After piping in on the Eddie Murphy hubbub below by recalling his outburst at the 1987 Oscarcast, I got into a looped email exchange with three of the principals I quote in the piece: Jeffrey Wells (Hollywood-Elsewhere.com), Sasha Stone (Oscarwatch.com) and David Carr (New York Times Carpetbagger).
The four of us got into a group dishfest that, of course, triggered further uproar and clash as each of them hit "reply all" on the last group email and got into a fierce debate while I, being the coward that I am, ducked down in my trench, kept quiet and marveled at the loveliness of the volley of mortar shells soaring overhead.
When the battle smoke cleared, I looked back over the exchange and thought, "Wow, this is interesting!" and so I asked permission of all combatants if I could quote their emails in chronological succession.
They said, "OK," so let's go. Sorry that we didn't get Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell to join in the fun. (Next time, kids, we MUST remember to send out invites earlier!) I will begin with the rabble-rouser holding a torch:
JEFF: It's pointless to say this given Sasha Stone's allegations of mental/emotional instability on my part, but I'm just saying what any veteran of this town would acknowledge and then chuckle about at a party, buzzed or sober — Murphy is a pissed-off, very gifted comedian who has never laid it on the line in terms of heavyweight acting, and there's no absolutely way he's laying it on the line in "Dreamgirls" — like (Toronto Star writer Peter) Howell said, he's doing his 'SNL' James Brown shtick. Plus the part isn't written with any third-act payoffs. It's one of the most bizarre and groundless acting nominations in Oscar history. Thanks again — your thing works for today, there's the New York Post story (allegedly) coming out tomorrow . . . but then what? Burnout, most likely.
SASHA (to Tom in response to blog item): I guess you'd have a point except that I agreed with what Murphy said at the Oscars; he was WAY ahead of his time. And it still took Halle Berry's win for a black actress to EVER win in lead. I applaud him for that — took balls, something few in the industry has. I think Wells has his head of up his ass on this one. Sorry.
SASHA (to Jeff): Right, now suddenly it's about the performance? At Howell made it about the performance; you made it about his personality and character. Don't try to wriggle out of it now. That you have taken this on as a "cause" is, well, sad. Why not put all of this energy into something more useful, like helping Obama get the nomination?
DAVID: If churlishness and professional self-absorption was a disqualifier, they would never give out one of these suckers. Eddie is angry man to be sure, but he puts his ID out there for all to see. Just because some other actor smiles and wears beige does not mean they are better human beings, just better AT FAKING IT. and while Jeffrey is objectively a keener judge of the value of a performance, I see nothing criminally ignored. I watched Wahlberg's performance last night, and it's great, but nothing in this category is so spectacular that it can't be touched by Murphy's ability to inhabit the uniform of James Brown to such good effect. He did a good job, styled to the max to be sure, but played the supporting role to the hilt. (An edit for clarity . . . didn't want to suggest they were better actors than Murphy, just better at imitating a human being when they need to.)
JEFF: It's not just the calibre of the performance — substantial character construction and some kind of semi-meaningful arc (or journey) have to be there also. And the writing in the "Dreamgirls" script that would accomplish this just isn't there. James Thunder Early is an amalgam of famous black performers -- barely a character, and certainly not a character with any intriguing turns, deepenings and/or crescendo moments — this is who I am, what I want, what I need, please love me, I don't care if you love me . . . anything along those lines. The Oscar nom is much more of a referendum on Murphy himself — some half-assed notion of a career comeback, his likability in the early to mid '80s, his current a**hole-ishness (see the Razor item), the p.c. positiveness that comes with giving an Oscar to any person of color, etc. And in that light, the thought of him winning the Oscar almost gives me indigestion. I'm serious . . . I can feel the turbulence building in my stomach as I write this. And the Oscar goes to . . . . Norbit!
JEFF: Certainly not a character with any intriguing turns, deepenings and/or crescendo moments — this is who I am, what I want, what I need, please love me, I don't care if you love me . . . anything along those lines.
SASHA: Not true — the character arc or journey may apply to lead perfs, but certainly not supporting — supporting means, they support the lead and/or the story — they themselves aren't the story, or the main story. This is sometimes muddied with the fact that characters get nominated in supporting when they should be leads, and vice-versa — Ethan Hawke, Meryl Streep, etc. Murphy gives a really good supporting performance.
JEFF (to Sasha): Bulls**t — a really good supporting role and performance has the whole universe in it. The gold-standard model for a sublimely written, full-out, touch-your-heart supporting performance is Beatrice Straight's in Network....she was on-screen for maybe 10 minutes, and you knew everything about her, who she was deep down . . . awesome, amazing. Murphy's work isn't in the same municipality, much less the same ballpark.
DAVID: As opposed to the other guys in the category? It's called supporting for a reason.
JEFF: A really good supporting role and performance has the whole universe in it. The gold-standard model for a sublimely written, full-out, touch-your-heart supporting performance is Beatrice Straight's in "Network" . . . she was on-screen for maybe 10 minutes, and you knew everything about her, who she was deep down . . . awesome, amazing. Murphy's work isn't in the same municipality, much less the same ballpark.
SASHA: You mean like Marisa Tomei, Jack Palance, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joel Grey, Jessica Lange in "Tootsie"? Shall I go on? I could go on, all day. 'Cause there are decades we haven't even touched upon. But I can go there. I agree sometimes great work gets honored — Marcia Gay Harden, Jim Broadbent, but it is the exception, not the rule.
DAVID: Sure, happens all the time, which is why you had to reach across genders and back 30 years to find an anomolous role that makes your point.