Published November 03 2011
Morast: I’m not crazy, Eddie Murphy is a great actor
I don’t wear underwear outside my clothing.
I don’t hear the voices of dead celebrities whispering the secrets of cold fusion.
And I don’t believe my television is trying to murder me.
But there are times – business meetings, social functions – when it feels like everyone in the room is looking my way, trying to diagnose a mental illness. This is usually after I’ve expressed various beliefs about popular culture that run against the current of conventional thought.
A few examples of my “craziness”:
- The Beatles are the most overrated band in the history of popular music.
- Kanye West is a genius and one of the most important artists of this time.
- And Eddie Murphy is a great actor.
These aren’t statements born from a desire to be different or ironic; I say what I believe. It’s when people learn that truth the crazy looks come my way.
And while any ill perspective about The Beatles is met with cries of “sacrilege,” the bit about Murphy might conjure the most earnest assessments of my mental aptitude; that happens when we’re talking about a guy who once smoked cigars in a Gumby costume and whose string of kid-friendly films have given him the reputation of an artistic pariah.
But trust me when I tell you Murphy is a great actor, possessing skill on par with Johnny Depp or Denzel Washington – who I think is so overrated. Just check out Murphy’s work in one of his most derided films of all time, “Norbit.”
The 2007 flick is another Murphy vehicle that features the actor playing multiple roles in costume, and with varying degrees of ethnicity. In it Murphy plays a sad-sack loser, the domineering woman he married and the owner of a Chinese restaurant. The plot: The loser wants to find the nerve to leave his abusive wife and marry the girl of his dreams.
Ignore the movie as a whole; it’s not good. Murphy, however, is phenomenal in it. People rip on him for abusing Chinese stereotypes or over-exaggerating the affectations of African-American women, but they don’t talk about how he performed these roles so well he was able to transcend caricatures. And they don’t talk about his “serious” acting in the movie.
Study his work as the title character and you see a mastery of acting nuances that most actors can’t control. Murphy makes you sympathetic for Norbit and his breaking heart by simply adjusting his facial gestures and transmitting feelings through his eyes. This is the kind of stuff Depp is praised for, but Murphy does it in a nerd outfit and it’s ridiculed.
That’s why I’m focusing on “Norbit” – rather than Murphy’s Oscar-nominated turn in “Dreamgirls” – to prove a point, because Murphy is a classic case of an actor plagued by his material.
Had he followed his early career arc of hit comedy/action films with serious roles – think Jamie Foxx’s transition to “Ray” and “Collateral” – you wouldn’t be reading this column. But because he played over-the-top characters in over-the-top movies like “The Nutty Professor” and “Dr. Dolittle” we ignore him as an actor with serious skill.
Perhaps his work in “Tower Heist” will begin to change that. I hope so, because I’m tired of being typecast as a crazy man.
Readers can reach Forum Features Editor Robert Morast at (701) 241-5518