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MOVIES : Eddie Murphy, Straight Up : Been wondering where he’s been for a while? Well, he’s made it through his “weird period” and looking for the right way back

<i> Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

What you have to remember is that he’s been around so long, he’s gone and come back. As his friend Robert Townsend says, “He was box-office magic out of high school.” As he says himself: “It got too easy. I’d just come out on stage and they’d start laughing.”

It may have been easy, but you don’t go from zero to $2 billion without a little downside, even if you are Eddie Murphy, and in the late 1980s, his decade of screaming success, he started to top out. Now, at 31, an age when most folks are just getting rolling, Eddie Murphy is starting over--with a a new studio deal, a new film, “Boomerang” (which opens Wednesday), and a new image.

Approach his hotel suite, and even with the door shut you can hear him in there, stroking the keyboard, crooning to his staff, honing his new act. Open the door, and in the middle of the sun-drenched suite, he sits at the baby grand, moving in that slow, achy way he mimicked Stevie Wonder on “Saturday Night Live.”

Except he’s not joking now. He’s serious. So serious, he stops playing, startled by the interruption. His manager, an expensive suit with the studiously attentive manner of a good maitre d’, stiffens.

But Murphy stands, a billion-dollar homeboy roped in gold chains, his eyes hidden behind a pair of Ray-Bans. “Hi,” he says, extending his hand. His voice is a Michael Jacksonish whisper. “I’m Eddie.”

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Exactly 10 years ago, a brash, street-wise 21-year-old comic from “Saturday Night Live” stepped up to bat in the major leagues. Eddie Murphy was the hottest “SNL” star since John Belushi, a talented sketch artist whose parodies of racial stereotypes--Velvet Jones, Little Richard Simmons and Buckwheat--propelled the lacerating humor of comic Richard Pryor into a new generation. And Murphy had an ability to play that edge between polemics and entertainment--or, as Time magazine’s Richard Schickel described it, “between the need to ingratiate himself with the predominantly white mass audience and, at the same time, to tell it hard truths. He was a performer running risks with his audience.”

And Murphy’s first feature film, “48 HRS.,” a black-white buddy movie co-starring Nick Nolte that was a sleeper hit in the summer of 1982, proved that those risks would pay off big. He made a film a year for the next five years: “Trading Places,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “The Golden Child,” “Beverly Hills Cops II” and “Coming to America” collectively earned $1 billion-plus in worldwide grosses. And that wasn’t counting his two comedy albums, an HBO special, the concert film “Raw” and two pop albums.

Paramount signed him to an exclusive multi-picture deal--a sinecure for one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars and the only African-American actor able to open a film in the ‘80s.

“Eddie is out for Eddie, but he is loved because of his arrogance, his guts and his balls,” Townsend says. “There are not a lot of African-Americans who speak their minds, and Eddie dared not to be liked. And he is the only one to break away, the only one whose movies break $100 million, the only one whose audience is almost everybody.”

But by 1987, Murphy seemed to be slipping, not only at the box office but in the public eye. Although neither “Harlem Nights” nor “Another 48 HRS.” lost money, both earned lacerating reviews, failed to win crucial crossover audiences and performed well below expectations. And he was hit with a number of legal claims: a paternity suit in 1987; a sexual harassment charge two years later; a suit from his former manager that claimed a percentage of Murphy’s earnings. In one of the most publicized legal cases in Hollywood’s history, Art Buchwald’s breach of contract suit against Paramount challenged the authorship of “Coming to America,” a story that was credited to Murphy.

Although he was not named as a defendant in the Buchwald suit, and none of these events knocked him as Paramount’s Mr. Money, the trouble raised, for the first time, the possibility that Murphy’s excoriating humor had its roots in some very real anger. Indeed, the comedian’s street-smart brand of comedy began to suffer as the Zeitgeist shifted. The misogynistic and gay-baiting jokes he used in his stage performances and the concert film, “Raw,” were derided as out-of-step with such contemporary social issues as AIDS and sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, the advent of Spike Lee and a new generation of black American directors making openly polemical films began to increase Hollywood’s political ante. And some members of the black community, most notably Lee, criticized Murphy, the most powerful black American working in Hollywood, as unwilling to help other black artists.

He was perceived as bored, self-satisfied and dangerously close to self-parody. He retreated to Bubble Hill, his $3.5-million Xanadu in New Jersey. To Paramount’s embarrassment, its prime box-office star made no film last year, “a cardinal sin,” according to Paramount Pictures Chairman Brandon Tartikoff.

According to Murphy, he was recovering “from that really weird period . . . lawsuits, accusations, craziness, Art Buchwald and all that other weirdness in my life . . . who’s hot and who’s not and (criticisms that) I’m an asshole with bodyguards. The whole decade came to a head and I had to clean up all the bad stuff, get everything back on track.”

Now, as Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg puts it, “Eddie’s never been as productive as he’s been in the last six months.” The lawsuits have been settled, he has a new, lucrative deal at Paramount, and a fresh slate of projects. This year will see the release of a new record album, “Love’s Alright,” and two films--"Boomerang,” the first of his four-picture Paramount deal, and later this winter, Disney’s “The Distinguished Gentleman,” a political comedy that features Murphy as a con man elected to Congress.

With the renegotiated Paramount deal, Murphy is sitting on one of the biggest piles of cash around. Made within weeks of Tartikoff’s arrival at Paramount last spring, his contract guarantees Murphy four films and an average of $12 million per picture.

If Paramount is duly tending to its “most important account,” as Tartikoff puts it, the deal is nonetheless a somewhat risky gamble that Murphy’s career will re-accelerate. Television-bred comics traditionally have fluky film careers, particularly when they try to remake themselves into serious actors. Certainly, Murphy would not be the first “SNL” alumnus to come out swinging, only to fade in the stretch--Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase have all stumbled. Yet few stars have the kind of studio backing, or the financial track record, that Murphy has and Paramount, for now, is betting that “Eddie will have the kind of career where he matures before our eyes,” Tartikoff says.

The first test of that premise opens nationwide this week--"Boomerang,” a $40-million romantic comedy that features an all-black cast, including David Allen Grier, Robin Givens, Eartha Kitt, Grace Jones, and stars Murphy as a wealthy, womanizing yuppie executive. Directed by Reginald Hudlin and co-produced by Warrington Hudlin, creators of the low-budget comedy “House Party,” “Boomerang” pushes Murphy away from his traditional persona as the street-smart, wisecracking rogue into warm, cuddly territory as a sexy leading man. If Murphy’s off-screen behavior during the film’s production was reported by Variety to be temperamental and demanding, the star appears in the film’s print ads--sans gun, sans sidekick and wearing a bow tie--looking suave and unthreatening.

“We’re calling this our Cary Grant picture,” says Tartikoff, acknowledging the film’s genre but dismissing any suggestion that it marks a calculated attempt to remake Murphy’s screen image. “This is Eddie back to being Eddie--funny, smart, hip. But it does mark a greater sensitivity (in his roles).”

As he sits in the gilded wood and leather armchair where he has moved from the piano, his feet in black espadrilles akimbo on the coffee table, an open bottle of juice in his hand, Murphy’s look is not so much sensitive as superstar-opaque. His leather has been replaced with a more au courant street outfit--diamond and gold Rolex, chunky diamond rings, gold chains, black T-shirt, black jeans, black baseball cap with the brim requisitely turned up. He speaks softly, too softly from behind those Ray-Bans. “Do these bother you?” he asks, not moving a muscle. When he does move, shifting slightly in his chair, he rattles delicately from the chains at his neck and his wrist.

Publicly, Murphy has undergone some significant spin control. No longer preaching his Pryor-esque gospel, he beams from the cover of Essence magazine, robed in white, holding his 2-year-old daughter, Bria, aloft, a born-again father. He has another child due in September. He may even get married. On this afternoon, his lines might have been scripted by Rod McKuen: “Success is in your mind, it has nothing to do with what’s in the bank”; “my agenda is to make people happy”; “it’s a spiritual law that good always prevails over evil.”

Renowned for his paranoia with the press, Murphy’s happy-talk answers to questions about his career, his personal life and his retooled image, suggests, however, not so much heartfelt changes, although he may have undergone some, but a business-as-usual savvy. If the tenor of the times demand a politically correct and user-friendly star, Murphy is happy to oblige, even reaching back for a bit of revisionist doctoring of the past.

Racism in Hollywood? “You can’t break it down to Hollywood,” says Murphy, who accused the film industry of racist practices during the 1987 Oscar telecast. “I don’t remember a time when black people in America were happy, when the economy was great. . . . I can’t get caught up in that.”

“I was a child,” he says, explaining away his old habits of haranguing women, homosexuals, Bill Cosby from the stage, while complaining about money, racism and Hollywood offstage. “What you saw was an artist growing up; a kid going through stages. Did you believe all that? People say they saw ‘Raw.’ ‘Raw’! I can’t even remember it. I would probably like it even less than the chicks who were offended by it.”

Indeed, Murphy’s new mantra, “I am an artist,” suggests an expansiveness, an egotism of someone who knows he holds all the high cards, that whatever verdict audiences may ultimately deliver, Eddie Murphy is a fixed star, impervious to sociological and cultural shifts.

The new generation of black American filmmakers? “Doesn’t affect me. That’s like saying that a new band will affect the Rolling Stones.”

Even the recent riots in the wake of the Rodney G. King verdict don’t suggest a need for a change. “These are serious times, but an artist has to stay true to himself as an artist. That is the only obligation he has--to his art. And if you are focused on that, it will touch people.”

“I’m an artist,” he says again. “God created talented people and it’s people that put labels on them. I’m not trying to reach an audience, I’m trying to express myself.”

He pauses, plucks his sunglasses from his eyes. “But I don’t want anybody reading this article going, ‘Oh, the fire’s gone.’ I’ve settled down, but I’m still on the edge.”

Robert Townsend remembers when the two stand-up comedians worked small comedy clubs in New York in the late 1970s. Murphy was just out of high school, the ultimate class clown who held daylong assemblies for his classmates where he honed his routines. “Both of us did Bill Cosby impressions,” recalls Townsend. “He came up to me one day and said, ‘I hear you do Cosby. Do yours.’ It was sort of a dueling thing.”

Indeed, several observers say that as Murphy heads into his second decade, that it still comes down to a dueling thing.

Brian Grazer, co-producer of “Boomerang”: “Eddie wants to win at big things. He has a genius mind, a cutting-edge mind and he wants to be ahead of everyone else.”

Paramount’s Tartikoff: “I don’t have the feeling he wants to play ‘Othello.’ Eddie wants what we want--to make movies that make $100 million.”

Disney’s Katzenberg: “It’s been difficult for him during the past couple of years, but now he’s never been in better form. He’s as versatile and as talented a comedic actor working.”

Indeed, Murphy himself concedes that his sabbatical was due, among other factors, to wounded pride. “I had made (“Another 48 HRS.”) and I was depressed at how I looked in that film. I was fat and then an article I read in Time magazine said I was on the fast lane to ex-stardom. That really went to the bone more than being fat. I knew I was unhappy but if someone else could tell that I was unhappy, I decided I had to stop until I found something that I was passionate about.”

That something was “Boomerang,” a role-reversal romantic comedy that features Murphy as an advertising executive at a black cosmetics firm who gets his emotional comeuppance at the hands of his female colleagues, played by Robin Givens and Halle Berry.

“My sexual iconography is a love ‘em and leave ‘em guy in a leather suit and with an entourage,” says Murphy, tucking his chin and laughing that heh-heh that has become his signature. “So I was thinking of pressing some buttons with this film. And this story is very universal. Who hasn’t been in a relationship that hasn’t worked out? It has nothing to do with being black. That’s what’s cool about it. This is a movie about blacks that has nothing to do with being black. It just so happens I’m the first person to be in a position to make a movie like this.”

Being in a position to make the film, however, required a coming to terms with Paramount, a studio that had been increasingly at loggerheads with its prime box-office star. After the disappointments of “Harlem Nights” and “Another 48 HRS.,” studio executives dragged their feet on any new projects emanating from Eddie Murphy Productions.

“What happened was a lot of the studio heads got wrapped up with charts and graphs and demographics and who is responding to what,” says Murphy. “And on ‘Harlem Nights’ and ‘Another 48 HRS.,’ the test results came back that white people didn’t turn out like they had before, which is bull, because nobody goes to see an Eddie Murphy movie like ‘Oh, Eddie Murphy, let’s go see him, he’s a funny black man.’ No, you go see Eddie Murphy because he’s funny. Race has nothing to do with it. The reasons those movies didn’t do well was because they weren’t as good, plain and simple.”

He insists that his disputes with the studio were “nothing personal. Paramount was just disorganized and the development department was really disorganized,” he says. “Sitting around waiting on a script became a drag. You know, ‘You’re a comedian, so you’re supposed to do only one thing.’ And then you got the whole black thing, so you’re responsible for a whole other thing. It was frustrating to see other actors just show up and shoot and I was supposed to be carrying a picket sign? I just want to get some laughs.” Paramount Communications President Stanley Jaffe let Murphy temporarily out of his contract, agreeing to let him make one film at another studio.

“Then began the great search when Eddie talked to every studio,” recalls Disney’s Katzenberg, who had first worked with Murphy on “48 HRS.” “That he ended up with us (agreeing to make “The Distinguished Gentleman”) was more luck than anything.”

Although Murphy insists that he was not seeking to refashion his own persona--"I never trip on my public image"--he was looking for a respite from his Axel Foley/Reggie Hammond persona. “I was anxious to do something different,” he says. “Because all I had been doing was the same old thing--this fast-talking guy with a gun in his hand. Playing the rebel, that’s like an ingredient. It’s Eddie Murphy being entertaining and that’s not the only way Eddie Murphy can be entertaining. You grow out of that, you go onto something else and in film you can try anything.”

However, early reports from the set of “The Distinguished Gentleman” suggest that Murphy is repeating his cagey Axel Foley persona in the Disney film. “Eddie plays a hustler and a scoundrel who plays in the ultimate scoundrel’s game--Washington, D.C., while calling it like it is. There is nothing funnier,” Katzenberg says. “He took us into the world of Beverly Hills and showed us the eccentricity and myths of a very closed society. He does the same thing with Washington.”

But a desire to throw a change-up pitch propelled Murphy’s interest in playing marketing executive Marcus Graham in “Boomerang.” Paramount executives, however, resisted turning Murphy into a yuppified sex symbol, particularly one who was surrounded only by other black actors. “That was an unnecessary risk that made Paramount slightly uncomfortable,” says one observer close to “Boomerang.”

“I’ll never forget that meeting we had with (former Paramount executive) David Kirkpatrick,” says co-producer Warrington Hudlin. ‘He kept throwing out the idea of having a white sidekick in the film and Eddie said ‘No.’ (Kirkpatrick) tried coming at it another way, but Eddie said, ‘I said ‘No.’ ”

Director Reginald Hudlin adds that “Eddie and I agreed that there should not be a thought given to having any white buddies in this. It is frustrating to have to reinvent the wheel, to prove time and again that an all-black cast does not marginalize a film when it is true to the story.”

It was not until Tartikoff, who had known Murphy from his days at NBC, arrived at Paramount in May, 1991, and actively began renegotiating Murphy’s contract, that “Boomerang” received a green light. “Brandon got his job and we had our deal in a hour,” co-producer Grazer says.

Murphy, who once insisted he would go “wherever they paid me the most,” maintains that his new Paramount contract “isn’t just about the money; that’s the talk of somebody who doesn’t have any money. All the people I had had trouble with there were leaving so it was like getting a whole new studio and I knew that Brandon wouldn’t bull---- me.”

Tartikoff recognized the need to balance Murphy’s desire “to go into new territory,” with an audience looking for “a lot of the old Eddie.” “Boomerang” will be followed next year by “Beverly Hills Cop III” and, then, in a nod to serious drama, Murphy will star in the film version of “Fences,” August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play that may be directed by John Singleton. After that, he will play a Dracula-like character in an untitled vampire film he is developing through his production company.

“We are talking about a star who crosses racial lines,” Tartikoff says. “If this first film (“Boomerang”) has a target black audience, the way ‘Wayne’s World’ had a targeted teen-age audience, then I guess I have to look at my own rolls of the dice in the past, like with (NBC’s) ‘The Cosby Show,’ which everyone initially said, ‘Who’d watch that?’ ”

Indeed, Murphy’s Marcus Graham, with his Italian suits, loft apartment and a mean recipe for salmon with fresh rosemary, would not be out of place on “The Cosby Show.” Murphy and the Hudlins maintain that the upper-middle-class milieu of “Boomerang,” like the setting of the top-rated “Cosby,” is both an enticement to white audiences as well as something of a political statement.

“Boomerang” was filmed by a crew using 50% minority personnel. In addition, Paramount funded 10 internships for young African-American filmmakers.

“ ‘Boomerang’ is a very political film,” Murphy adds. “Because it is black and yet it’s about nothing to do with being black and it cost $40 million. So if it’s successful, then it will prove that you can do (mainstream) movies about blacks that are not just set in the ‘hood. Those movies are good but if that’s all we did--if every time a movie came out and it was ‘Hey man, it’s going down'--then we’d be right back into black exploitation films again.”

Murphy received some negative press for lateness and no-shows during the film’s shooting schedule in Atlanta, accusations that even Murphy concedes are accurate and that some observers attribute to boredom and a desire on the star’s part to distance himself from the film’s less-experienced director.

“Was I late? Yes, I was,” says Murphy, who attributes his behavior to scheduling conflicts with his record album. “If you’re flying to Europe on a weekend to tape Paul McCartney’s voice, so that I’m 20 minutes late (to the film set), ultimately it doesn’t mean anything.”

It is much the same insouciant attitude he brings toward larger shifts in Hollywood--namely the advent of black American filmmakers. While praising such actors as Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes (“They should be blowing rockets off Wesley, he can do anything”) and director John Singleton (“He’s amazingly talented, freakish for someone at his age”), Murphy resists any change to his own agenda. “I don’t think you have to make your political beliefs public,” he says. “No one else has to do that.” When asked if Spike Lee has co-opted the moral high ground in Hollywood, Murphy disagrees. “Spike has only set an agenda for Spike.”

As for co-financing an “Eddie Murphy film directed by Spike Lee,” as the director once suggested as a way of creating an economic power base for black Americans working in Hollywood, Murphy is almost derisive. “Great idea as soon as Spike can match me dollar for dollar. Yeah, ‘You bring the money and I’ll bring the credibility ‘cause I’m Spike and all, even though your movies made 2 billion.’ Get out of here.”

As if anxious to return to his more amiable public self, Murphy fiddles for a moment with the charm bracelet dangling from his left wrist. “This? I got it in Switzerland with Quincy Jones,” he says fingering the tiny diamond-encrusted “B” and “N” dangling from the chain, initials that stand for his daughter, Bria, and her mother, Nicole Miller, who live with Murphy in his New Jersey house, “about 60% of the time,” he says without elaborating. The couple are expecting their second child in September.

“My agenda over the next several months is to do this picture (“The Distinguished Gentleman”) and then hopefully ‘Fences’ and then (the vampire film) and then I’m going on tour with a combination of my record album and my stand-up routines,” he says.

It is telling that Murphy, on the verge of his second decade as a film star, talks about returning to his beginnings as comedian. “It’s the purest,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “You and a microphone and a stage in the spotlight. I can fill up a room that anybody can fill up, Michael Jackson, the Forum. No overhead, no sets, me talking for two hours and I can get the same audience reaction as a band. That’s all you need, me talking. ‘Can you hear me? OK, I got something to say.’ ”


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