LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES --Talk about Eddie Murphy's Oscar potential has stirred Hollywood in recent weeks, as members of the press and film industry insiders got their first glimpses of his performance as James Early, the James Brown-like singer who dominates the first part of Dreamgirls.
The film, adapted by the writer and director Bill Condon from the stage musical and starring Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles, is set to open Dec. 15 in single theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, before its nationwide release by DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures on Christmas Day.
But boosters are already hailing Murphy's unaccustomed appearance in a supporting role (unless you count those pictures in which he appeared in support of himself).
Even so, it's a startling turnaround for Murphy, who, despite a modest hit with Daddy Day Care in 2003, has struggled to recover his footing after the embarrassing failure of films such as The Adventures of Pluto Nash, I Spy and Showtime.
Murphy, 45, who declined to be interviewed, was noticeably subdued during a recent appearance with the Dreamgirls cast on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He said at the time that his divorce from Nicole Mitchell after 13 years of marriage had weighed on him during the film shoot. Asked to whom he turned for advice on the set, he said, "Jesus."
Jeffrey Katzenberg, who founded DreamWorks with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, said Murphy, a longtime friend, has never been fond of selling himself. "Eddie's incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of promoting a movie," Katzenberg said.
It is surprising to watch Murphy tackle a dramatic role after years of perfecting his clown act as a stand-up comedian, on Saturday Night Live and in more than 35 movies. With the possible exception of a few moments in the period gangster film Harlem Nights, which Murphy wrote, directed and starred in, the most dramatic scene he's had before Dreamgirls may have been his attempt to persuade The Nutty Professor II audiences that a sexy young Janet Jackson could fall in love with his obese character.
That was not for want of opportunity. Almost 20 years ago, Paramount - which had made a fortune from Murphy's Coming to America, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop series - bought film rights to August Wilson's Tony award-winning play Fences as a vehicle for him. But the father-son drama was never made, and Murphy continued to hang back from the kind of professional challenge that had already expanded the range of comic talents like Adam Sandler or Will Smith.
After so many films, of course, it is easy to forget that Murphy - despite that seemingly effortless laugh - actually had to earn his way as a comic actor. Chris Mulkey, who played a cop in Murphy's debut film, 48 Hrs., recalled that it took the combined efforts of Nick Nolte and the director Walter Hill to keep Murphy from getting bounced from the film.
"It was no secret on the set that Paramount executives hated Eddie's work in the dailies and wanted to fire him, but Walter Hill and Nick went to bat for him," said Mulkey, who remembered Murphy as a diligent performer who was open to suggestions and stuck to the script.
But his subsequent behavior alienated some of his former collaborators.
Reginald Hudlin and his brother Warrington, who directed and produced Murphy's hit comedy Boomerang, for instance, thought they had a good relationship with their star until they saw The Nutty Professor.
"I was stunned to see the obnoxious comedian was named Reggie Warrington," played by Dave Chappelle, "and watch Eddie's Buddy Love character violently stuffing him into a piano," Reginald Hudlin recalled at a recent film premiere.
John Landis, who directed Murphy in Coming to America, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop III, had a similar falling out.
"Eddie's got a lot of anger, which I still don't understand, but I'm not the only one," Landis said in an interview. "I could tell you horror stories about how late Eddie was to the set, how he wouldn't do line readings off camera with his fellow actors and how rude he was to other actors. He's not a happy person, as you know. On Coming to America, he said to me, 'We won't be friends, but we'll finish the film.'"
During a news conference in New York to promote Coming to America, Murphy was asked if he would ever work with Landis again. Without hesitation, he said: "Vic Morrow has a better chance of working with Landis than I do." Despite that reference to Morrow, who died in an accident during the shooting of the segment Landis directed for the Twilight Zone movie, Murphy and Landis went on to do Beverly Hills Cop III together.
Whether such encounters will ultimately affect Murphy's prospects in a closely fought Oscar race is an open question. But his new turn in Dreamgirls has his supporters crossing their fingers.
"Eddie can walk on water," Katzenberg said. "It's just instinct. I know he can do it."