Eddie Murphy matures in John Landis’ cult feelgood comedy
I adored Eddie Murphy as a kid; I mean, this guy was in my VCR almost as much as Arnold Schwarzenegger. He had so much energy and natural charm, boasting a million-dollar smile and a lovable dash of delinquency that gave his comedy an anarchic edge. I didn’t always understand his jokes. I was way too young to pick up on all the cultural references and social commentaries, or the fact that, as pugnacious smart-ass Axel Foley, Murphy was something of a landmark actor in racial terms. Black actors generally played second fiddle in action movies back in the early 1980s, be it as a screenplay’s crook or sidekick — common traits Murphy would incorporate into a single character in Walter Hill’s buddy cop thriller 48 Hrs. — but the actor was the unchallenged star of Martin Brest’s innovative action comedy Beverly Hills Cop, buoyed by the kind of signature theme song that allowed him an almost superhero status.
What I also didn’t realise was that Eddie Murphy was once the edgiest comedian on the planet, a far cry from the marquee star I had him pegged for. Murphy hadn’t planned on being a comedian per se, but had decided he was going to be famous early in life, developing multiple characters in the school lunch hall and imitating his movie idol Peter Sellers for crowds of hysterical teenagers. It was at 15, after hearing peer and eventual friend Richard Pryor’s risque That Nigger’s Crazy album, that Murphy decided to pursue stand-up comedy full-time, secretly skipping school to perform in clubs before earning a prominent spot on the hip and hugely popular Saturday Night Live roster of the early 1980s, a show blessed by the likes of Jim Belushi, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer and Martin Short.
Murphy shot to fame, and notoriety, with 1983‘s blockbuster stand-up gig Delirious, a show that left hugely popular musclehead Mr. T hunting him down at celebrity parties with the intention of kicking his ass, and he wasn’t the only one to take offence to Murphy’s balls-out supershow. The gay community was particularly miffed about Murphy’s homosexual slurs, something that was later absorbed into his film career. Particularly sensitive was his trivialising of the AIDS virus, which was in the throes of a huge epidemic at the time, leading to widespread prejudice across America based on fear and a lack of understanding of the disease. In 1996, Murphy apologised for his behaviour in a public statement that read, “I deeply regret any pain all this has caused… I know how serious an issue AIDS is the world over. I know that AIDS isn’t funny. It’s 1996 and I’m a lot smarter about AIDS now.”
Murphy would also become a target for the white mainstream media during his Delirious pomp, who denounced his profanity-based act and the offensive concepts it peddled, though one has to believe their main reason for smearing the star was far more self-serving. Murphy may have set out to shock, but like the best stand-up acts he had something to say beneath the bravado, giving a social voice to those without a platform. The comedian was particularly outspoken about ‘Reaganomics’, a ‘trickle-down’ political theory that backed big business and affected the most vulnerable, something ethnic minorities would typically take the brunt of.
Prince Akeem: But when I marry, I want the woman to love me for who I am, not because of what I am.
King Jaffe Joffer: And who are you?
Prince Akeem: I am a man who has never tied his own shoes before!
King Jaffe Joffer: Wrong. You are a prince who has never tied his shoes. Believe me, I tied my own shoes once. It is an overrated experience.
By the latter part of the 1980s, Murphy was known more as a movie star than a comedian, which spoke to his superstar presence and universal appeal, and his second collaboration with Trading Places director John Llandis is indicative of that, giving us a softer, more mainstream Murphy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. 1988‘s romantic comedy Coming to America is more conventional and broad-reaching than some of his earlier works, with less of an emphasis on the bad boy persona and crude language he had become synonymous with, both onscreen and off. The fact that Coming to America was a huge part of my single-digit childhood speaks volumes about Murphy’s shift in tone in what was a clear case of image management for the towering star.
There are still instances of the coarse flamboyance for which Murphy was renown, like the moment when the self-exiled prince Akeem stands on the balcony of a shitty rented apartment in Queens and shouts,“Yes! Yes! Fuck You too!,” in response to a curmudgeon local neck-deep in the resentment of widespread poverty, and there are other moments of profanity and lewd humour which probably warranted a 15 certificate at the time, but on the whole it is a sweeter Murphy delivering a suitably ironic, heartfelt brand of humour. As a youngster growing up in the 1980s, the movie was an absolute joy to behold, and I’m delighted to confirm that not much has changed.
As a lead character, Akeem, the unimaginably wealthy African prince who flees to the downtrodden streets of Queens, New York to find… well, his future queen, is something of a digression for the mischievous star. Akeem has plenty of spark as the cultural outsider mesmerised by a life of liberating poverty, but the crude quips, antagonistic sketches and full-throttle heroics are almost totally absent save for a scene in which our future king, working as a mop and bucket boy in brazen McDonald’s rip-off McDowell’s, intercepts Samuel L. Jackson’s stick-up artist and finally makes an impression on his money-mad boss and future father-in-law (it never ceases to amaze me just how many movies Jackson pops up in). Instead, Murphy plays the humble, love-struck gentleman ― the very antithesis of the wealth-obsessed 80s. In the ultimate irony, Akeem’s untold riches would dwarf even the most ruthless capitalist with dollar signs for eyeballs.
Financial disparity, perhaps even more than race, was a running theme in Murphy’s vast and varied 80s catalogue, the subtext being that the two are invariably inseparable. In 1982‘s Trading Places, a movie that acts as a commentary on inherited privilege, Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, a shameless grifter chosen as the pawn in an opulent game that tests the theory of heredity vs environment. In what is essentially Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper with 80s sensibilities, Dan Aykroyd’s white investment broker, Louis Winthorpe, is stripped of his class status, while Murphy’s conman is promoted to a position of vast wealth and privilege. In a cute and welcome nod to the movie, Coming to America features a meta appearance from the unconscionable swines behind this social experiment as vagrants who are given a second shot at the big time after Akeem, tired of servant Semmi’s opulent use of funds, dumps a bag of money in their laps.
Beverly Hills Cop, in a move that was no doubt commercially motivated, plays a similar card. Murphy’s action opus may have taken great strides in putting a black star front and centre, but there were still cautious steps taken in appealing to a broader audience. For one thing, long-time Axel friend, Jenny Summers (Lisa Eilbacher), a character who would typically provide a film’s love interest, was completely platonic, and though Murphy was often full-on with the race-baiting, the film’s title and premise once again placed an emphasis on wealth. Axel’s Detroit hard-ass is a fish out of water in the snobbish realms of one of the world’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, a role he is crucially comfortable with.
Smartly, Coming to America gives Murphy a crowd-pleasing platform for his usual antics elsewhere, the actor taking on multiple roles along with co-star Arsenio Hall, who is just as impressive tackling a quadrant of personalities thanks in no small part to long-time Landis collaborator Rick Baker’s jaw-dropping makeup effects. The reason Coming to America appealed to me so strongly as a kid was its emphasis on character, the most fascinating of whom, at least back then, existing under mounds of transformative latex. I knew there was something peculiar going on, even beyond the vibrant sketches and amped-up parody, but the makeup was so convincing I just couldn’t put my finger on what that something was. The colourful ravings of the movie’s barbershop dwellers had me in stitches back then, as did Hall’s James Brown-styled preacher. Murphy even manages to pull off a white, Jewish geriatric in what is a mesmerising turn, something that didn’t occur to me until years after the makeup became obvious in regards to those other characters.
Cleo: And, baby, when I tell ya the boy has got his own money, I mean the boy has got his own MONEY!
[Presents the currency of Zamunda bearing Akeem’s picture]
Even better are the movie’s non-latex characters. John Amos is a hoot as wealth-obsessed McDowell patriarch Cleo, a self-made man who longs for daughter Lisa (Shari Headley) to tie the knot with Soul Glo heir apparent, Darryl Jenks (Eriq La Salle), even going as far as announcing their engagement at a house party that leads his first-born into the arms of Akeem, who was bestowed upon him the honour of party servant having foiled the attempted robbery. Cleo comes across as mulish and even obsequious to begin with, but his money lust is tied more to his own deprived upbringing and the loss his wife. When James Earl Jones’ obnoxious king offers to buy off his daughter, Cleo unleashes the long-dormant bad ass of old. As important as her financial security is to him, Lisa is not for sale at any price.
Hall is impudence personified as the infectiously vibrant Semmi, a servant to such riches that he leads a life of luxury comparable to your typical New York millionaire, his duties closer to friend, confidant and minder than anything demeaning. He may not have rose petals thrown at his feet or his ‘Royal penis’ cleaned on a daily basis, but he has the pick of some of the most gorgeous extras I’ve ever seen in a single movie, with a living quarters that trumps the Grand Penthouse Suite of the New York Plaza. When he winds up in a rat-infested dump at the behest of his master, who wants a girl who loves him for who he is rather than a chosen bride who will hop on one leg and bark like a dog on command, he transforms their room into an upmarket bachelor pad complete with top of the line hot tub, one that Frankie Faison’s wonderfully cynical landlord is only too happy to inherit.
But there’s nothing like an unconscionable heel, and La Salle’s deeply disingenuous Darryl ticks all the right boxes. Darryl is the personification of everything Akeem is attempting to distance himself from, and, despite what he is blinded into seeing, the complete antithesis of Cleo’s work ethic mantra. Daryll is a complete fraud, a lazy coward who feels that money conquers all. For him wealth means the ability to toss milkshakes at lowly minimum wagers, the right to publicly humiliate the likes of Akeem, or at least the person he believes Akeem to be, and, most damning of all, the ability to own and control any woman he wants. In an early scene, after passing on the chance to add a smidgen of his vast wealth to the church collection plate, he even has the gall to take credit for the bundle of cash left by Murphy’s king in waiting. The guy is rotten to the core.
Daryll’s superficial nature is perfectly captured by the ludicrous ‘Soul Glo’ commercial Akeem and Semmi are confronted with while out braving the New York cold, their first glimpse at the commercial puffery of modern capitalism. A product that transforms the popular eyesore that was the perm into a beacon of oily grandeur, the ad in question is a faux-sensual travesty of manufactured conceit, with a play on words that has the temerity to suggest that what you’re buying into is more than just a product, but love and life itself. Composed by Chic super producer Nile Rodgers, who would cite the track as his “proudest moment”, the fictional ‘Soul Glo’ jingle is a work of satirical art; a wildly self-satisfied parody of modern marketing hypocrisy that never fails to leave me bawling. “Just let your Sooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuwwwwwwwwwwwlllllllllllllll!!!!!” It’s Pure magic, and a big reason why the film has acquired such a cult following.
Coming to America wasn’t all fun and games. Behind the scenes, Murphy and Landis clashed rather badly, something the director attributed to the star’s ballooning ego, claiming, “The guy on Trading Places was young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great. The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world – the most unpleasant, arrogant, bullshit entourage… just an asshole… On Coming to America, we clashed quite a bit because he was such a pig; he was so rude to people. I was like, “Jesus Christ, Eddie! Who are you?” But I told him, “You can’t be late. If you’re late again, I quit.” We had a good working relationship, but our personal relationship changed because he just felt that he was a superstar and that everyone had to kiss his ass. He was a jerk.”
Murphy, however, had a very different version of events, claiming that Landis patronised him throughout the shoot, “We had a tussling confrontation… We didn’t come to blows. Personalities didn’t mesh… He directed me in Trading Places when I was just starting out as a kid, but he was still treating me like a kid five years later during Coming to America. And I hired him to direct the movie! I was gonna direct Coming to America myself, but I knew that Landis had just done three fucked-up pictures in a row and that his career was hanging by a thread after the Twilight Zone trial. I figured the guy was nice to me when I did Trading Places, so I’d give him a shot… I was going out of my way to help this guy, and he fucked me over. Now he’s got a hit picture on his resumé, a movie that made over $200 million, as opposed to him coming off a couple of fucked-up movies – which is where I’d rather see him be right now.”
Lisa McDowell: Would you really have given up all of this just for me?
Prince Akeem: Of course. If you like, we can give it all up now.
Lisa McDowell: [briefly looks around at the crowds cheering them] Nah!
Back in the realms of fantasy, Coming to America is pure wish-fulfilment, still with enough of an acerbic edge to be identifiable as an Eddie Murphy vehicle, but wrapped in a fairy tale bow that sees our warring families and all notions of pomposity bow before the irresistible force of true love. Akeem and Lisa’s coming together is sweet, honest and pure, and, most crucially, it never really descends into schmaltzy territory. Lisa is more than your average lovelorn honey. She’s smart, independent and defiant, and her affections don’t come easy. Even an obscenely 80s set-piece on a subway train manages to stay grounded, despite a crowd of bright-eyed spectators pining for the kind of mushy embrace a lesser movie would have succumbed to.
Part of the film’s resolve is down to Murphy’s untypically controlled performance. Sure, he gets to let off steam as a barber extolling the virtues of Ali above great white hope Rocky Marciano — in fact, he practically whistles at the ears — and Akeem is afforded the odd comical flourish, but here Murphy takes on the role of sensible man in absurd environments, first one of obscene privilege and even zanier expectations, and then in a society to which he is so alien he doesn’t even know how to use a mop. Instead of triggering the comedy with the outward bravado of a character like Axel Foley, Akeem is often the butt of the joke. It’s one thing hiding poverty from a potential spouse, particularly when her father, your boss, wants the absolute best for his princess (I mean that figuratively at this point), but when you’re trying to hide your wealth, the irony is palpable, and Murphy is a first class pawn.
Coming to America may offer some resistance, but the film provides the Hollywood finale mainstream audiences desire. Even the seemingly irredeemable Daryll, breaking the fourth wall in a move that proves cannily endearing, is afforded a happy ending, hooking up with Lisa’s equally superficial sister, Patrice (Allison Dean), a sassy hellcat who I had such a crush on as a kid. I guess there’s someone for everyone.
Sure, it’s all a little idealistic, and for many too much of a departure to showcase Murphy at his brilliant, anarchic best. The fact that Africa’s inherited riches are at the centre of our picture-perfect finale also smacks of hypocrisy, indulging in the very sentiments the film so savagely lampoons. But there’s a maturity to Murphy’s central performance, a yielding to mainstream sensibilities that he manages to pull off without sacrificing his integrity as a comic spitfire. Coming to America will warm your heart and make your soul glow, and you won’t need any lousy hair products to get the job done.