Eddie Murphy and The Oscars: An Odd but Welcomed Coupling
The comedic actor joins a handful of African American hosts
The announcement earlier this week that Eddie Murphy will host the Academy Awards next year seems to have produced more questions than answers. Was it a commercial move by Brett Ratner, who is producing the Oscars, to promote “Tower Heist,” the Bernie Madoff-themed movie he’s collaborating on with Murphy? What does it mean to have an actor better known for his recent flops than the Academy Award nomination he received in 2007 hosting the nation’s biggest celebration of excellence in movies? Where does Murphy fit in the tradition of black Oscar hosts? And what approach should he take to the gig?
The Academy Awards, which have not been exceptionally progressive when it comes to recognizing the work of black actors and directors, had an animated duck host the Oscars before they tapped an African-American emcee.
Donald Duck co-hosted the Academy Awards as part of a crew that included Bob Hope in 1958, but it wasn’t until 1972 that Sammy Davis, Jr. took the stage with Helen Hayes, Alan King, and Jack Lemmon. Diana Ross followed him in 1974, again as part of a group, and Davis reprised his role in a group the next year. Richard Pryor hosted with Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn, and Jane Fonda in 1977 and again as part of an ensemble in 1983. Whoopi Goldberg became the first African-American to handle the hosting duties on her own in 1994, a role she’d repeat in 1996, 1999, and 2002. And Chris Rock was the last black host to run the show, in 2005.
Sammy Davis, Jr.’s career is inextricably linked to the Academy Awards—he was discovered at an afterparty for the awards in 1951—and even when he wasn’t hosting, he lent his talents to classics like this riff on the original song category:
If Murphy wants to remind the audience that despite flops like “Norbit,” he belongs among their number, he might do well to follow in Davis’ footsteps and draw on the skills that bolstered his Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls and sing:
Richard Pryor could be remarkably sincere about his love of movies, especially since having been born in the theoretically bellwether town of Peoria, Ill., he could bill himself as a barometer of national taste. Chris Rock, by contrast, lampooned the institution he was embodying, and wasn’t afraid to go political in his opening monologue. Murphy, of course, did one of the great satires of Hollywood and race in Bowfinger years before Tropic Thunder viciously mocked the idea of going “full retard” in pursuit of awards. “White boys always get the Oscar,” his character, a movie star named Kit, complains to his agent. “Did I ever get a nomination? No! You know why? Cause I hadn't played any of them slave roles, and get my ass whipped...A black dude who plays a slave that gets his ass whipped gets the nomination, a white guy who plays an idiot gets the Oscar. That's what I need, I need to play a retarded slave, then I'll get the Oscar.”
It’s always hard to walk a line with the Academy Awards: play too much to the live audience, and the show can come off as excessively self-regarding, play too much to the folks at home and you risk a lot of dead air in the auditorium. But if Murphy can find a place where both audiences agree the Hollywood establishment deserves to be critiqued, he could provide a valuable and amusing service by tweaking the Academy.
But no matter the temptation, Murphy should probably forego Whoopi Goldberg as an inspiration, or at least her broad repertoire of impersonations. Murphy’s done his career and American comedy nothing but disservice when he’s tried to turn completely into someone else. Murphy on his own is perceptive and funny enough.