By John H. Foote
Shame on the Academy for their shabby treatment of Eddie Murphy through the years. Shame on Eddie Murphy for behaving like a pompous ass.
That said you can pinpoint the moment the “freezing out” of Murphy took place, I watched it happen, commenting to my girl that Murphy had just committed Academy suicide. Invited to present the Best Picture Award in 1988 for the best in 1987 film, Murphy walked to the microphone and launched into an angry tirade about why African American artists were being left out of the Oscars. He was not necessarily wrong, but the time and place was all wrong. Among the nominees that year were Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom and Morgan Freeman in Street Smart. The members of the Academy have very long memories, and did not forget, nor forgive. His critically acclaimed performances(s) in The Nutty Professor (1996) won him the coveted National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor, a huge honour, but no Oscar nomination. Finally, for his dramatic performance in Dreamgirls (2006) he won the Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. By far the years best supporting performance, he was the absolute odds on favourite to finally win the Oscar.
But he did not.
Instead the Academy honoured veteran Alan Arkin with a sentimental award for his life achievement, leaving Murphy angry and stunned. While he deserved to win it seemed clear more people voted against him winning, which was hurtful.
Exploding out of television’s Saturday Night Live, Murphy was a pure force of nature. A major talent, like Robin Williams, the questions came, where did he fit in? He stole every scene he was in with Nick Nolte in the cop/criminal film 48 Hours (1982) and you could feel a star being born. For the next four years he was the biggest star in movies, making both great comedies, and concert films that were more popular than some of his films. Delirious (1983) remains one of the boldest, most confident stand up routines I have ever seen. Hit followed hit including the blockbusters Trading Places (1983) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984) in which Murphy replaced Sylvester Stallone, improvising much of his own dialogue and entire scenes. The cop comedy, laced with intense drama and Murphy’s hysterical comedy, became a popular franchise with two sequels and perhaps a third coming.
Then things began to go wrong
The Golden Child (1987) was a colossal flop, and director Spike Lee called Murphy out for the image he presented of the modern-day black man. Lee stated Murphy portrayed the same smart-ass black man from film to film. Always showing he was smarter than the white men around him, always prevailing. While unkind, it was also very true. Further, Murphy was doing little to help the careers of young black actors and comics looking for a breakthrough.
He fell from the top of Hollywood, and it was a long, difficult drop. Yet there were glimpses of greatness on the way down. As mentioned, The Nutty Professor is an astonishing array of characters from a single man, he did what Peter Sellers had done, only better. Then came Dreamgirls, a dark, dramatic character for Murphy in which he excelled. That Oscar should have been his.
Now comes Dolemite Is My Name from Netflix, a solid biography that has Murphy cast as Rudy Ray Moore, a brash African American who was a jack of all trades before latching onto Dolemite. Moore learned about the antics of this Dolemite, who may or may not have been real, while working in retail, throwing out the drunk who came in every day talking about Dolemite. Failing as a singer, a comic and even a retail clerk, Moore gets an idea.
He decides to make a movie about Dolemite, a persona he adopts for himself. Financing the film himself, he hires family and friends to be a part of it, hoping to give the picture a degree of legitimacy hiring an actor, Durbaville Martin who had a very small part in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), to direct the film. Moore of course stars as Dolemite, and very quickly things get rolling.
But to be fair, utter incompetence rules each day on the set as no one but the director has a clue what they are doing. Essentially, they make it up as they go along. They must have done something right because their film, at a cost of $100,000 has grossed over 10 million dollars, made Moore wealthy and famous. Their audience clamoured for another, so a sequel was made, this time with more money and better production values.
This film is very good, elevated in every way by the performances of Murphy and Wesley Snipes, both coming back after a long cooling off period. Murphy is exceptional, brash, rude, vulgar, sex jokes a part of his every day life, thus the film must be full of bare breasted women, off colour humour, and…um, Kung Fu, which at this time in the seventies was immensely popular. Murphy is confident in the role, and why not? It feels like something right out of his stand-up routine. Is it a stretch for him as an actor in the same manner Adam Sandler stretches and dazzles in Uncut Gems? I do not believe so, but it is still an entertaining performance in a very good, very funny film.
Wesley Snipes is a revelation as the actor turned director Martin, who just cannot fathom the nightmare he is forced to endure each day on set. Condescending, pompous, he considers himself above them all, an artist, and the others, well, are not. It is easily the best work of his career and nice to see him back.
Craig Brewer does a nice job directing the film, paying homage to the blaxploitation era by making a blaxploitation film, filled with colour, vulgarity, bare breasted women and tough language. Brewer has proven himself previous with the superb Hustle and Flow (2005), as well as Black Snake Moan (2007) and the hideous remake of Footloose (2011).
There is a chance, a very small one, Murphy could be nominated as Best Actor, but the field is filling fast, and I worry Dolemite will be left in the dust. You see, it is good, very good, and Murphy towers over it all, but is that enough? Will voters see Dolemite or will they see Eddie playing a variation of himself as Dolemite. Is it impersonation or performance?
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”