clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Eddie Murphy’s Balancing Act

Eddie Murphy received a Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement and is dropping his new film, ‘You People,’ all in the same month. You could call it a comeback, but Murphy’s been here for years.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Eddie Murphy kept it short when he accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award during the 80th Golden Globe Awards earlier this year. His speech, which clocked in at just over two minutes, consisted of the expected “Thank yous”—to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, to his family, to his representation—as well as a bit of advice for the next generation of talent punctuated by a Slap joke. As Murphy acknowledged, he could’ve spoken for much longer considering that he was receiving a lifetime achievement award for all that he’s accomplished in the entertainment industry for over 40 years. There’s only one Eddie Murphy, but his career consists of several different chapters, each of which is integral to his specific journey.

After emerging as the biggest star of Saturday Night Live’s second phase, Murphy became one of the biggest stars of the 1980s on the strength of 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop and Beverly Hills Cop ll, and Coming to America. He pulled off the most garish leather outfits in the brilliant stand-up special Eddie Murphy: Delirious and the Robert Townsend–directed, feature-length stand-up film Eddie Murphy: Raw. (In between, he recorded a hit single written and produced by Rick James as a heat check.) Moreover, that he reached Hollywood’s apex during that era as a late-20s, Black comedic actor who was notoriously uncompromising is a feat all by itself. Although he still did comedies like The Nutty Professor and Bowfinger (which featured him in all of his silly, multi-character glory) during the 1990s, a film like Boomerang offered a glimpse of the maturity and polish that Murphy was capable of, all while flexing the power he commanded during the early ’90s. He even played the Pharaoh in Michael Jackson’s John Singleton–directed “short film” for “Remember the Time.” And by the end of the decade, Murphy was the face of the Dr. Dolittle series.

The aughts, however, were decidedly hit-and-miss. Although Murphy was an anchor of the Shrek franchise and won a Golden Globe for his performance in the studio adaptation of Dreamgirls, he also chose to do massive failures such as The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Meet Dave when he could’ve done anything else. And during the 2010s, Murphy’s output slowed substantially as he appeared in the successful-but-nonessential Tower Heist, the long-delayed A Thousand Words (which never should have seen the light of day), and the forgettable Mr. Church. Murphy’s performances weren’t the issue during this period of volatility as much as the projects he chose. But his return to form, in terms of overall quality, came at the very end of the previous decade via Dolemite Is My Name, which was the beginning of the current phase of Murphy’s career. Not long after Dolemite Is My Name hit Netflix in 2019, Murphy hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time since he left to be a full-time movie star. Recognition from Hollywood’s halls of prestige don’t validate Murphy’s career in the slightest, but a Golden Globe nomination for his work in Dolemite Is My Name and an Emmy for his appearance on Saturday Night Live—and, above all, good work—weren’t bad ways to start the latest era of Eddie Murphy.

Since then, Murphy’s circled back on some of his most revered work, delivering Coming 2 America in 2021 and with Beverly Hills Cop: Axel Foley reportedly set to come out later this year. He’ll also appear in the Kenya Barris comedy You People (available this week on Netflix), playing a man wondering, with intense disgust, why his daughter (Lauren London) wants to marry a white dude (Jonah Hill)—especially this particular white dude. It’s a great role for this iteration of Murphy, who turns 62 this spring. He’s entered the victory lap portion of his career and appears to have found what was largely absent for the last half of it: balance.

To his credit, Murphy knows he’s done several awful films over the past 20-plus years. “I was making shitty movies,” he told Marc Maron during a 2021 appearance on the fellow comedian’s WTF With Marc Maron podcast. “I was like, ‘This shit ain’t fun. They’re giving me Razzies.’” Furthermore, Murphy was adamant throughout the press run for Dolemite Is My Name that he wasn’t making a “comeback.” “I’ve been making movies for almost 40 years. And my movies have made so much money,” he told IndieWire in 2019. “The whole comeback and stuff, you can’t really say that.” However, it’s undeniable that Murphy was less active during the 2010s and Dolemite Is My Name should be viewed as part of a recalibration. In addition to getting back to what previously worked for him, the film also saw him getting back to what was important to him. In Dolemite Is My Name, Murphy played the influential comedian and filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore, spotlighting his unlikely ascent and the production of his blaxploitation classic, Dolemite. Honoring his comedic forebears has always been paramount to Murphy; it’s what he did for Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx with Harlem Nights. This back-to-basics approach allowed Murphy to revisit his influences, along with his roots.

In December 2019, Murphy returned to host Saturday Night Live for the first time in 35 years. “This is the last episode of 2019. But if you’re Black, this is the first episode since I left back in 1984,” Murphy, the most successful Saturday Night Live alum, said during his opening monologue. And believe it or not, that’s actually a somewhat modest statement. At 19, Murphy helped rescue Saturday Night Live from a period of decline and uncertainty when he joined the cast in 1980. During his return, he revisited some of his best-known sketches (Gumby and “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood”), which are also among Saturday Night Live’s defining moments. His monologue featured surprise appearances from Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan, and Kenan Thompson—each of whom is a Murphy disciple in one way or another. This iconic photo from the evening, like the episode itself, was a celebration of Murphy’s legacy. Murphy’s subsequent projects followed suit.

Let’s be honest: There’s no need for sequels to Coming to America or Beverly Hills Cop (especially given the shift in attitudes about law-enforcement-as-entertainment) in the 21st century. But aside from them being IP cash grabs in the era of the IP cash grab, Coming 2 America and the forthcoming Beverly Hills Cop: Axel Foley are commemorations of peak Murphy. He’s content to let people give him his flowers, but he also has no problem claiming them for himself. Leaning on nostalgia is easy, but after two decades marked by chances he didn’t need to take, these more calculated risks are understandable at minimum. Sequels to Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cop make far more sense than those to, say, the Nutty Professor films or Norbit—neither of which would get the green light in the first place today. But after an extended stretch of trial and error with an abundance of errors, Murphy has shown that he’s willing to do more than just play the hits.

Nearly every point of Murphy’s career is marked by roles and projects that made sense for him at the time. Reggie Hammond, Axel Foley, and Prince Akeem Joffer made sense for Murphy during that phase. So did Marcus Graham, Ray Gibson, Donkey, and Jimmy Early during those that followed. One of the most confusing aspects of Murphy’s years adrift is that even though he could’ve done any project he wanted, it still wasn’t clear what path was best for him. Should he have done only the Shrek films or pulled a Jim Carrey and rolled the dice on something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? All that can be said for certain is that after Dreamgirls, Murphy did a string of movies that did not succeed or, for the most part, make sense for him until Dolemite Is My Name. Playing an aging comedian who wondered if he’d missed his moment in a story that proved that wasn’t the case at all was the perfect vehicle, as is You People. There’s a measured hostility Murphy brings to the role of the begrudging father-in-law-to-be that’s appropriate for both his age and the range he’s proved to have through the years. Murphy has also shown himself to be adaptable during this chapter of his career—which also began with an apology for the misogyny of Raw, 23 years after he apologized for the homophobia on display in Delirious)—or, at the very least, self-aware.

Murphy never “lost it,” but you could argue that, for a time, he lost his way in terms of what was best for him, career-wise. But instead of continuing to shoot in the dark, he’s course-corrected in the interim by taking a step back and being more selective. The trajectory of Murphy’s career is also a reminder that careers can take different shapes, especially when stretched out over decades. It’s OK if there are valleys and peaks, so long as there are at least as many of the latter as there are the former. In Murphy’s case, the highs overshadow the lows. His career is worthy of celebration based on what he did from Saturday Night Live through Boomerang alone. And even with a string of flops on his résumé, he’s managed to add new dimensions to his career in the years since. Maybe there’s an Everything Must Go– or Uncut Gems–type role on the horizon for him, maybe not. Either way, there’s reason for optimism about whatever’s in the pipeline for Eddie Murphy simply because of the possibilities.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.