The evolution of Eddie Murphy's movie career

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Eddie Murphy has had one of the most mercurial movie careers in modern Hollywood history. Bursting onto the scene at just 19 years old — he’s had the kind of longevity (30-plus years!) that most people in the film business would kill for. And yet, despite being one of the most consistent and popular box office draws of all time — he is perceived as aloof, and even odd off-screen. And his every success nowadays is inexplicably labeled a “comeback”.

To a certain extent, Murphy has always been a victim of his unprecedented early career success. He was the star of Saturday Night Live in the early 80s in a way no one had been before or has since. His hysterical gallery of characters from the poverty-stricken parody of Mister Rogers, ‘Mister Robinson’, to his Borscht Belt take on the claymation character Gumby, make it easy to see why he became a household name.

Click here to view Grio slideshow of Eddie Murphy’s top 10 movie roles

His arrival on the big screen was just as electric. Only movie buffs may know that Murphy was far from the first choice to star alongside Nick Nolte in 1982’s 48 Hrs.. Producers wanted Richard Pryor, and when they couldn’t get him, preferred Gregory Hines. When Murphy was finally chosen he spent much of the production on thin ice. But looking at the film now, one can’t imagine anyone but Murphy in that film’s priceless scene where his character Reggie Hammond dresses down a bar of racist rednecks while posing as a cop.

“I’m the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen. That’s why I became as popular as I became,” said Murphy in a recent Rolling Stone interview. At that time, the only other black actor getting leading roles in films was Richard Pryor — and as hilarious as he was — he was almost never allowed to be aggressive or even angry at white people. What set Murphy apart was that his fierceness seemed to appeal to both blacks and whites.

He wound up becoming one of the last of a breed — the studio star. Ironically, both Murphy and Tom Cruise (who is just 1 year younger than Murphy) emerged at roughly the same time, did most of their early work for the same studio (Paramount) and were arguably the biggest stars of the 1980s. Yet, Cruise’s fluctuations at the box office have never been met with the cynicism Murphy’s have — in part because Cruise was always more of a Hollywood player, while Murphy has marched to the beat of his own drum for better or worse.

What no one can dispute is the incredible run of hits Murphy went on during the span of time that followed his initial 48 Hrs. success: Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop and its first sequel, The Golden Child (a bigger hit than you’d think) and the classic, oft-quoted Coming to America.

Then something happened, his next string of films “underperformed” by industry standards. Harlem Nights, Another 48 Hrs. and Boomerang all made over 60 million dollars at the box office (still strong numbers by today’s standards and not taking into account inflation in ticket prices) and yet because of Murphy’s even bigger earlier successes, he was considered to be in a slump.

It was around this time that a certain bitterness seemed to seep into Murphy’s public persona. He infamously called out Hollywood while presenting the best picture award at the 1988 Academy Awards for their lack of diversity:

“So I came down here to give the award, but I feel that we have to be recognized as a people,” said Murphy in front of a stunned audience. “I want you to know that I’m going to give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society and we will not bring up the rear anymore. I want you to recognize that.”
Needless to say, Hollywood isn’t exactly a fan of being criticized right to their faces and Murphy seemed to evaporate more and more from the public eye. He swore off print interviews and feuded with the show that made him famous after they ridiculed the poor box office performance of his 1994 horror comedy Vampire in Brooklyn

“They were shi**y to me on Saturday Night Live a couple of times after I’d left the show,” said Murphy. “I made a stink about it, it became part of the folklore. I felt shi**y about that for years, but now, I don’t have none of that. I wouldn’t go to retrospectives, but I don’t let it linger.”

Then there was his tabloid-friendly personal life — which ranged from altercations at nightclubs in the 80s to the alleged solicitation of a transvestite prostitute and most recently, contentious and controversial relationships with Mel B of the Spice Girls and Tracey Reese.

And yet, Murphy the movie star remained resilient. He struck gold in the mid-90s with his uproarious and critically acclaimed Nutty Professor films. He scored his first Academy Award nomination for his energetic performance as the James Brown-esque James ‘Thunder’ Early in Dreamgirls and yet, just four years later, after getting solid reviews for his new movie Tower Heist, Murphy is being labeled a comeback story all over again.

The Guinness Book of World Records recently found that Samuel L. Jackson was the highest grossing actor in box office history. But they were of course taking into account dozens of films where Jackson played a bit or supporting role. If you actually look at films where the actor is in the leading role — Eddie Murphy is the most successful black actor of all-time at the American domestic box office.

There’s no doubt that he has also had his share of unqualified disasters. Which has led him to be ranked second on Forbesannual overpaid actors list. Even Murphy himself has become more outspoken about some of his recent films’ shortcomings.

“Would the 27-year-old have wondered what I was doing in Dr. Dolittle? No. Or in those Shrek movies? No. But, you know, both the 27-year-old and the 48-year-old was like, ‘Why am I in Imagine That?’ The movie didn’t have a chance at the box office — it’s just me and this little girl and a blanket,” he said recently.

What has been most curious lately is that while Murphy clearly resents his track record being overlooked, he’s appeared to have finally mellowed with age and is embracing the spotlight in a way he hasn’t in years.

His decision to host next year’s Academy Awards was first met with shock but then a great deal of excitement by fans, who hope he can inject some much needed energy into what has become a pretty stale pageant in recent years.

He’s also shown more of a willingness to speak openly about his career’s ups-and-downs, as well as his ambitious future plans. Murphy appears ready to return to his roots on both Saturday Night Live and stand up comedy. Suggesting he wants to stick with “edgy stuff” at this stage in his life, he seems to have come full circle in a career that continues to evolve before our eyes.

Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard