The Eddie Murphy Project: When a Tool Replaces the Box; Eddie in Character and Costume

The Eddie Murphy Project returns as Abe Beame explores Eddie's onscreen roles after hours in the makeup chair.
By    December 20, 2019

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Abe Beame just puts on the Nutty Professor soundtrack when he’s asked to DJ weddings.

About 20 minutes into Eddie Murphy’s classic Coming to America (1988), his Prince Akeem goes to get a haircut. The barbershop is populated by some classic New York stereotypes, sitting around arguing about boxing. There’s Clarence, the salty owner of the barbershop holding court, Saul, the firebrand old Jew playing chess with Morris the barber. Not much happens. Prince Akeem gets his braid snipped, there’s some off color jokes, end scene. But the scene would have crucial implications on Eddie’s career trajectory because Morris, Saul and Clarence are all played by either Eddie or his costar, Arsenio Hall. You could call the device a parlor trick, a distraction, or a revelation. But whatever you call it, it would come to slowly define and overwhelm the next decade of Eddie Murphy’s output. 

Witness the Hilarity of THE DOPPELG...
Witness the Hilarity of THE DOPPELGANGER

Eddie was a master impressionist, as we’ve discussed when considering his standup work, as well as the multiple cons he had to pull as detective, quasi detective, social worker or politician in his earlier films. Character had always factored heavily into his roles as Axel Foley, Reggie Hammond and Billy Ray Valentine who often had to slip into different accents, professions, and personalities to talk their way out of jams. But Coming to America was a departure, the first time Murphy played an entire film as a character wildly different from himself, or at least the smirking asshole he most commonly assumed on screen

As such, John Landis’ comedy classic is unlike any other Murphy film of this peak era. It is Murphy’s most gentle picture. Eddie specialized in the fish-out-of-water scenario but often he was the fish and polite, refined, white society was the dry land. In Coming to America Prince Akeem is the polished royal scion. The borough of Queens stands in for the role of savagery and bullshit Eddie himself typically represented in his earlier films. 

So the barbershop scenes in Coming to America have a sort of logic to them. It’s an opportunity for Eddie and Arsenio to flex and talk shit, for Eddie to assure his audience they aren’t meant to take any of this too seriously. He’s still there, within this mannered, charming modern fairytale, under layers of makeup and prosthesis.

It was director John Landis that made the fateful connection between Murphy and his brilliant makeup artist, Rick Baker. Landis had been working with Baker for a decade. Landis helped him win the first ever (regularly awarded) Academy Award for makeup, which he earned for his groundbreaking work on Landis’ 1981 classic, An American Werewolf in London. Baker also did the makeup for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, which Landis directed. Today, he is the record holder for most Oscar wins (7) and nominations (11) in the Best Makeup and Hairstyling Academy Award category. The famous challenge of Coming to America was Saul. Transforming Eddie Murphy into an old Jewish man was a feat nothing short of miraculous, and pulled off by Baker and Murphy seamlessly. 

After Coming to America became one of the great successes of Murphy’s career, he made a string of smaller passion projects. The bells and whistles of character were absent from his work during this period through the late 80s and early 90s (Specifically, Harlem Nights, Another 48 HRS, Boomerang, The Distinguished Gentleman and Beverly Hills Cop III, almost all previously discussed in this column) but would return with A Vampire In Brooklyn (1995). 

To this day, even with all the late period schlock, Vampire is still the oddest film Murphy was ever a part of. As usual with a Murphy picture from this period, it has interesting ideas, specifically pertaining to previously unexplored elements of the black experience. (Here, the history of the occult and mythology in the Caribbean) But it’s a wildly atonal and sour movie that can’t make up its mind as to how sour it wants to be, or how we should feel about its anti-hero. The Murphy brothers claim they had wanted Vampire to be a straight up horror flick, with Murphy as Maximillian, the humorless Vampire bad guy.

Allegedly, it was Wes Craven who insisted on the uncomfortable alliance struck between comedy and horror. The film achieves neither, maybe because Wes Craven’s idea of humor seems to solely consist of gross out gags at the expense of Kadeem Harrdison’s decomposing zombie slave (Craven has said Murphy refused to be funny, at least in role as Maximillian, which hurt the film, along with the weak script. Murphy has chalked it up to a dump in order to get out of his deal with Paramount).

Many of the later films Eddie got story credits on feel threadbare, or at least underwritten and Vampire is probably the worst offender. Shit just kind of happens: occasional voice over narration, flimsy set ups for its talented cast to riff about nothing and long chunks of exposition teasing out a mythology no one cares about. This sense of scotch taped arbitrary movement from scene to scene is important, it helps explain why the increasingly bizarre character work was necessary to padding out run time, and how destructive the characters could be to the cohesion of a story and its pace. 

Maximilian is a shapeshifter, among other loosely defined powers and abilities, and this actually constitutes an in-narrative opportunity for Murphy to assume character. As Preacher Pauly, he finds a functional reason for character, and in fact, during an extended sermon that is a southern baptist remix of a Satanic riff from Paradise Lost, the film actually flirts with an interesting concept, or at least a loose reason for existing. But it can’t hold a thought for more than a few minutes and quickly moves onto Murphy portraying Guido, a number runner that serves absolutely no purpose beyond Eddie playing another white guy. It’s a complete non sequitur diversion and just succeeds to disrupt the film without being remotely funny, strictly trading in broad, lame Italian stereotypes, as the character’s name would suggest. 

At this point it might be constructive to pull out and question what role these characters served in Eddie Murphy’s films. Even when it didn’t objectively hurt the film, as was the case the first time as a slight detour from the plot in Coming to America, why was this a well Eddie would return to so often and so faithfully as his career matured and began to lose steam? The obvious answer is spectacle and entertainment, and he was wildly successful in this pursuit. On one level, there’s the infinite array of little detailed accents and mannerisms the impressionist is pulling out for us to enjoy. On the other, it’s a triumph of makeup and costume. A sort of one upmanship as Murphy continues to morph into increasingly ridiculous and alien characters. There’s even precedence for this, as comedy master and Murphy hero Peter Sellers would pull this sort of dark chameleon magic off on a regular basis throughout his career. In Doctor Strangelove, for instance, he famously portrayed four distinct characters, or Alec Guiness who made his name portraying an entire family in Kind Hearts and Coronets

But I suspect there were darker impulses behind the decision making, however subconscious. I’m reminded of Michael Jackson, a clear influence for Eddie, whose videos became increasingly expensive and elaborate events as the quality in the work dipped. In many ways, which many people have written books on without getting to the bottom of so I won’t attempt to with a brief comparison here, it seemed to be the actions of a person hiding from certain things in his life. 

I don’t know if it was quite as traumatic or psychosexual for Eddie (I also won’t definitively say it was not. Fame is hard on everyone and Eddie had his fair share of controversy, particularly around this mid 90s moment), but on a surface level, I think he found picking consistently great original properties really difficult, which it definitely is. Find me a legit superstar who was on top for 20 years and doesn’t have a few bombs in his or her bag. I think the character work served as a security blanket. Maybe he felt even if the material was bad, his audience could rely on a few good minutes in his films of classic Eddie impressions and blue freestyle absurdity, and he hoped that would be enough to keep them coming back.

And then came the one great triumph of this device in Eddie’s career, The Nutty Professor (1996). Vampire in Brooklyn had been the lowest grossing picture in Eddie’s filmography up to this point at 19.8 million (It’s only saving grace was the reported budget was 14, which kind of sounds impossible because at this point in his career he was racking 15 just to show up on set). In Sherman Klump, Eddie found a protagonist that was even more of a stretch, even more alien to the Eddie Murphy persona than Prince Akeem. And Sherman is definitely a fully expressed and imagined character, believably and even touchingly portrayed by Murphy. The film is a Jekyll and Hyde parable and the brilliant meta twist is his Hyde is basically id, gaping asshole Eddie Murphy

Sherman is the antithesis of Eddie and his exaggerated evil counterpart Buddy Love: a sweet and thoughtful intellectual crippled with insecurity. It’s an impressive piece of work that demanded range, for which Eddie received real Oscar buzz before getting predictably snubbed (I should also mention the film is probably unwatchable for a group of people today as the central drama is almost entirely built on fat shaming). But even if you take out the merits of Murphy’s performance, on a structural level, for once, his character work was the engine that enabled the film to exist. It was the perfect synthesis of spectacle and story. Well, with one very small exception. Or, I could say four very large exceptions, depending on your appetite for lame dad puns.

In two scenes in The Nutty Professor we follow Sherman home for dinner with his family, the Klumps. Mama Klump, Papa Klump, Grandma Klump and Ernie Klump are all portrayed by Eddie Murphy (He also once again shoehorned in a white character, a Richard Simmons surrogate Sherman works out to). In the first Nutty Professor, the Klumps aren’t the same as even the barbershop players from Coming to America. They actually deepen and ground our understanding of Sherman and his struggle. He isn’t just ashamed of his bodyweight, but his crude roots decidedly outside of academia. It’s another hurdle he places in front of himself, keeping him from his love interest, Jada Pinkett Smith’s fellow professor Carla Purdy. But there are elements to the scenes with the Klumps that suffer from Eddie’s same level of distrust and calculation. The film deviates sharply in its style and tenor of humor in its detours to the Klumps, serenaded by a literal symphony of farts. 

But Eddie rode the film back to greatness. Rick Baker won yet another Oscar for his makeup work, The Nutty Professor made a staggering 274 million dollars off a 54 million dollar budget and returned Eddie to prominence, with what one would think would be his choice of projects going forward. Eddie quickly squandered this capital with a string of critical duds with a few commercial hits sprinkled in.

The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. Is probably the worst film discussed in this piece. When executives are reluctant to greenlight comedy sequels, I would imagine nightmares of sitting through this piece of shit are dancing through their heads. Tom Shadyac, director of the original installment and owner of a fascinatingly essential SNL related 90s comedy IMDB, was unceremoniously swapped out for Peter Segal, who is a poor man’s Tom Shadyac. Similarly, Janet Jackson subs in for Jada Pinkett with no explanation. The heart and joy of the first film is swapped out for terrible, even for 2000, utterly terrible CGI. 

While the first film played as a story about a man finding his agency that featured brief interludes with his portly, eccentric family, this film makes the interludes its point and relegates the actual narrative arc to the back row. It’s the most literal illustration of the deadening effect Murphy’s makeup obsession had on his film work. It’s mind numbing, and you could say the Klumps shit (or farted) on what had been a winning premise. I’m pretty angry I even had to spend this much time discussing the film. It’s really bad.

But the film nearly doubled its budget. In many ways it was the genesis of Murphy’s late period, in which he’d bounce from piece of shit to piece of shit, some profitable, some complete and total bombs. There was some character work, in Bowfinger (1998) another in an alarming string of meta pictures in which Murphy is unwittingly starring in a movie he’s not aware of, while also portraying his nerdy brother in a Steve Martin passion project, in Meet Dave, a fascinating thought experiment and bad movie about a human facsimile who is trying to learn how to be human, and in Pluto Nash, arguably the worst movie ever made (we will address all of these sins in our next installment). 

But in 2007, Eddie returned to the fat suit and his muse, Rick Baker (Oscar nominated for his work once again), with Norbit. It’s not exactly a bad film, on the level that Vampire in Brooklyn and The Klumps are unwatchable, but it’s an incredibly generic comedy that, taken at face value, would’ve evaporated from the public consciousness. And for the most part, it did. Despite making 160 million on a 60 million dollar budget, its greatest legacy could perhaps end up being what some pointed to as a scapegoat for Eddie’s snub at the Oscars when he lost as a Best Supporting Actor nominee for his incredible work in Dreamgirls.

There’s a theory that the release of Norbit, several weeks before the ceremony, may have reminded voters how Eddie had spent the last decade, trading in schlock. (The other lasting legacy of the film is my favorite critical hot take of this entire century courtesy of Richard Brody, the curmudgeonly, contrarian, cripplingly cerebral New Yorker film critic who has gone out of his way, multiple times, to cape for Norbit and has even argued with a straight face Eddie deserved a fucking OSCAR for his work in the film. He also claims “It’s one, or rather three, OF THE BEST COMEDIC PERFORMANCES EVER FILMED!!!!!!!!!!!!!” [Caps, emphasis and punctuation added] Incredible stuff.) 

In Norbit Eddie is as committed as he’s been to any project since the early 90s. There’s no yawning or winking in his roles as the titular protagonist, Rasputina, his hugely fat domineering wife, or Hangten Wong, the Asian stereotype who raises Norbit in an orphanage. The story and screenplay were developed by Eddie and Charlie Murphy. And as is the case when Eddie had a hand in story development, we’re here for the novelty of balletic Murphy performances. Without them, and from the lens of 2019 even with them, the film is wildly offensive and racist when it isn’t simply predictable and boring. The film revisits the caveman themes of sex and power dynamics so quintessential to his standup, but can’t even maintain a coherent message as it leans into its high pitched cartoonish humor and plotting.

The real tragedy of this interrogation is, I would assume, it would be easy to skim this and come away with a sense that in these films, Eddie slowly lost the thread and began mailing it in, relying on schtick to keep us coming back to the well. But really, nothing could be further from the truth, which is much more depressing. Consider the hours, the days, the weeks, the months Eddie spent getting into these costumes, the endless time spent in the makeup chair, for you. The days on set in which he had to portray not just one or two, but entire families of distinct characters, talking to a grapefruit or whatever stand in you set up when you have one man at an empty dinner table carrying on a conversation with himself multiple times over. These aren’t the actions of an artist who lacks desire or ambition, they are the actions of an artist who has lost confidence in his compass and his craft. 

If anything, the sweat drenched, borderline desperation Murphy displayed as these assortment of characters buried under layers of prosthesis and latex express the desire to do whatever was necessary to maintain his small piece of Earth. And on a very cynical level, his efforts paid off. With the exception of Vampire in Brooklyn, all of these movies were wildly successful by any measure. But the tragedy for me is that we lost the charm, the intellect, the personality of one of our last, genuine movie stars. He remained in our lives, but as a gauze wrapped and special effects enhanced mummy, a remnant of the genius that used to do more with a moment, an arched eyebrow and a laugh, than he could muster with entire movies in character as a whole family of diverse, stupid characters. 

Still, as problematic and unfortunate as these movies could be, they contained authentic kernels of Eddie Murphy. They were recognizably his, even if you could take issue with the ways they represented him, and he represented himself. As we will explore next time, there are much, much worse ways to die as an artist. 

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