Eddie Murphy to host Oscars and I’m not delirious about it

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It’s hard to get excited about Tuesday’s news that Eddie Murphy will host the 2012 Academy Awards, because — how do I put this as respectfully as possible? — his last three live-action movies have been embarrassingly schlocky stinkers. Maybe Oscar producer Brett Ratner thinks he has an ace up his sleeve. Or maybe he just likes hiring his pals; Murphy is, after all, the star of Ratner’s upcoming thriller, “Tower Heist.”

It’s hard to think of a comedian with a career that is more in eclipse than Murphy. After a meteoric rise to stardom, first on “Saturday Night Live,” then in a string of hit films including “48 Hrs.,” “Coming to America,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “The Nutty Professor,” Murphy has aimed low, and even then often missed, be it with lightweight hits like “Daddy Day Care” or with disasters like “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.”


Murphy has now made three consecutive critical duds: 2007’s “Norbit,” which was a commercial hit but was greeted with derisive reviews, then “Meet Dave” in 2008 and “Imagine That” in 2009, both losers at the box office. Murphy has another film, “A Thousand Words,” which was filmed in summer 2008 but was such a troubled production that it has sat for years; it will finally see a release early in 2012. All he’s had going for him is the animated “Shrek” franchise, where he voices the role of a motor-mouthed donkey.

It’s great to have an African American Oscar host again — the last was in 2005, when Chris Rock tried to bring a little razor-edged humor to the show. Murphy, though, is such an inside-the-Beltway showbiz creature by now that it’s hard to imagine anything shocking or subversive coming out of his mouth.

The last time Murphy showed any of his old live-wire ambition was in 2006 with “Dreamgirls,” where he turned in a dazzling performance and earned himself a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Of course, Murphy, who is infamous in Hollywood for his half-hearted work ethic and sense of entitlement, managed to embarrass himself when he left the Oscar ceremony in a huff immediately after losing to Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”). Murphy didn’t even have the class to stick around and watch his “Dreamgirls” costar Jennifer Hudson win an Oscar of her own.

In the old days, that kind of self-centered head trip would land you in Oscar jail. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is clearly desperate to put on a glitzy show next Feb. 26 in the hopes of wooing viewers that have been tuning out the Oscars with depressing frequency.

To understand the choice of Murphy as host, it’s worth recounting the rationale behind hiring Ratner — director of such populist movies as “Rush Hour” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” — as producer of the Oscar show (along with Don Mischer).

Ratner is seen by the academy brass as someone who knows what’s cool but appreciates old-school showbiz. I’ve known Ratner, 42, since he first came to Hollywood and he has an undeniably high regard for throwback figures like Dino De Laurentiis, Warren Beatty and Robert Evans (who lived at Ratner’s house after Evans’ own home was badly damaged in a fire). At the same time, Ratner also has a well-established affinity for cutting-edge pop culture, going back to his student days at New York University when he was an early initiate in Russell Simmons’ hip-hop rat pack.

Then there’s the diversity issue. This past season, there were no Oscar nominations for any minorities in the major acting, writing or directing categories — a point of embarrassment for the academy. Ratner is white but has a track record of giving great parts to black actors like Chris Tucker and Don Cheadle, and has a kinship with African Americans in his personal life as well, where his gal pals have included Naomi Campbell and Serena Williams. So his selection might be seen as a shrewd way to make the show (if not the actual nominations) more multicultural.

Finally, there’s Ratner’s knack for attracting top-notch talent. Even though he didn’t make a movie for several years after 2007’s costly “Rush Hour 3” (largely because of studio executives’ worries that he lacks focus and work ethic), he made sense as an Oscar producer because the job’s top priority is attracting star wattage. Even when he made a forgettable thriller like 2002’s “Red Dragon,” Ratner managed to assemble a team of first-class actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel and Mary-Louise Parker.

If Ratner could simply land half of the actors who’ve appeared in his films as presenters, he’d earn his keep. But I find it hard to imagine rank ’n’ file moviegoers being particularly revved up about the idea of a show anchored by Murphy, who feels like a relic from another age.

In the official academy announcement Tuesday, Ratner called Murphy a “comedic genius,” saying he was “one of the greatest and most influential live performers ever.” He said Murphy will “bring excitement, spontaneity and tremendous heart to the show.”

There’s only one problem. Today’s comic geniuses are Ben Stiller, Zach Galifianakis and Seth Rogen, not Murphy, who hasn’t lived up to that billing, live or on screen, in far too many years.

Ratner clearly has an old-school reverence for Murphy, whom he almost joined forces with several years back on a reboot of the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise. But knowing Ratner’s cultural roots, the Murphy he really loves — the R-rated bad boy from “48 Hrs.” and “Eddie Murphy Raw” — isn’t the guy we’d ever get to see at the Oscars, a show so steeped in PG-style schmaltz and decorum that Rock was never asked back after he brought a little too much irreverence to the proceedings.

Of course, it would be great to see Murphy show up at the Oscars, lean and hungry and eager to blow us away. Maybe he’ll be like a modern-day version of Elvis Presley, who staged a startling comeback in a legendary 1968 NBC TV special after languishing for years in Hollywood, making the same kind of dreadful movies Murphy has made recently.

Stranger things have happened. But the odds are slim. It’s hard to know just what you’ve got until it’s gone, and with comedians like Murphy, once the killer instinct is gone, it ain’t coming back.


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--Patrick Goldstein