though they’ll offer Murphy less to work with. The Director’s Cut of Dreamgirls, then, has to be both a blessing and a curse for Murphy. It illustrates what he’s capable of—but it also underlines the disappointment of everything that’s followed that incredible performance.
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