The absence of a grin. For over two decades, the world has
become accustomed to Eddie Murphy's comedy acting, his fast-talking,
electrifying humor and portrayals. The worldwide box-office king of
the 1980's faded away in the mid 1990's, yet has always been on the radar.
Off screen he has been through the
ups and downs of life, the same as anyone else, but on screen in Bill
Condon's "Dreamgirls" which opens on Friday, December 15, Murphy's role as
James "Thunder" Early is as palpable, sympathetic and real as the superstar
actor's comedy is hilarious and side-splitting. Modeled after James
Brown, one of Mr. Murphy's idols, James "Thunder" Early is a mix of
unpredictability, charm, desperation and humor. Though there is a
somber side to Early, the lead singer who fronts the Dreams early on in "Dreamgirls",
there are traces of the comic hi-jinks that many "Saturday Night Live" Eddie
Murphy fans will instantly come to recognize.
If James Early is any indication,
Eddie Murphy could well be on the nominees list for an Academy Award in
January. The Academy has by now presumably forgiven Mr. Murphy for
saying many years ago that "for too long black people have been riding in
the caboose" when it came to winning an Oscar. The statement was made
on an Oscars telecast during the late 1980's -- and at that time Murphy
received both a lot of criticism for making the remarks, and no further
invitations to the Academy ever since -- even though Lou Gossett, Jr.,
Sidney Poitier, and Hattie McDaniel, listed here in reverse chronological
order -- were the only three blacks that had won Oscars in more than 50-plus
years of Academy Awards history.
With performances as stunningly good
as the one that Mr. Murphy gives in "Dreamgirls" there is every expectation
that he could be receiving a call early on the morning of January 23, 2007.
In a sense, it is the kind of performance that audiences have been waiting
to see for a long time. There's a brooding intensity, a deep core
within Early that we see being rattled on screen, in little more than a
look, a glance, a stare. Murphy plays this character very quietly, but
Early's feelings come across profoundly during the film.
The normally reclusive
Murphy is quoted in the film's production information notes as saying of his
character: "Jimmy is perpetually on the edge of getting some national
exposure, playing the cities." Still, it is a struggle for Early.
"Everyone loves him because he's really one of a kind. He just can't
seem to break through, but he is an R&B originator, bringing the sound that
white kids could dance to -- like James Brown, Chuck Berry, Little Richard.
While the country was still segregated, they were bridging the world of
music, bringing 'black' sound to 'white' America. It wasn't until
later that these performers realized just how much they accomplished."
Instrumental in the tone of Eddie's
character James Early was the film's director Bill Condon. Condon
inserted a gap between Mr. Murphy's teeth so as to mute his grin, in effect
remove it from him completely. Condon, who had Murphy in mind to play
Early from the very beginning, admitted that "I never thought we could
actually get him, but like me, Eddie had seen the original 'Dreamgirls'
[Broadway musical] over and over. And he loved the challenge of doing
something that doesn't even remotely connect to anything he's done before.
This is a role you've never seen him play. He's not hiding behind any
prosthetic or mask. It's Eddie Murphy, but playing this character who
is really somebody very separate." Jamie Foxx says, "Eddie's the type
of guy that can really do it all."
Eddie Murphy has the ability to turn his
character on and off like a light switch. The reports on the set of "Dreamgirls"
was that he would show up and be surprised to do something that he hadn't
expected that the day's shoot had called for -- but once he did it -- he
nailed it. Sometimes, according to Jennifer Hudson, Mr. Murphy would
be so quiet, and then all of a sudden, "out of nowhere, you're saying,
'who's that guy, and where did he come from?'"
In the role of James Early, Eddie
Murphy strikes like lightning . . . and Thunder.
-- Omar P.L. Moore
"Jimmy's got soul, Jimmy's got soul,
Jimmy's got S-O-U-L -- SOUL!!!"
(Photos: David James/Paramount Pictures)
originally published on December 12, 2006