How Eddie Murphy slayed the 1980s

Bookended by his acting debut and his first film as director, the 1980s saw the meteoric ascent of Eddie Murphy from standup comedy to the front rank of Hollywood movie stars. 

Lou Thomas
Updated:

Coming to America (1988)

Coming to America (1988)

When Eddie Murphy got famous, it happened with the sureness and speed of one of his lightning standup routines. He was only 19 when he rang Saturday Night Live talent coordinator Neil Levy to plead for a slot on the TV show that has created more comedy superstars than any other. That was September 1980. A mere 20 months later, he would be shooting his first film, 48 Hrs, and sharing the lead with Nick Nolte.

But perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised that Murphy’s prodigious talent would send him to the heights of global cinematic stardom. After all, the supremely confident SNL cast member had been telling school classmates he would be famous, before deciding he would be a comedian, aged 15, after hearing a Richard Pryor live album.

Murphy has made a few brilliant films since the peak of his popularity – Bowfinger (1999) and Shrek (2001) in particular – but the hugely influential Brooklyn-born comic made the 80s his own.

First forays

Director Walter Hill initially wanted Pryor to take the part of the black jailbird who buddies up with Nick Nolte’s racist, white San Francisco cop Jack Cates in 48 Hrs. Fortunately Pryor’s unavailability gave Murphy his chance and the Hollywood firmament instantly became a brighter, bolder place.

From the moment we hear Murphy, before we see him, joyfully singing The Police’s ‘Roxanne’ at top volume from his prison cell, it’s clear we’re in for some fun. And so it goes. At the heart of this immensely quotable film is the Murphy/Nolte relationship. Their interaction is a riot of insults, tension and pulled guns, while the duo’s inevitable fistfight is just the right combination of brutality and hilarity, only just bettered by the film’s standout scene, in which Murphy causes havoc in a redneck bar before dominating its patrons. The latter scene perfectly epitomises Murphy’s overall performance: it’s funny, profane and absolutely takes no prisoners.

Trading Places (1983)

Trading Places (1983)

With a winning formula quickly established, it was clear that Trading Places would become a sophomore hit for Murphy when it landed at the US box office in June 1983. Murphy again co-leads alongside a self-regarding white male (Dan Ackroyd, brilliantly smug) who becomes his friend, and once again there’s winning chemistry and much amusement to be had with the friction between the pair. If the film’s blacking up, gratuitous female nudity and occasionally homophobic dialogue date proceedings somewhat, there doesn’t appear to be malice in John Landis’s hilarious reworking of The Prince and the Pauper – even if it does look sketchy by modern standards. Sharing the screen with a host of greats, including Denholm Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis, Murphy’s performance, which includes a fine prison cell karate scene and perhaps the best look-to-camera in 80s cinema, was Golden Globe-nominated.

Trading Places would become the fourth biggest grossing film of 1983, but Murphy would also make waves on the small screen for HBO. His Delirious standup show received widespread public and critical acclaim when it screened in August, while its LP release won the best comedy album prize at the following year’s Grammy Awards. Murphy holds nothing back, with people of all genders, races and sexualities coming in for harsh treatment. As with his comedic progenitor Pryor, no one is safe.

Mid-decade perfection and more

As 1984 rolled around, it became clear that another co-lead wouldn’t be enough for Murphy. He was paid $1m for a week’s shooting as a “strategic guest star” on the egregious Dudley Moore vehicle Best Defense. If his presence now seems as if he was parachuted in to lend some credibility to a frankly whiffy feature that’s because this was exactly the case. The film suffered ignominy at the box office and is largely forgotten by audiences.

Meanwhile, Dan Ackroyd had written the Winston Zeddemore part in Ghostbusters (1984) with Murphy in mind after the pair hit it off making Trading Places. Murphy declined in order to take the role in Beverly Hills Cop, while Ernie Hudson ended up playing Zeddemore, albeit in a much smaller part than Murphy would have had.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984) poster

As it transpired, this worked out well for Murphy. Streetwise Detroit cop Axel Foley was his first lead role and remains his most famous character; Beverly Hills Cop may even be his best film. It’s a fine fish-out-of-water romp full of ace wisecracks, incompetent and uptight Cali cops (John Ashton and Judge Reinhold) and a sleek, none-more-80s synth score from Harold FaltermeyerSteven Berkoff is on fine form as a nefarious art gallery owner, and Gilbert R. Hill’s Inspector Todd may just be the best angry cop on the big screen. His incandescent locker room exchange with Foley and the more circumspect scene where he orders the latter to attend the hospital make the film worth watching by themselves.

Released in December, Beverly Hills Cop would become the highest grossing film of 1984. Ghostbusters grabbed second spot.

In The Golden Child (1986), a curious blend of comedy, action and Chinese mysticism, originally due to be shot by John Carpenter, Murphy retains his usual charisma and wisecracking ability and has another top-class Brit baddie to deal with: Charles Dance. The writer of this piece has a soft spot for the film, being the first movie he saw at the cinema, but admittedly Murphy had finer hours. As would Carpenter, who jumped ship for the similarly themed but higher quality Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

Sequels, power and pushing yourself

Murphy began to slowly push himself a bit harder in 1987. The release of Beverly Hills Cop II, his first sequel, also saw him share a story credit – the start of Murphy’s increasing power behind the camera. The film itself is big, dumb and largely unnecessary, lacking the originality or wit of its predecessor, but it does at least contain a few moments of greatness from returning support actors Gilbert R. Hill, Judge Reinhold and Ronny Cox.

The year would end with Raw, another Murphy standup film, delighting critics and doing brisk business at the box office. It’s still the biggest grossing standup film to have been released on the big screen.

Coming to America (1988) saw Murphy use his production company to hire Trading Places director John Landis, after the latter had a string of flops (the pair reputedly fell out on set, but would reunite on Beverly Hills Cop III in 1994). This time, aside from having the power to choose his director, Murphy had a full story credit, played the lead and three other roles. Although the film is a bit too schmaltzy for its own good, there are still many belly laughs to be had in the hilarious antics of a fictional African prince who journeys to Queens, New York, to find a bride.

The largely black support is also packed to the gills with top actors and about-to-be-superstars, with James Earl JonesMadge SinclairArsenio Hall, Eriq La Salle and Samuel L. Jackson all providing memorable support. Beyond that, there are moments of invention as good as anything in Murphy’s career: the Soul Glo commercial (sung by Murphy, obvs) and Randy Watson’s performance with his band Sexual Chocolate in particular.

Harlem Nights (1989)

Harlem Nights (1989)

Murphy rounded off his globe-conquering decade of stardom with a mixed achievement: his directorial debut. Period 1930s gangster piece Harlem Nights (1989) is not a great film by any standards. It lacks the inspiration of Murphy’s best films and standup routines, relying on a sledgehammer wit that pays off only sporadically. But there are plenty of positives. The opening scene sees club owner Sugar Ray (an excellent Richard Pryor) avoid a stabbing from an angry customer when a young errand boy shoots him dead. It’s tremendous. The palpable tension in the room is one thing, but Pryor’s mocking of the customer makes you wish the whole film could have been as funny. Jazz singer Della Reese is also on fine form in support, and there’s much to be admired about a filmmaker who writes, stars and directs and is so clearly keen to push black cinema on.

He hasn’t had another decade like the 80s, but for the few films that really sparkled, and the way he tried to take control of his work for the better of himself and his peers, Eddie Murphy should be applauded.

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