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The 14 Best Eddie Murphy Movie Performances
While one could easily rank the best Eddie Murphy movies, what’s far more interesting is looking at his best performances.
What makes a great Eddie Murphy performance isn’t always the same as what makes a memorable Eddie Murphy movie. That’s because the comedian-turned-actor has spent his entire career honing his craft. That work began early, when he modeled his stand-up presence after heroes like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx (beginnings he lovingly references in the opening of his seminal stand-up special Raw), continued when he came to SNL, and took on greater urgency when he entered Hollywood.
As an actor, Murphy’s career can be split in several phases: the early expanding of his SNL persona into hip raconteur, his man of a thousand faces era, his dance with child movies, his decline, and his recent revival. While one could easily rank the best Eddie Murphy movies — regurgitating a list that offers few surprises and even fewer insights into his career — what’s far more interesting is looking at his best performances. It’s through these that we see how he has grown and reconfigured himself from upstart stand-up comedian to an Oscar-nominated actor who has reimagined the Black leading man away from the prestige space held by Denzel Washington, and earned a corner of box-office dominance that defied his staunchest critics in the process.
This list will consider how each performance and character fit in Murphy’s journey as an actor, his cultural prominence, and how he added new layers to his on-screen presence. Here are the 14 best Eddie Murphy movie performances, ranked.
14. 48 Hrs. (1982)
In his debut screen performance as the supporting act opposite Nick Nolte (playing a racist, no-nonsense cop), Eddie Murphy portrays the sex-crazed inmate Reggie Hammond, who Nolte enlists on a 48-hours-leave from prison to track down an at-large murderer in San Francisco. While Murphy doesn’t appear until about a third of the way through the film, he’s an immediate burst of charisma, to such a point you wonder why he isn’t the lead. Even with his inchoate acting ability, Murphy displays impeccable timing and a suggestive dramatic tension that rises above the dross material on the page. The camera is equally enamored with him, especially in the taut honky tonk bar scene, where his confrontation against racist white cowboys cuts through the cinematic air with a confidence that belies his relative inexperience.
13. Harlem Nights (1989)
In his lone directorial work (which he also wrote and produced), Murphy is hot-shot Harlem club owner Vernest "Quick" Brown. A historic film with a political thrust foretelling the eventual gentrification that would happen to the New York neighborhood, Harlem Nights is a more subdued performance by Murphy as the suave, almost noirish Quick. In a deep ensemble featuring Black Hollywood legends — Richard Pryor as Quick’s adoptive father and Sugar Ray as a fellow club owner, as well as appearances by Redd Foxx and Della Reese — Murphy works to fully establish himself among this set of resplendent luminaries. Murphy cuts up with his heroes for some of the sharpest banter of his career, particularly the pinkie toe scene, which not only honors and lampoons his peers but demonstrates his own presence and ability to play with the best.
12. Mulan (1998)
“Dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow,” exclaims Murphy as the magical dragon Mushu. Similar to Robin Williams before him, Eddie Murphy retooled his standup experience and raunchy onstage persona into animated magic. His first voice role isn’t just funny. It’s a wholly crafted character that imbues this historic story of a daughter pretending to be a man to save her father from combat, with a keen punch and forceful rhythm. Like Williams, Murphy switches between clowns — the Baptist preacher, the paternal guardian, a strawman soldier — on his way to personal redemption. For Murphy, the ability to riff in the vocal booth perfectly folded into his capacity for improvisation. That freedom allowed him to stack lines for a spontaneity that eloquently manifests into the buffoonish and ambitious Mushu. While memorable in itself, Mulan would also provide a successful run to stage Murphy’s most accomplished animated performance.
11. Trading Places (1983)
Coming only a year after his debut performance in 48 Hrs., Murphy’s second film (and first collaboration with John Landis) is an astounding leap in manner and comfort. It helps that Landis allowed Murphy to riff on his SNL work. In his performance as small-time peddler Billy Ray Valentine, a pawn in a bet between a couple of rich vultures — Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche) — you can see the roots of Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, his Stevie Wonder impersonation, and Raheem Abdul Muhammed spring forth in the comedian’s energetic turn. It also helps that Murphy had classic Hollywood legends Bellamy and Ameche to lean on, actors who could roll with the punches. What appears on screen is nothing short of a star beginning to learn how to harness his powers, explore the confines of his sketch comedy talents on a movie set, and turn the camera — such as the side-splitting fourth-wall breaks — into a partner in crime.
10. Boomerang (1992)
It took far too long for Boomerang to become a classic. Much of that is due to racism; reviews by white critics at the time questioned the authenticity of a movie that portrayed successful Black business people in a world sans white corporations. Another complained that the all-Black cast constituted affirmative action. In actuality, Boomerang is a socially smart romcom critiquing men like Marcus Graham who see women as disposable, and flipping their virile tactics onto their heads. Murphy allows himself to be a villain by upending his bewitching star persona to be something quite nasty, as he switches from an in control sexual being to someone reduced solely to their sexual prowess, and to the butt of the joke and then to a mature partner. It’s the kind of nuanced, subtle shift — an incredible leap in his ability to grasp the emotional and psychological arc of his characters — that makes you wish Eddie Murphy played more unlikable characters.
9. Life (1999)
In a Black comedic version of the prison escape film Papillon, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence portray bootleggers framed for the murder of a white man. As a result, he and Lawrence are sentenced to hard labor at a prison camp. While there are hilarious parts (Bernie Mack as Jangle Leg and an impromptu paternity test) and moments of glamor (the imagining of a Boom-Boom room where freedom lies), as years turn into decades and we see life literally pass by Murphy and Lawrence’s eyes, heartbreak arises from dreams deferred. Murphy and Lawrence make a great double act and an even better portrait of frenemies turned friends. The role requires another act of makeup for Murphy, with Rick Baker transforming Murphy from a young to old man. As an elderly prisoner, the actor doesn’t just alter his posture and his gait (moving with a hunched, hesitated shuffle). He somehow ages his eyes, letting us swim through the wailing toll of irreplaceable time.
8. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
If we break Murphy’s career into parts, then his role as Axel Foley, the silver-tongue Detroit cop traversing through Hollywood to solve the murder of an old friend, is the peak of him converting his SNL identity into actorly ability. The beguiling cop is an outgrowth of the upstart energy that perfectly married itself to the young audience who would devour Beverly Hills Cop. In Murphy’s performance exists a mischievousness (as seen in the bevy of pranks he pulls) and a rascal devil-may-care attitude that isn’t solely confined to the character’s personality. It dances with the spirit of the fast-moving 1980s. That unbridled freedom, the feeling of possibility at a moment when Murphy was the world’s biggest stand-up star and an emerging movie star, is probably why Foley is one of Murphy’s most revered characters. By this point, Murphy knew he belonged in front of the camera. After this, he built out his dramatic prowess beyond innate timing, to fully fleshed out performances that encapsulated the inner lives of his characters.
7. Coming to America (1988)
When Eddie Murphy portrayed a petty peddler who becomes a stock trader in Trading Places, you could already sense that he wanted to explore the transformative aspect of acting — the possibility of being something or someone you’re not. After all, he had already displayed his talent for impersonations on SNL. But it wasn’t until John Landis’ Coming to America that he finally got to put those skills to the test. In it, he plays Prince Akeem, an African royal who arrives in Queens, New York to find a woman who will love him for him. He hides his identity, taking a job at a fast-food restaurant called McDowell’s, and falls for the owner’s daughter Lisa (Shari Headley). Under heavy makeup, Murphy also portrays a Jewish barbershop customer, a barbershop owner, and a failed soul singer, Randy Jackson, the lead vocalist of Sexual Chocolate. While Murphy is mostly dipping his toe into the other characters, they’re mostly comic relief in the background of Akeem’s story, rather than wholly realized people. The film opened the next phase of Murphy’s career, whereby he became a man of a thousand faces brimming with vast emotions.
6. Dreamgirls (2006)
The lone Oscar nomination of the actor’s career occurred in a musical where he plays troubled soul singer Jimmy “Thunder” Early. Like Effie, the shunned, betrayed vocalist played by Jennifer Hudson, Early is the emotional arc of a film about the price of music stardom. As Thunder, Murphy appears on the screen like lightning. He bursts forth not just as an actor, but as a singer and showman in the number “Cadillac Car.” He is the star the girl group Effie is part of and hopes to be, as well as the downfall they will feel. Murphy marries the flair of Jackie Wilson with the tragedy of Marvin Gaye, particularly when Jimmy sinks into a debilitating drug habit, resulting in a level of dramatic work for Murphy few thought possible. The expression he gives when his friends ask him not to shoot up is packed with anger, sadness, and self-loathing. There are no laughs, cheers, or winks to the camera. It’s just the raw wreckage of a star forever faded.
5. Bowfinger (1999)
I’m usually wary of drawing a straight line from the character an actor is playing to who they are in real life. What we see of any celebrity is merely a projection of them. But I can’t shake Murphy’s performance in Bowfinger, first as the dweeby Jiff (a forerunner of his later turn in Norbit) but primarily as the paranoid exhibitionist and movie star Kit Ramsay. Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin), a grifting has-been, is so committed to filming what he hopes will be his comeback — a C-movie called Chubby Rain — he guerilla films the unaware Kit using a band of Hollywood rejects. A member of the scientology-inspired MindHead, Kit is made to believe by Bowfinger that aliens are trying to kidnap the star. Kit’s delusion, causing instances of manic feelings, turns into broad laughs. On the other side of the character, Kit’s desire to be treated not just like a blockbuster star but as a respected actor, is where Murphy exercises his own professional demons. You can’t hear Murphy deliver a line like, “A black dude who plays a slave that gets his ass whipped gets the nomination, a white guy who plays an idiot gets the Oscar. I need to play a retarded slave, then I'll get the Oscar,” and not think he’s speaking from a reality he’s faced.
4. Shrek (2001)
Next to Robin Williams as Genie in Aladdin, Eddie Murphy’s turn as the Donkey from Shrek might be the best voice performance of any actor. Donkey is a goof: an undaunted expression of pure friendship and love. He is one of the few people who sees the goodness in an ogre, a creature most consider hideous. Most of Donkey’s lines have become a permanent part of cultural record: “Onions have layers,” “I like that boulder. That is a nice boulder,” and “tomorrow, we’re making waffles.” You can’t read those lines without saying them in Murphy’s exact bright timbre and with his precise spirited wit. With Donkey, you can sense how much freer Murphy (due to his experience with animated characters on Mulan) is to experiment and use his voice as a flexible muscle, one able to tone the nuance of every line for multivariate purposes. Donkey is the best cartoon character of this century — and it’s all due to Murphy.
3. The Nutty Professor (1996)
No one else could’ve done what Murphy does in The Nutty Professor. Of the films where he portrays multiple characters, this is his magnum opus, his Mona Lisa, his Heaven’s Gate. He doesn’t just portray Professor Sherman Klump, an affable scientist bullied for his weight to the point of creating a serum to make himself skinny. Murphy also plays the slimmer sociopathic evil half to Klump (Buddy Love), and everyone in the Klump family except Sherman’s young nephew. Each role is uniquely crafted to be an individual person; Mama Klump’s refrain of “Hercules! Hercules! Hercules!” or the grandmother’s odd recollections add contours. Only Murphy could make Cletus’ farting a deeply felt trait. But most of all, when Sherman is derided by a standup comedian for his weight, we see a kind of tenderness — a signature of the actor’s best work — flash across Sherman’s face. It’s hurt that shows how the world is too mean to deserve him.
2. Norbit (2007)
In what might be Murphy’s most divisive film, he delivers — quite possibly — his most naked performance. Similar to The Nutty Professor, Bowfinger, and Coming to America, Murphy plays several characters: the Chinese owner of an orphanage, an abusive wife in Rasputia Latimore, and the titular character himself. The demand to play a range of personalities, however, is where the comparisons cease. Because as the shy Norbit, a man with a stiff Buckwheat afro and jutted out jaw who falls under the control of a sadistic woman after his true love Kate (Thandiwe Newton) leaves him, Murphy’s actorly persona dissolves.
He doesn’t do his usual fourth-wall breaks or his signature chuckle, or even lean on his natural charisma. Norbit is bereft of Murphy-sims to the point that you forget that you’re watching Murphy. He is wholly committed to excavating the personal trauma, internal psychology, and innate humanity of a guy who’d be a caricature of all-time loserdom in another actor’s hands. In a film whose heart can be questioned — from the blatant fatphobia and obvious misogynoir to the unnerving feeling of appropriation — Murphy lands ugly jokes and unlikely motivations into something that traverses the borders between offensive and sensitive in such an uncomfortable and fully committed manner, you can’t help but marvel at his defiance.
1. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
This is the moment when everything came together for Eddie Murphy: his star persona, his love of Rudy Ray Moore, a director like Craig Brewer (a lover of Murphy’s best work), Ruth E. Carter fitting Murphy in splendid 1970s threads, and writers like Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who were such fans of Murphy’s career, that they filled this movie with an avalanche of allusions to his best turns. After years in the Hollywood wilderness, whereby many of those he influenced passed him by, he found an unlikely comeback in a role that totally revitalized his career.
An aging emcee, standup comedian, and singer, within the ostracized Moore exists Murphy’s characters in Life and Dreamgirls (men painfully reaching for greatness), his roles as pure souls (Shrek’s Donkey and The Nutty Professor’s Sherman Klump), and fast-talking shapeshifters like Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley.
By playing Blaxploitation and hip-hop pioneer Moore, Murphy brings his deft sense of melancholy, heartache, enthusiasm, and pure-heartedness to a film that, much like Bowfinger, is a tribute to the strivers who desperately want to be moviemakers. In Moore’s us against the world stance, you can sense Murphy drawing on his own experience as a director on Harlem Nights, such as the disappointment at tepid critical reviews. You can equally see Murphy’s uncanny sense of the character’s psychology (does Moore know he’s the butt of the joke in this world?), and his power to shatter you with a vulnerable physicality that translates to a deep sense of sorrow that lurks behind his eyes. This was always the idealist, radical, game-changing hero Murphy was meant to play.
Robert Daniels is a Chicago-based film critic with freelance bylines in the New York Times, in the Los Angeles Times, at RogerEbert.com, at IndieWire, and in the Criterion Collection. He has written widely about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.