It didn’t take long for a consensus to form about last year’s Oscars: They sucked, pure and simple. James Franco and Anne Hathaway were wildly miscast as a pair of schizoid co-presenters, and the telecast was marred by awful comedic bits (Franco in Marilyn drag), low-rent performances (those cloying school kids in yellow T-shirts), and various other cringeworthy missteps (Kirk Douglas’ very presence). The evening had the air of a slowly sinking cruise ship, which was probably not what the Academy had in mind for Hollywood’s biggest night of the year.
And so this year it's taking Oscar in another, drastic direction: The show is in the hands of Brett Ratner, a mainstream movie and music video director who commands little respect from his peers. Ratner has in turn coaxed one of the stars of Tower Heist, his upcoming comedy, into taking the hosting gig—none other than Eddie Murphy. And so, here’s the main question: Is this a good idea or a bad idea?
The fact that it’s even open to debate is a good sign for the awards show, which needs all the buzz it can get. Last year’s booking seemed a sure thing, and delivered a turkey for the ages. Certainly the uncertainty of a figure like Murphy, who’s evolved into a hugely private, sphinx-like figure in Hollywood, only works in the Oscars’ favor. Tower Heist looks to be Murphy’s effort to step away from the fat suit and recapture some of the magic of his classic buddy comedies of the 1980s. Could the Oscars gig also mark a return to Murphy’s standup comedy heights of the same era, when he could electrify thousands while armed with nothing but a microphone and a spotlight?
Mind you, Murphy’s standup, as captured in concert films like Delirious and Raw, was steeped in the kind of searingly homophobic material that would lead to media apology tours if he delivered it today. But again, that was a different man. No discussion of Murphy: Then and Now would be complete without mentioning an incident that took place in 1997, when police stopped him at 4:45 am in Hollywood and found a transsexual prostitute in his car. Murphy claimed he saw a pedestrian who looked “disjointed,” and was merely giving them a lift home. And perhaps that was true, but Murphy became a victim of the old “walks like a duck/talks like a duck” adage, and questions about his sexuality will forever swirl around him; two consecutive failed marriages (to women) and one knocking-up (of a Spice Girl) later, he still can’t shake the rumors.
And then there was the Oscar that got away. He was all but guaranteed the statuette for his turn in Dreamgirls, which instead went to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. Murphy was rumored to have stormed out of the ceremony after his name wasn’t called. Many swore the poor-sport showing meant Eddie and Oscar would never meet again.
Oh, how wrong they were. So back to that main question: Can he pull this off? Nobody knows. But the more I think about it, the more I want to find out if he can. It’s an inspired bit of stunt-casting. Kudos to Ratner, and best of luck to Muprhy. We’re pulling for you.