‘Norbit’ at 25: Did critically maligned comedy really cost Eddie Murphy the Oscar?


Eddie Murphy (left and right) in 2007’s Norbit. (Photo: DreamWorks/courtesy Everett Collection) In December 2006, the glitzy movie adaptation of the Broadway hit Dreamgirls — a fictionalized retelling based on the rise of Motown sensations The Supremes — opened to cheers from both critics and audiences.

“People are going to love this film,” raved Richard Roeper on an episode of Ebert & Roeper .

Though its star-studded cast was headlined by Jamie Foxx (fresh off an Oscar win for Ray ) and Beyoncé (on a rapid-fire ascent to becoming one of the world’s biggest pop stars), it was ultimately the bravura performances of the third billed Eddie Murphy and below-the-title co-star Jennifer Hudson that — along with the film’s energetic pace and show-stopping musical numbers — consistently drew the biggest kudos.

Murphy, 45 at the time but already a certifiable legend of comedy, had cracked the code in drama, too, with his stirring and soulful turn as aging R&B star Jimmie “Thunder” Early, a composite of James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson who succumbs to drug addiction after his career fades. It recalled similarly inspiring performances of funnymen-gone-serious like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998) and Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Murphy’s role in Dreamgirls also displayed his musical talents in the most tangible way since his 1985 Rick James collaboration, "Party All The Time."

Hudson, the American Idol breakout making her acting debut, was a revelation — but in many ways so was Murphy, with a general consensus soon crystallizing among pundits and cinephiles: Eddie is bound to win an Oscar for this. Anika Noni Rose and Eddie Murphy in 2006’s Dreamgirls. (Photo: DreamWorks/courtesy Everett Collection) Right on time, the nominations and victories began rolling in. On Jan. 15, he won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, beating out fellow heavy hitters Jack Nicholson, Brad Pitt, Mark Wahlberg and Ben Affleck. On Jan. 20, he won the Critics Choice Award. On Jan. 28, he won the Screen Actors Guild Award.

And in the thick of that all, on Jan. 23, Murphy was nominated for the Academy Award, the trophy he seemed predetermined to claim like Prince Akeem in waiting to inherit the throne of Zamunda. Murphy had all the momentum. His competitors — Alan Arkin ( Little Miss Sunshine ), Jackie Earle Haley ( Little Children ), Djimon Hounsou ( Blood Diamond ) and Mark Wahlberg ( The Departed ) — had none.