Seeking a career makeover? Look to kid flicks, indie cachet, and classiness.
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Maybe Hollywood isn’t such a tough town. Look at Eddie Murphy. Just over a year ago, Murphy was mired in an unseemly sex scandal. Who would have thought then that the comic would be riding high this summer as the king of family films? Last week, his kid-friendly Dr. Dolittle was No. 2 at the box office, while Disney’s Mulan, featuring Murphy as a showstopping cartoon dragon, was No. 3.

How was this surprising rebound engineered? And how are other celebs polishing their tarnished images?

STAR Eddie Murphy WAS PERCEIVED AS A kinky comedian with a penchant for cross-dressing hookers. RECOVERY STRATEGY Talk to the animals, not the public. Fresh off the career-resuscitating hit The Nutty Professor, Murphy was already busy crafting a squeaky-clean new persona last May when he was pulled over by cops who’d seen him pick up a transsexual prostitute in West Hollywood. He was filming Dolittle, had completed voice work on Mulan, and had lined up Touchstone’s genial comedy Holy Man, playing a prophet recruited by a home shopping network. Murphy’s first instinct: Deny any wrongdoing. But after his “act of kindness” excuse was met with derision, the star resorted to simply clamming up—no Hugh Grant-style mea culpa, no Paul Reubens-esque self-mockery. Murphy even dropped a $5 million libel suit against the National Enquirer for printing interviews with transvestites who claimed they’d had sex with him. The comic is still shunning the press, skipping last month’s openings of Mulan and Dolittle (Murphy’s rep says he was shooting back-to-back films). EXPERT ANALYSIS: Murphy’s silence was golden. By not talking, says Judith Ann Graham, vice president of the Association of Image Consultants International, who’s worked with such spin-needy clients as Mayflower Madam Sydney Biddle Barrows, Murphy “showed us that he wasn’t going to give the incident a whole lot of credence.” Given the short memories of kids, that strategy meant no uncomfortable questions for parents. Notes Graham: “That his [next projects] were kids’ films helped him strategize in a clear way.”

STAR Woody Allen WAS PERCEIVED AS Irrelevant, lecherous old-time auteur. RECOVERY STRATEGY Position himself as a proto-indie king. For years, TriStar had financed and distributed Allen’s films, ensuring the director’s financial and artistic independence in exchange for the prestige value of his works. But the studio bailed out of the partnership in 1993, reportedly due to the bad press that erupted after Allen began his affair with Soon-Yi Previn. Lacking studio financing, the Woodman decided to go the small filmmaker route, joining forces with Miramax and Fine Line. He’s also pared budgets by streamlining his inner circle, parting ways with his longtime cinematographer, editor, and producers. Most recently, Allen left his New York-based agent of almost 30 years, Sam Cohn, to sign with John Burnham, an L.A. suit who’ll try to rebuild Allen’s credentials in Hollywood. “He’s changing so many other things, why not agents?” asks Robert Greenhut, who produced 21 Allen films up to last year’s Deconstructing Harry. EXPERT ANALYSIS: What’s to lose? The consensus is that Allen is unlikely to be hindered by a smaller scale. “His experience allows him to operate with less assistance,” says Greenhut. “He doesn’t need anyone to help him make a movie.” None of this has affected Allen’s ability to draw top talent, and hiring Leonardo DiCaprio and Winona Ryder to be in his next film, Celebrity, will increase his Gen-X appeal.

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