"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 13 June 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.


The Friends of Eddie Murphy

All motion pictures are sold, to a certain extent, as repackaged goods. A constant evocation of the past helps the film industry hedge against the whims of public taste. Potential audiences must be constantly reminded of reasons they'll enjoy the industry's latest product, and "because you liked it before" is a reason you can count on. The film community is so flush with cash and self-satisfaction that it can both encourage and forgive itself this inflated sense of its own history. Tom Hanks will never be Spencer Tracy, but the comparison can't be a bad thing to hear about oneself over coffee and bagels — and if it serves as an additional nudge to the lizard part of the audience brain that chooses what to do on a Friday night, then more bagels for everyone.

Film's most highly-refined mechanism for perpetuating a brand-name is star cloning. When the public demand for a performer cannot be matched by that performer, studios will shove similar actors into similar roles for as long as there's money to be made. What distinguishes star cloning from copycat filmmaking is its open-ended strategy: clones can work for years, and be replaced by other clones. When the system works properly, accidents of nature may shape the clones in such distinct ways that they begin to seem like unique organisms with franchise possibilities of their own. Bill Murray's trademark material — deadpan underdelivery of non-jokes — may seem like a thin brew these days; but in the early 1980s, thespians of such varied capabilities and career prospects as Hanks, Steve Guttenberg, Michael Keaton, even Judge Reinhold, all strove for the mantle of New Murraydom.

What separates star cloning from such common occurrences as young hopefuls assuming an older actor's outward ticks (Christian Slater's pathetic appropriation of Jack Nicholson) or public persona mantle-passing (Burt Reynolds losing the title of hairy-backed sex god title to Tom Selleck) is intent. Star cloning is all about the product. Star cloning means finding out what the audience wants and giving it to them no matter what. It's about a generation of thin-mustached, slightly alcoholic actors trying to re-capture an audience's delight in the leaping, running form of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. It's about dozens of 1970s martial arts leads having their names changed to variations of Bruce Lee. It's not always about being the biggest star but the most effective — one of the most cloned stars ever was Ginger Rogers, of whom it's been said that she gave birth to others' careers in musicals, comedies, and dramas.

If the size of an industry created in one's absence is any indication, there is no greater movie star than Edward Regan Murphy. In fact, combine Eddie Murphy's personal box office clout with those of actors making Eddie Murphy-style movies, and we feel safe calling the man who brought us The Golden Child the most important movie star of the last 25 years.

As the Eddie Murphy Movie moves into its third decade as a twice-a-year Hollywood staple, and as Murphy himself leaves the genre behind to concentrate on family fare, we begin to see a pattern too grand to have been crafted by human hands. The one connecting force among all the Eddie Murphy movies that lack Murphy himself is that the actor playing Murphy's part is always terrible. Is Murphy so good that nobody minds, or are audiences to passive to care?

It isn't easy being Eddie Murphy. Murphy's early career was marked by several minor coincidences of the Rotarian biography sort, meetings of fate and skill which paid off to huge advantage. As a second generation performer on Saturday Night Live, Murphy joined at the perfect time to break into national consciousness. That show's context had already become starmaking — the audience was trained to cheer on the performers as much as they laughed at sketches. And in the early '80s, cheering was all you could do. As the only bright spot in a dull, uninspired show — you'll remember Murphy chose to work with Joe Piscopo — Murphy's energetic sketch comedy work seemed not only funny but heroic.

It wasn't long before he was able to cross over into films. What's often overlooked is that Murphy's initial film persona had more to do with his being a member of the Saturday Night Live cast than with any of the characters he played on the show. In the films 48 Hours, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy played fast-talking outsiders who took advantage of whites' unfamiliarity with and distrust of black people in order to intimidate or fool them into doing what he wants them to do. Within that personality, Murphy might even do sketch work in order to gain certain ends. That's not Buckwheat, that's the 20-year-old playing Buckwheat.

 Murphy's talent clinched it. Murphy possessed a remarkable verbal dexterity and an
actorly willingness to submerge himself into sketch-style characters. All of
successful films have built on one or both of those skills, while his
fire-your-agent failures 
lacked either: the ensemble acting of Harlem Nights or the
super-sexualized camp of Vampire in Brooklyn. Murphy's most recent hits are
dependent on his ability to play multiple characters, but he remains watchable in
many consider a step backward. In the action-comedy Metro, Murphy displays
the ease and authority of the seasoned pro. His line readings are still way better
and more
dynamic than his material.

 But if America likes the Eddie Murphy of today, it adores the Murphy of 
 1984. For
years now, studios have cast actors to play the kind of parts Murphy played
from 1982-1992, so many that it's hard to find a young black actor who doesn't
at least one Murphy-style role on his resume. Some are harder to spot than others.
At first
it's hard to tell how much of what Bill Bellamy does in the 1997  Def Jam's How
Be a Player is a riff on the smooth-talking, empty-hearted ad executive Murphy
played in 1992's Boomerang. But then Bellamy painfully scams his way past
Beverly Johnson's husband, posing as a plumber with a fake accent, and removes all
doubt. There are even drive-in Murphy films — note Kadeem Hardison's
wise-cracking turn in the 1996 buddy fugitive flick 
Drive. David Chappelle,
Jamie Foxx, the younger Wayans siblings, Tommy Davidson — they've all played
Murphy-style roles, all to forgettable effect. But four actors have had their
affected in a much more meaningful way.




Next: Nutty Professors too: The Chumps [Next Page]