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In ‘Dolemite Is My Name,’ Eddie Murphy Looks at the Career He Could Have Had

His new Netflix movie, about a lovable struggler, offers clues to how he’s feeling about his return to the spotlight

Eddie Murphy has been famous forever. Some comics struggle for years to hone their act and find an audience — Murphy arrived on Saturday Night Live fully formed, when he was all of 19 years old. From there, he immediately starred in a spate of blockbuster films — 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America — and a few smash stand-up specials. Even if he never did anything good after the 1980s — and, with a few exceptions, you could almost make that argument — his legacy is cemented. It’s an enviable career.

Rudy Ray Moore was a late bloomer. A failed singer, going-nowhere comic and disgruntled record-store employee, he was already well into his 40s when he hit upon the idea of creating a doppelganger: Dolemite, a foul-mouthed, insult-spewing performer who was as raw as he wanted to be. After years of failing to get his break, Moore finally became a star, eventually bringing Dolemite to the big screen.

Murphy has expressed his affection for Moore — he still fondly remembers seeing 1975’s Dolemite as a kid — and has now made a movie about the man and his alter ego. (Moore died at the age of 81 in 2008.) But what’s most interesting about Dolemite Is My Name (which hits theaters today and arrives on Netflix on October 25) is the subtle tension between the star Murphy is and the star Moore was (and wasn’t). Eddie Murphy has been famous for two-thirds of his life — and not just famous, but a global powerhouse and a comedy icon. Sure, he’s faced professional and personal upheavals, but he never had to grapple with the chronic rejection that for a long time seemed to be Moore’s destiny. Watching Dolemite Is My Name as Murphy prepares for a carefully plotted comeback, I couldn’t help but think that he isn’t just paying tribute to a hero but also wondering about what his own life could have been like if things had worked out differently.

The film takes us to L.A. in the early 1970s as Moore wonders if he’ll ever make it. Murphy plays him as a hustler whose confidence is starting to fade — as a guy who knows he’s getting too old to be an up-and-comer and whose hustle is starting to seem kinda sad. A different movie would view Moore as pathetic — and, indeed, he seems to have more chutzpah than talent — but Dolemite Is My Name has a sunny affection for his dilemma, celebrating how his transformation into Dolemite finds him becoming the star he always wanted to be. Even in the film’s second half, which is given over to the comically slapdash making of Dolemite, there’s no mocking of Moore. Dolemite might not be a critics’ darling, but Dolemite Is My Name never stoops to make him a punch line. Moore may be foolish, but he’s no fool.

Murphy’s early career channeled Moore’s (and also Richard Pryor’s and others’) go-for-the-throat profane frankness. But where Moore was more about shtick, Murphy was a force of nature — brilliant, undeniable. For children of the 1980s, Murphy’s stand-up specials Delirious and Raw don’t have the same warm, fuzzy nostalgic glow that, say, The Princess Bride does. Filthy and shocking, those R-rated specials felt dangerous — they were tonally light years removed from the more family-friendly comedy of Bill Cosby. (And if the differences in their styles weren’t apparent, Murphy made it clear in a scathing Raw bit where he talks about being chastised by Cosby for his potty-mouth.) I’m an adult, and yet I still feel like I’m getting away with something when I watch Delirious or Raw clips on YouTube, as if my disapproving parents will find out and ground me.

But while it’s obvious that the 58-year-old Murphy wouldn’t be the same guy as the one who was a dynamo in the 1980s, in recent interviews he’s outlined how far away those days now seem. “I’m mushier than I used to be,” he admitted to The New York Times, adding that he regrets “ignorant” jokes about AIDS he made in Raw. As Moore, he’s far older than his character was at the time that he was finally breaking through, but that discrepancy works in the movie’s favor. The Murphy we see in Dolemite Is My Name is still raw and magnetic, but he’s slowed a bit by the realities of age and life — on screen, he’s closer to Rudy Ray Moore (struggling, aging nobody) than he is Eddie Murphy (comedy cyclone).

It’s a fascinating potential insight into where Murphy might see himself these days. Since 2011’s Tower Heist, he’s only been in two movies prior to Dolemite Is My Name, and I’m betting you don’t remember the name of either. (A Thousand Words and Mr. Church, for those who didn’t look it up.) That same year, he had been announced as Oscar host, an exciting prospect that went away after he decided to quit the gig in light of show producer Brett Ratner’s homophobic comments. Whether because of his Oscar exit or not, we haven’t seen much of Murphy since, and yet his stature has only grown. (Not appearing in bad movies has a funny way of doing that.) Before this year, he’d been mostly out of the public eye save for a brief appearance on 2015’s Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special, in which it seemed like presenter Chris Rock was giving him a lifetime achievement award. Murphy didn’t try to be funny — honestly, he looked nervous — but it felt like the aging star hitting the “reset” button, transitioning to Venerable Comedy Legend. 

But Murphy has big things in store. Later this year, he’ll be guest-hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time in 35 years. In 2020, he’ll have a Netflix stand-up special, and on a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, he talked about being hungry to get back on stage. “I’m gonna do it again!” he insisted to Jerry Seinfeld about returning to stand-up. “I just, you know, everything has to be right. I gotta get up there and start working out. … The only way you can get, like, an act is I gotta go to clubs and work out.” 

It’s something he’s talked about for a while. Back in 2011, he declared, “If I ever get back onstage, I’m going to have a really great show for you all. … But I don’t know. The way [my stand-up] used to come about, you’d be around the house, hanging out, say something funny and it’d be like, ‘I’m going to go to the club, try that out tonight.’ That still happens, but it’s been a long time. I’m not that guy in the leather suit anymore. The hardest thing for comics nowadays is to find your fucking voice.”

And, of course, he also has Dolemite Is My Name, which Netflix no doubt hopes can gain some traction during awards season. (He received his sole Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, for 2006’s Dreamgirls.) Some comics later in life try to rebrand themselves as Serious Artists — the Robin Williams approach — but Murphy is, for the most part, simply trying to reconnect with his younger, supernova self. 

It’s exciting to have Murphy back, but there’s also plenty of opportunity for him to fall flat on his face. He could bomb on SNL, and lord knows plenty of revered comics have embarrassed themselves with their recent Netflix specials. (Also, don’t forget that his planned sequels to Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cop could be wretched.) Intentionally or not, that self-awareness of this comeback’s possible downsides seems to inform his performance as Moore, who’s still cocky despite his many setbacks. But Murphy gives him just the right amount of shading, just the right amount of self-doubt and vulnerability: What if I fail?

Dolemite Is My Name has a preordained happy ending — despite long odds and Moore’s lack of filmmaking acumen, Dolemite will become a sensation — but Murphy’s own story has yet to reach its final act. In some ways, this is a pretty lighthearted, Ed Wood-ish biopic with a dash of Murphy’s own Bowfinger thrown in, but what makes Dolemite Is My Name consistently poignant is its star’s connection to Moore. Eddie Murphy has been famous forever, but that doesn’t guarantee he can stick the landing — there must be times when he wonders if he’ll be able to recapture his old magic. In his darkest moments, latching onto Rudy Ray Moore’s boundless, occasionally ill-advised confidence might be the only way to get you through.

Here are three other takeaways from Dolemite Is My Name

#1. Here’s another reason to hate Brett Ratner.

I glossed over this in my lead essay, but it’s easy to forget how close we were to having Eddie Murphy host the 2012 Oscars. That would have been amazing: A year after the disastrous James Franco/Anne Hathaway Academy Awards, viewers would have been treated to a talented, unpredictable comic taking on one of entertainment’s toughest gigs. It certainly was a riskier but potentially more rewarding pick than more polished hosts such as Hugh Jackman or Ellen DeGeneres.

Instead, the whole thing blew up. And it’s because of Brett Ratner. The director, who had worked with Murphy on Tower Heist, had been selected by the Academy to co-produce that year’s ceremony. Ratner was widely seen as being responsible for landing Murphy for the job, and it signaled a possible comeback for a once-potent movie star.

Then, the November weekend that Tower Heist opened, Ratner participated in a Q&A, where he was asked if he rehearses with his cast before the cameras roll. “Rehearsal is for fags,” he reportedly said, and that, combined with previous obnoxious comments he made on Attack of the Show about Olivia Munn — “She wasn’t Asian back then. … I banged her a few times, but I forgot her” — forced the Academy to reconsider having the Rush Hour auteur at the helm of its most prestigious program. Once Ratner stepped away from the Oscars, so too did Murphy, and the Oscars ended up being hosted by fill-in Billy Crystal.

Every awards season, I think about what might have been. Sure, maybe Murphy could have stunk — few hosts kill at the Academy Awards — but it’s a shame we were denied the opportunity to see what he might have done. You don’t need another reason to loathe Ratner, but if you’ve forgotten about Murphy’s aborted Oscar gig, that’s definitely one more.

#2. Remember when Hollywood tried to do a ‘Dolemite’ remake with LL Cool J?

Dolemite Is My Name will no doubt generate renewed interest in Moore’s career and his crop of Dolemite pictures. (Good luck trying to get through Shaolin Dolemite, though.) But while digging into Dolemite’s cinematic legacy, I stumbled upon something I never knew: Almost 20 years ago, a Dolemite remake was in the works.

In the summer of 2001, Dimension Films (the genre wing of Miramax) announced it was putting together a new version of Dolemite. However, the creative talent involved seemed a little… strange. For instance, the screenplay was going to be written by Buddy Johnson, who was responsible for spoofs like Scary Movie and Not Another Teen Movie. And Dolemite was going to be played by LL Cool J, who was already deep into his pivot from rapper to actor — if you can call being in Deep Blue Sea acting. Because of Johnson’s involvement, I’m assuming that Dolemite was going to be a comedy, but it never came to fruition.

That’s not the last time Hollywood tried to reboot Moore’s beloved character, however. In 2007, Fallout Entertainment acquired the Dolemite rights, planning a remake that, in the words of Tapeheads director Bill Fishman, acknowledged “a certain sincerity in the original that is kind of undeniable” and promised, “[We are] giving enough respect to the original and building on it.” Snoop Dogg, who’s in Dolemite Is My Name, was one of several actors approached about playing the main character, and ironically enough, Eddie Murphy’s brother Charlie was attached to be part of the ensemble. But that remake also fell apart after some legal wrangling over whom, in fact, owned the rights.

If Dolemite Is My Name is a big enough hit, I wouldn’t be shocked if another remake is attempted. Of course, Murphy’s film shows so much of the behind-the-scenes of Dolemite’s making — as well as actual Dolemite scenes — we may not need a new version.

#3. “White Like Me” is still great.

In that September New York Times profile, Murphy talked briefly about his forthcoming SNL hosting gig, mentioning that he’d probably revisit some of his popular characters, like Buckwheat and Gumby. I immediately wondered if he might do a follow-up to “White Like Me,” which remains one of the more subversive bits the show has ever done.

Only by doing research did I realize that “White Like Me” actually aired on December 15, 1984 — i.e., it was from Murphy’s guest-hosting appearance after he’d left the show. (He’ll host SNL on December 21 of this year.) For those not familiar, “White Like Me” was a short film (or, really, fake documentary) in which Murphy explained that he wanted to see what life was like as a white person. “A lot of people talk about racial prejudice,” he tells the camera. “And some people have gone so far as to say that there are actually two Americas: one black and one white.” So, he goes undercover, having a makeup team transform him into a white guy. He also does research into what whites are like — mostly, by watching Dynasty and reading Hallmark cards. And then, he goes out into New York City:

I was a kid when I first saw “White Like Me,” and I definitely remember the feeling of having my eyes opened by the skit. This isn’t the most hilarious SNL bit, but it was kinda jaw-dropping. Murphy was showing me something I’d never realized before: The white world is much different than the black world, and those who aren’t white feel excluded from its opportunities and advantages. As an adult, racial prejudice and inequality are obvious, but as a kid, “White Like Me” seemed revelatory. Plus, Murphy’s impression of white people was hilarious.

Saturday Night Live skits tend to age badly because they’re meant to speak to their exact moment, which leaves them feeling a little ephemeral. But “White Like Me” could work just as well today, sadly. (If anything, it plays like the premise for an ingenious, timely Jordan Peele thriller.) I wouldn’t bet on Murphy reprising this bit in December. But I’d love it if he did.