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Eddie Murphy in 'Boomerang'

Eddie Murphy in ‘Boomerang’ — The romantic comedy is the actor’s first film since the 1990 sequel ”Another 48 HRS.”

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”Comeback?” sneers Eddie Murphy, when asked the inevitable question about the importance of Boomerang, his first film since the 1990 sequel Another 48 HRS.

”Comeback? From where? Where am I coming back from? What does that mean, comeback? Am I viewed as this cat who used to be funny and isn’t anymore and this is my last shot to be funny? If I was perceived that way, no one would tell me.”

Maybe that’s the problem.

Wearing a black Thierry Mugler jacket and black Ray-Ban sunglasses, Eddie Murphy sits at a grand piano in an elegant lower Manhattan loft, improvising one smooth pop-jazz tune after another. All around him technicians hurry to set up the next shot, part of the Thanksgiving dinner scene that’s a turning point in Boomerang. Production assistants fuss over pots of potatoes and chitlins in the kitchen, gaffers rearrange the lights that are trained on the beautifully set wood table, but no one approaches the star.

Nearby, 30-year-old director Reginald Hudlin sits opening the mail from his office in the Tribeca Film Center. A slender man who has a close-cut beard and wears earphones around his neck, Hudlin holds up a yellow envelope from a sweepstakes company that screams URGENT! OPEN WITHIN 24 HOURS!

”I might have won,” he laughs, and rips it open.

He hadn’t, but he didn’t seem to care. Ever since Reginald and his older brother/producer Warrington were tapped by Murphy to make Boomerang, they’ve felt like they won the lottery. Their only previous film, 1990’s lighthearted teenage romp House Party, was made for just $2.5 million. But when it grossed over $26 million, it caught the attention of the major studios, which were quick to green-light the recent series of black-oriented movies like New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood, and Juice.

Boomerang represents the next phase in the growth of black filmmaking. Its $40 million budget makes it one of the biggest movies ever made by a black director. ”We’re doing some of the best s—,” says Murphy. ”So they have to start paying for it.” The story of a playboy executive (Murphy) who meets his match in his seductive boss (Robin Givens), Boomerang presents a broader range of black characters than is usually seen on screen, from a mailroom messenger to the president of an international corporation. The nearly all-black cast combines ”old-guard” stars like Geoffrey Holder and Eartha Kitt with ”new jacks” like Halle Berry and Martin Lawrence.

And Murphy was ready for a project he could believe in. Though his recent films The Golden Child, Harlem Nights, and Another 48 HRS. made over $60 million each, they fell short of the critical and commercial success that marked his earlier hits. With Boomerang, Murphy hoped to succeed in a sophisticated romantic comedy that would be a showcase for black talent. Despite Reginald Hudlin’s inexperience with big-budget filmmaking, pairing the world’s biggest black star with one of the brightest hopes of the black new wave on such a landmark project seemed the right thing to do.

But the questions, conflicts, and ominous buzz began as soon as production started last November. Although the Hudlins deny it, the film’s screenwriters, Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield (who had worked with Murphy since his Saturday Night Live days), claim they were barred from the set. The Hudlins say they virtually rewrote the script — an allegation that inflames Brian Grazer, cochairman of Imagine Films Entertainment, who was the original mover behind the project (and who shares a producing credit with Warrington Hudlin). Meanwhile, insiders wondered just how much clout the Hudlins would really have working with the powerful, mercurial Murphy.

Once shooting started, the rumors seemed unstoppable: The actor was being difficult, keeping cast and crew waiting around for hours. Then word leaked out that the movie was going over budget, and in December the production manager was abruptly fired. The filming wrapped in March, but the bad buzz persisted: Paramount was in a frenzy because the rough cut would have to be trimmed by nearly half. The film needed a new ending to tighten the romantic focus; Murphy had failed to show up for additional filming in Atlanta and had gone AWOL during reshoots in Washington, D.C. The Murphy camp says the star’s schedule was not a problem and denies that he was ever a no-show.

It’s hard to imagine that the good-looking but slow-moving Boomerang — which opened July 1 to mixed reviews — will be regarded as the breakthrough Murphy and the Hudlins were hoping for. In fact, the project highlights how hard it can be today to make a big-budget picture with a huge star. And from the Hudlins’ perspective, it shows the added burdens faced by black filmmakers. ”If it makes a huge amount of money, they’ll go, ‘Well, it’s not really a black film. It stars Eddie Murphy,”’ says Reginald. ”If it fails — which it won’t — they’ll call it a black film. It only becomes black if it fails.”

It all began last summer, when the Hudlins were summoned to Bubble Hill, Murphy’s multimillion-dollar Englewood Cliffs, N.J., estate, to discuss a possible project. There they met with Murphy (who had the idea for a film about sexual role reversal); producer Grazer, who believed Murphy needed ”someone (at Paramount) to pay attention” to him (the actor, who has made $1 billion for Paramount, has since signed a four-picture, $50 million-plus deal with the studio); the screenwriters; and Murphy’s manager, Mark Lipsky. The first signs were promising: The director and Murphy, then 30, hit it off right from the start.

”We laugh at the same things,” says Reginald Hudlin. ”I think we have a common aesthetic of humor. Eddie said, ‘You and I are the same age, Reggie, we are both black men living in New York. This movie is our lives.”’

But for a rising young filmmaker, agreeing to direct a star of Murphy’s magnitude can be a Faustian bargain (just ask Heathers director Michael Lehmann, whom Bruce Willis selected to make Hudson Hawk). How much artistic freedom would Hudlin have directing a star who controls everything from story development to advertising campaigns on his pictures?

Hudlin, who actively encourages actors to improvise, largely let Murphy ”do his own thing,” he says. ”I’d just say, ‘Well, here’s this scene, it’s a dramatic scene, and you know, I’m sure you can pull it off.’ And of course he did. I try to stay out of his way.”

”This man is power,” says Warrington Hudlin, taller and thinner than his brother and sporting a cellular phone in a pouch on his hip. ”My biggest thrill has been seeing a black man wield the kind of power Eddie wields. It makes my day every time he does.”

For his part, Murphy apparently took pains not to appear autocratic. ”Eddie was incredibly respectful of Reginald and his position,” says Robin Givens. She recalls one scene for which Murphy had a suggestion about her performance — which was used — and he whispered his idea in Reginald’s ear. ”I felt more at ease in Reggie’s hands than I did with any other director I’ve worked with,” Murphy says.

Still, the Hudlins may have been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of Boomerang. ”They were very inexperienced in this type of atmosphere,” says associate producer Ray Murphy Jr., who has worked for his cousin Eddie for the last seven years as a kind of troubleshooter/aide-de-camp. ”When you have $2 million on the line, it’s all you have to work with. When you have $40 million, you get careless in things you want to do. When we had rehearsals, I saw 11 limos pick up 11 people from the same hotel to take them to the same place.”

But some of the difficulties during production came from Murphy himself. Grazer estimates Boomerang went over budget by about $1.5 million (not an exceptional amount on a movie this size), almost half of which he directly attributes to Murphy’s chronic lateness. ”Eddie moves on his own timetable,” agrees Warrington Hudlin. ”But he paid the cost to be the boss. When he gets here, he works hard and he works brilliantly. So I’m not complaining.”

When asked about Murphy’s erratic schedule, manager Lipsky says, ”Eddie likes to sleep late, and if it worked out in terms of shooting, we started later.” Lipsky denies that Murphy was a no-show in Atlanta, when Boomerang reshoots were interrupted by the riots over the Rodney King verdict. ”Eddie said as a black man, he didn’t think working was the right thing to do,” says Lipsky. ”He talked to (Paramount chairman) Brandon Tartikoff about it.” As for the published story that Murphy jumped ship in Washington, D.C., to go see Cape Fear, Lipsky says, “Eddie showed up and was told it would be four hours before he would be needed. He chose to spend that time at the movies.”

Murphy, however, wasn’t the only source of tension. Screenwriters Sheffield and Blaustein were included in all project meetings last summer, but shortly before shooting began in New York, they say, they called the Hudlins’ office and asked to accompany the filmmakers on a location scout. They were informed they weren’t welcome. After that, the Hudlins ”simply stopped returning our calls. We weren’t allowed on the set,” says Sheffield, rearranging the Sweet’n Low packets on the table in a West Hollywood restaurant. Says Warrington Hudlin, ”We never banned them from the set. If they feel that way, they have a right to their position.” The writers, who are white, take great pains to dismiss any racial overtones.

”It would be easy to imagine that this is a black-white thing,” says Sheffield. ”That we were not welcome on the set because we couldn’t bring a black perspective to the project. I don’t think it’s that. It’s an age-old writer/director thing.”

The Hudlins admit they preferred to rework the script without the writers. Says Reginald Hudlin, ”When you’re working in the specific milieu of a young black man’s life and dealing with people who have no idea of what that life is like, you can either painstakingly explain it to them or you can just correct it yourself. Pay no mind to the script. It’s a whole other film.”

According to Ray Murphy Jr., Eddie chose not to get involved in a conflict that would invariably split along racial lines. ”The Hudlins would hand us the script and say, ‘A black person wouldn’t do that.’ They never tried to compromise,” he says.

But Grazer — who says, ”I’m the only white person who had authority on that movie and I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say I felt a little self-conscious” — is incensed by the Hudlins’ claim that they practically rewrote the script. ”That’s f—ing bulls—,” he exclaims. ”These guys (Sheffield and Blaustein) wrote the script.” As for the movie’s significant departures from the screenplay, he says, ”You know what? A lot of that stuff came out of Eddie Murphy’s f—ing genius mind.”

Though scorning the word comeback, Murphy often describes Boomerang, which he calls ”a cross between Annie Hall and The Big Chill but with black people,” as a creative watershed. ”There was a period where I was doing these s—ty movies and repeating myself. Golden Child was half-assed. So were Harlem Nights, Another 48 HRS., Beverly Hills Cop II — you know which movies. I realized, ‘Wait a second. I got to be true to myself as an artist, I’ll only do stuff I have a passion about.’ When I came to that conclusion, it was all easy again.”

But can he regain his position at the top of the industry so effortlessly? Murphy has spent much of the last few years holed up at Bubble Hill and spending time with his 3-year-old daughter, Bria, and her mother, Murphy’s fiancee, 24-year-old model Nicole Mitchell, who is expecting their second child, a boy, in the fall. ”I didn’t feel like doing anything,” he says about these limbo years.

Some say Murphy has become too isolated, cutting himself off from critical voices. One source close to the Murphy machine claims that when negative reports about Boomerang surfaced last April in the New York Post, employees were instructed to keep the paper away from Murphy. The actor is almost never seen without his sunglasses, sometimes even wearing them on Boomerang‘s indoor sets.

”When you have your sunglasses on, you have your privacy,” he says. ”When the movie star walks in, everywhere he looks, someone will be looking at him. Sometimes you just want to chill. You don’t want to wave 50 times. On your set, it’s worse. Everywhere you look, you got to have some s— or some dialogue.”

Suddenly Murphy takes a turn. ”Tell people I had dark glasses and this sullen kind of dark vibe like a vampire,” he says. ”Make me seem like a really mysterious cat. Tell them, ‘Eddie Murphy was in the room and he had on these dark sunglasses and I felt like he was a vampire. And he threw his head back and did his horselike laugh and I noticed he had fangs. And I ran from the room screaming.”’

It’s no joke. Murphy is aware of his media image as a ”difficult” star, a temperamental egoist who believes that the rules — like showing up on time — don’t apply to him. What is surprising is how openly those who work with him confirm this behavior-before dismissing it as the price of working with Eddie Murphy.

”(Eddie’s) being late is sort of the tax on genius. There’s no free ride,” says the boyish, high-energy Grazer, who also produced this summer’s Far and Away and Housesitter, standing behind the desk in his Southwestern-decorated Century City, Calif., office. ”You have to have total respect for the guy. On the other hand, the process (of filmmaking) can be hard with him. Eddie will approve a scene on a Tuesday, then you get to Thursday and he’ll rethink it. And you’ve already spent a lot of money. But to his credit, he’s usually right about everything.”

When the filmmakers were ready to show the rough cut to Paramount last March, it was 3 1/2 hours long. And Boomerang was supposed to be a fast-moving comedy. It seems Reginald Hudlin’s penchant for letting actors improvise, combined with Murphy’s frequent creative suggestions, had allowed the film to get very bloated. ”The studio was upset,” says Grazer. ”But it wasn’t that they were creatively unhappy. They were nervous about making the release date.”

”I don’t think the studio ever really understood what we were doing,” says Reginald, ”which is why the first time they saw the film, we insisted they see it in front of an audience — and people went crazy. They said, ‘Well, whatever our preconceptions about what a given scene was or was supposed to be, this clearly works.”’

The final decision on whether Boomerang really works is now up to audiences. There’s no doubt that the effort to combine cutting-edge black humor with a lush, ’40s-style romantic comedy was ambitious from the start. But even if the movie performs well at the box office — and no one expects it to bomb — it is unlikely to be viewed as an unqualified success for the Hudlins, for black filmmaking, and least of all for Eddie Murphy.

”I don’t even trip on that,” he says. ”I’ll make movies until people stop going to see my movies. If that happens, I’ll go back to Bubble Hill — and chill.”

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