It’s the winter of 1992, and Eddie Murphy is sitting in his New Jersey mansion, Bubble Hill, wearing a faded blue sweatshirt, facing uncomfortable questions about the state of his career. Following a stunning run of blockbusters that made him the No. 2 box office draw of the previous decade, second only to Harrison Ford, the man nicknamed ”Money” by his friends hasn’t had a big hit in four years. He has recently surfaced from a self-imposed hiatus when, to many around him, he had seemed isolated and depressed. People are starting to take shots at him, saying he’s over, a played-out ’80s fad to put on the shelf with the Rubik’s Cube and the Cabbage Patch doll. He feels he merits more respect — for 48 HRS., for Trading Places, for Beverly Hills Cop, for his stand-up work, for Gumby, dammit — but he senses he won’t get it anytime soon. ”Certain cats, you know, it takes a long time to give you your props,” he tells a reporter for this magazine, in one of the last in-depth interviews he’ll grant before largely shutting out the press he feels has turned against him. ”When I’m old, I’ll get an Oscar. When I’m 90… I’ll come out, give one laugh, take the Oscar, and keel over.”
It may not take quite that long. With his career-redefining performance in the hit musical Dreamgirls, the 45-year-old comedy star, having earned a Golden Globe award, now finds himself the front-runner among this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Supporting Actor. Murphy plays R&B singer James ”Thunder” Early, a dynamic, innovative soul belter who, despite his powerful voice and charismatic presence, has never managed to achieve the fame and respect he feels he deserves. As he watches other artists ride his style to glory, bitterness consumes him. From Early’s electrifying stage show to his offstage womanizing to his eventual drug-fueled breakdown, Murphy delivers a performance by turns fiery and wounded, triumphant and tragic — essentially, taking the spot-on James Brown impression he did years ago on Saturday Night Live and wringing out the laughs to reveal the underlying pain.
The idea of Murphy turning in such an award-worthy dramatic performance initially invited skepticism. ”I didn’t know the late-night comics were doing jokes,” Murphy told reporters backstage after his Golden Globes win, when asked about late-night hosts poking fun at his surprising Oscar buzz. ”Have I become that uncool?” But in Early’s wrenching struggle for validation and redemption, Murphy has found the ideal vehicle for his own. The actor’s 25-year career has made many unpredictable swerves, from a meteoric rise that made him Hollywood’s first black global box office star, through a dismal stretch of disappointments, capped by a surprising rebound in broad family comedies. Even among his greatest admirers, few saw this most recent turn coming. There was certainly little sign of it in the films he’s made in the past few years: The Adventures of Pluto Nash, I Spy, Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion, Shrek 2. Says Dreamgirls director Bill Condon: ”I was so stunned every day by what Eddie was doing, I said to him, ‘ Why don’t you do more of this kind of thing?’ He said, ‘ Nobody ever asked me.”’
Depending on how you look at it, Murphy’s career — like those of two of his greatest heroes, Richard Pryor and Elvis Presley — can be seen as either an inspirational story or a cautionary one, a tale of blazing talent that couldn’t be denied or of karma that couldn’t be escaped. Either way, fairly or not, he carries some baggage: a reputation for being prickly and egotistical, rumors of odd idiosyncrasies, a couple of high-profile tabloid scandals. Even with the tremendous acclaim for his work in Dreamgirls, some believe he won’t fully stabilize his bumpy career until he overcomes a long-standing image problem. His defenders dispute that idea, saying that with cumulative career box office grosses in the neighborhood of $3 billion, Murphy has a vast reservoir of goodwill in Hollywood and among moviegoers. ”I don’t think he has to overcome anything,” says DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has been one of the actor’s closest friends and advisers since the beginning of his film career. ”I think his work speaks for itself. I think it speaks very loudly for itself.”