Damn – now we don’t get to spend Oscar night wondering why Eddie Murphy didn’t show up. Murphy abruptly announced on Wednesday that he’s refusing to host the Academy Awards, surprising at least several dozen people who got the name wrong and thought it was breaking news about Eddie Money. But it raises the question: who really believed Murphy would go through with hosting the Oscars?
Most of an award-show host’s job is showing up and keeping a cool head and soldiering through it, whether it’s the Oscars or the Hallmark Channel’s Hero Dog Awards. (Take a bow, Carson Kressley!) It’s not a gig for nervous rookies or hotheads. Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin and Chris Rock handled the pressure brilliantly; James Franco wilted like a Dorito in a thunderstorm. Billy Crystal might not be any fun on the job, but he’s reliable, making the same stupid “we’re halfway through” jokes every time like clockwork – and that’s why they keep inviting him back. (But not this year. Please, not this year. Seriously. We’d rather take Whoopi back.)
Somebody apparently thought Eddie Murphy could handle the pressure. I would love to hear their rationale. To paraphrase something baseball guru Bill James once wrote, after the Cardinals brought Joaquin Andujar into a tense game, this is like inviting Don Rickles to say a few words at a funeral. I was looking forward to the disasterosity of it all – who wasn’t? But now the tension’s off and the Oscars are guaranteed to happen on schedule without him. What a buzzkill. Consolation: They could still get Steven Tyler!
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A few years ago Murphy attended the ceremony but got so distressed when he didn’t win, he left in the middle of the show. Who else ever does that? Nobody. (Bill Murray really wanted to, though, back in 2004. You could tell he was thinking about it.) So why did they think he was capable of standing around for four hours on Oscar night, watching other people win prizes without getting one of his own? Why did they think he could stand there listening to people give tearfully joyful speeches that don’t mention him? Why were they gambling four hours of live network TV on his mood?
But where Murphy is involved, there’s always a lot of wishful thinking. That’s part of the amazing poignance of the man’s recent Rolling Stone interview with Brian Hiatt. Murphy achieved so much, so young, that he was able to build his own private world and live there forever, safely insulated from anybody who doesn’t kiss his ass, nursing his grudges in a state of Elvis-like isolation. People still love him and remember him, yet it seems to give him zero pleasure. Fans have been so starved for the Eddie presence, we briefly turned his brother Charlie into a star just for telling funny stories about him. But to him, the audience is just another nagging boss.
Like his hero Elvis, Eddie seems to crank out a dozen movies every year without really appearing in any of them. When Spike Lee interviewed him for Spin in 1990, he asked about the famous Elvis shrine Murphy kept in his house. Said Murphy, “One of the things that’s fascinating to me about Elvis Presley is that if you look at him, he looks like he’s totally in control of everything, but beneath that, he’s totally out of control. I think that’s fascinating.” No doubt he can relate.
Another thing Lee asked: “Do you read all your own reviews?” Murphy’s reply: “Uh, yes.” Even for a recluse as thin-skinned as this one – the sure sign of a comedian who came up in TV, instead of the cut-throat nightclub world – it’s remarkable how he still resents Saturday Night Live for making him a star. In the Hiatt interview, he blames the grudge on a mid-Nineties David Spade joke, but by then he was already a decade into his self-imposed exile. (All-time best Spade “Hollywood Minute” barb: “Aaaw, Ric Ocasek – why the long face?” Shameful!) The first time (of two) Eddie hosted SNL – while he was still a cast member – he announced, “Live from New York. . .it’s the Eddie Murphy Show!” And he’s the one who’s been pissed at them for 27 years.
You have to admit, for a star this famous, it’s weird that sharing a movie poster with Ben Stiller can get hailed as a career renaissance. But the devoted audience Murphy attracted in the 1980s is eager to have him do something – anything – funny again. And Murphy is eager not to be told what to do. That seems to be the story of his life. Imagine getting to a point when you’re a kid where you get to decide all the details of your adult existence, and make sure you’ll never have to take anyone’s crap, or ever get ordered around, or get stuck in a situation you don’t control. Except – this is the catch – you don’t get to change your mind once you get old. That’s the paradise-or-is-this-hell Eddie Murphy built for himself by the time he was 22. And he’s still only 50. (Can you believe he’s only four years older than Chris Rock?)
That’s why Boomerang, from 1992, will always be his most honest (and saddest) statement. It’s a lavish, expensive, often funny, insanely long rom-com with Murphy as a womanizing tycoon, bored out of his mind in his own vanity project. The huge supporting cast is there to keep telling Murphy how charming and sexy he is. He’s barely into his thirties, but he seems like everyone’s dad. Future megastars like Rock and Martin Lawrence try their damnedest not to get more laughs than their hero. (Both fail.) It’s the sad Elvis movie that Elvis never lived to make about his own life. So I guess that’s what we’ll have to watch on Oscar night, while we’re dreaming of the meltdown that coulda, shoulda and – make no mistake – woulda been.