The last time Eddie Murphy showed up at an awards show, to pick up his Comedy Icon trophy earlier this year at the first annual Comedy Awards (broadcast, appropriately enough, on Comedy Central), a couple things stood out.
First, his acceptance speech came across as uncharacteristically low-key, as if he were a tad embarrassed at receiving what he called an "old guy" honor, just days before his 50th birthday. But far more striking was the realization his phenomenal career has spanned some 35 years, beginning with teenage stand-up gigs that landed him his breakout role on "Saturday Night Live."
Still, Murphy, save for lending his voice to the "Shrek" flicks, hasn't been a major force in movie comedy for a decade. His decision to sign on as host of the next Academy Awards suggests this "icon" believes he has something to prove – if not to his comedy peers, then to Hollywood.
Five years after he reportedly stormed out of the Kodak Theatre, apparently furious his dramatic turn in "Dreamgirls" wasn't enough to earn him an Oscar, Murphy has a chance to steal the show. We're expecting a big comeback for the comic actor – and for the Academy Awards.
Murphy wasn't our first choice as Oscars host – we were hoping for irreverent star-basher Ricky Gervais – but he was on our list.
If he’s not a radical pick, he’s a logical one: Murphy's a scene-stealing sketch player and a master stand-up comedian who can sing to great comedic effect (remember "James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party?"). He's also an undeniably huge player Hollywood history who helped create the modern comedy blockbuster, beginning with "48 Hours" nearly 30 years ago – a legacy that stretches to "The Hangover" flicks.
Filmmaker Brett Ratner, who was brought in to liven up this February's broadcast, presumably enjoys a strong relationship with Murphy, the co-star of his upcoming film, "Tower Heist." But anything – even no host – would represent an upgrade over the lackluster job put in this year by the seemingly sleepy James Franco and the overly perky Anne Hathaway, who were enlisted in a failed attempt to draw a younger crowd.
Murphy’s appeal spans generation, and his bad blood with the Oscars offers a compelling back story. The Hollywood establishment hasn't always treated Murphy well, even if his movies have brought in more than $3.7 billion over the years, tops for a film comedian. But the Oscar folks generally aren't kind to comedies or comedians – even when (or especially when) they tackle dramatic roles, as Murphy did playing a self-destructive 1960s R&B star in "Dreamgirls," possibly his finest screen role (though it's hard to begrudge the great Alan Arkin for winning that year for "Little Miss Sunshine").
Some 27 years removed from "SNL," Murphy has an opportunity to put on the greatest live television show of his life while getting the last laugh on Hollywood – and potentially rescuing what's becoming a moribund ceremony.
We’re betting Murphy, already declared an icon, has another award-worthy performance in him yet.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.