If Eddie Murphy looked somewhat dazed when he accepted his Golden Globe for his performance as R&B singer James ”Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls, stepping to the podium and murmuring, ”Wow, I’ll be damned,” you could hardly blame him. The Murphy we’ve seen in recent years, hamming his way through broad family comedies like Dr. Dolittle and Daddy Day Care, didn’t exactly seem to be on a trajectory toward major awards consideration. Even those who knew that he could sing and dance — who fondly remember his brilliant James Brown impression on Saturday Night Live and his less-acclaimed side career as a mid-’80s wannabe pop star — couldn’t have anticipated a performance as dramatically forceful as the one he unleashes in Dreamgirls. Eddie Murphy, Oscar nominee — the phrase itself has an odd ring.
We’ve seen the 45-year-old disappear into his characters before, but always under heavy makeup and prosthetics in comedies like The Nutty Professor. In Dreamgirls, his challenge was to make the audience forget who he is — no easy feat for a star whose films have grossed $3 billion — while remaining in plain sight. ”He didn’t want people to feel they were watching Eddie Murphy,” says director Bill Condon. ”He wanted to become somebody completely different and wanted to do it in a serious way.” And Murphy’s performance is deadly serious, plumbing the depths of bitterness and heartache beneath Early’s surface flash and bravado.
These days, comic actors like Jamie Foxx and Will Ferrell make the shift toward drama when their careers are still young, out of fear of being stuck playing the clown. For Murphy, that transition took decades, and there were times when his career seemed almost rudderless. But when the moment finally came, he used everything he had, and it was perhaps more than even he himself knew.