EDDIE Murphy's on the verge of an awards season trifecta -- his charismatic portrayal of a tragic R&B; singer in "Dreamgirls" has already nabbed him a Screen Actors Guild award and a Golden Globe, and he's considered a front-runner for a best supporting Oscar.
But the most high-profile image of Murphy these days -- while Oscar ballots are still out -- is on billboards and in movie trailers wearing a fat suit, garish eye shadow and little else.
The tagline for his new comedy, "Norbit," poses the question: "Have you ever made a really big mistake?"
Some Oscar observers are questioning the timing of the movie's Friday arrival, and whether it may unintentionally put off potential academy voters, while some black activists are taking Murphy to task for engaging in what they say are demeaning racial stereotypes.
"Every time I pass that billboard, it makes me sick," said one veteran Oscar consultant, who declined to be identified and is not involved in a rival campaign. "I think his performance in 'Dreamgirls' is so fabulous" and deserves to win the Academy Award. But, he added, Murphy's latest comedy offering "doesn't help."
Award season aside, Murphy and "Norbit" are under fire from some black activists who say the film is just the latest to build a movie around a black man dressing up as an unsophisticated, overweight black woman. Adding fuel to their anger is the movie's release during Black History Month.
"For Eddie to follow what he did with 'Dreamgirls' with this just doesn't make sense," said Robert M. Entman, author of "The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America." "There's no excuse for him to lend his prestige to something like this.... There has to be a point where African American stars of his stature have to take some responsibility for their actions and just say no."
Murphy's stunning turn as James "Thunder" Early in "Dreamgirls" has earned him rave reviews and renewed respect for a performer who has had one of Hollywood's most up-and-down careers. He's had his share of hits ("48 Hrs.," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Trading Places" and the "Shrek" movies) and flops ("The Adventures of Pluto Nash," "The Haunted Mansion.")
Now, Murphy is in contention for the industry's top honors, which will be handed out Feb. 25. Ballots are due back Feb. 20.
"Norbit" could end up working in Murphy's favor, the creative forces behind it say, because the comedy demonstrates Murphy's range and ability to morph into multiple characters. It's an approach the actor has used to great success in "Coming to America" and the two "The Nutty Professor" films. "Norbit," about a wimpy man trapped in a horrible relationship with a woman (also played by Murphy), was co-written by Murphy and his brother Charles Murphy, and produced by the actor's production company.
Murphy, who has shunned print interviews for years, declined to comment.
The comedy has done well with focus groups, said Stacey Snider, co-chairwoman of DreamWorks: "Audiences have always loved it."
She added that she was "confident" that "Norbit" would have no influence on academy members' evaluation of Murphy's work in "Dreamgirls." "People can separate the performance in 'Dreamgirls' for the career-defining role that it was.... They accept this movie for the comedy that it is.... I think people are wise enough and savvy enough to understand the spirit that was intended. They know not to read too much into it."
One academy voter, John DiSimeo, who is a member of the public relations branch, agreed. "As a voter, it doesn't impact me. We're able to focus on the work itself.... The focus has been on his work in 'Dreamgirls' and whatever comes out after it is for the most part irrelevant." (He has already sent in his ballot, but declined to specify his pick.)
The film's release date, planned months in advance, was tied to research that showed February to be a good month for comedies, according to Paramount.
Gerry Rich, president of worldwide marketing at Paramount Pictures, said that time of year was a "robust moviegoing period for mainstream comedies. 'Hitch' did really well during this time of year."