They say history is written by the winners. Well, that was before the Internet. Our regular column And The Loser Is… looks at memorable movies that didn’t quite grab the brass ring.
The Movie: Dreamgirls (2006)
The Award: Best Supporting Actor, Eddie Murphy, 79th Annual Academy Awards (2007)
Who Did It Lose To?: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Should It Have Won?: No
Did It Win Anything?: Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Hudson), Best Sound Mixing
Other Nominees: Jackie Earle Haley for Little Children, Djimon Hounsou for Blood Diamond, Mark Wahlberg for The Departed
When looking at the Academy Awards, Oscar pundits like a strong narrative that can help predict a winner. One such narrative is that of the comeback, as people love to see stars rebound from major bumps in their lives or careers. By 2006 Eddie Murphy was in need of a comeback, as his prior output had consisted of family films (the Shrek series, Daddy Day Care) or dire adult “comedies” like his infamous 2002 flop The Adventures of Pluto Nash.
While the family films were quite financially successful, they were critically savaged and made many lose faith in the raw young comedian who was a king of comedy in the 1980s; add the live action flops and it was clear that Murphy’s career needed a shot in the arm. Playing a James Brown analogue in a bombastic Broadway musical adaptation like Dreamgirls must have seemed like a clear path to critical acclaim and Oscar glory.
Dreamgirls itself is a bit of a bloated mess. It’s the story of the Dreams, a Supremes-like band consisting of Diana Ross analogue Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles), Mary Wilson stand-in Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose), and Florence Ballard equivalent Effie White (Jennifer Hudson). They start off as backup singers for Murphy’s Jimmy “Thunder” Early, and are led to greater success and greater pain by their devious Berry Gordy Jr.-inspired manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). The Dreams’ tale is packed to the brim with so many subplots and different threads that it becomes too much to take all at once, especially as only a few of those threads are adequately developed.
Even more damaging is the quality of the songs. Only the title song and Effie White’s big number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” stand out as particularly memorable songs: the former because it comes closest to sounding like a real-life Motown hit of all songs in the film, the latter because of Hudson’s powerful vocal performance that shouts to the rafters. The remaining songs aren’t particularly memorable, being too over-produced and and styled like musical theatre to capture the essence of Motown.
Through all the excess and the over-the-top emotions, Eddie Murphy does do a fine job as Early, who responds to the Dreams eclipsing him in popularity by sinking into drug-fueled depression. The early scenes with Murphy, where Early is on top of the world, allow him to showcase the energy and charisma that served him well as a comedian in the 80s. His singing voice, while not exceptional, has a smooth quality that allows him to imitate both a young James Brown getting deep into funk and, for some of the later songs, a slower style of R&B similar to Marvin Gaye. It’s a breath of fresh air in this genre that, when Early hits rock bottom, Murphy doesn’t overact and instead brings a more understated sadness to his eyes as his increasing irrelevance to the music world hits home. Most affecting is the scene, right after bombing at a live televised performance by stripping off his pants, where Early desperately wants Taylor Jr. to give him some new material. It’s here where the character and actor seem aligned with one another, with Eddie Murphy calling out for challenging new work as an actor.
Yet, for all this, the performance doesn’t quite go all the way to showing Eddie Murphy as a revelatory dramatic actor. Early’s heroin overdose never really feels like the big tragedy that it should, and it doesn’t help that Early’s relationship with Lorrell is so underdeveloped that it’s hard to care for them as a couple. Thus, it’s not a huge travesty of justice that Eddie Murphy lost out to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine, which played into another big Oscar narrative of a veteran actor finally getting his dues for playing a memorable character part.
Murphy’s attempt at critical acclaim went immediately to waste, as his subsequent filmography was even worse than before. The only statues that awaited him were for the Razzies: three wins for 2007’s Norbit, and equally disastrous recognition for Meet Dave, Imagine That, and A Thousand Words. According to IMDB his next scheduled film is a 2016 drama called Henry Joseph Church, with Eddie Murphy as the caretaker for a girl over her childhood, from director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy). At this point in time, Eddie Murphy needs a comeback as much as three young women from Detroit needed a chance to prove that they were dreamgirls.
Scott Goldfarb is a student of the arts, trying to continually keep on improving and learning more about the artform I love so much.