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.
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.
Then, on Feb. 9, Norbit happened. Er, opened.
The broader-than-broad comedy starred Murphy as the nebbish title character, a former orphan (Murphy also plays the Chinese orphanage director, Mr. Wong) whose other defining characteristic is that for most of his life he’s been dominated by his large-and-in-charge childhood girlfriend-turned-wife Rasputia Latimore (also Murphy, but in a fat suit). Really, though, Norbit has always been in love with his childhood best friend, Kate, whom he reconnects with as an adult when she’s played by Thandiwe Newton.
“I wanted to do something edgy,” Murphy said at the time. “Because I'd been doing a lot of family movies, lots of stuff with kids like Shrek and Daddy Daycare and Haunted Mansion, which were terribly cute films, but I wanted to do something edgy.”
Reviews were not kind. Registering a measly nine percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Norbit was slammed for being “racially insensitive” and carrying “hideously offensive Black stereotypes.” There was also its fat-shaming caricature of Rasputia. “Even if you go back decades, body fascism has rarely been so brazen, or so unfunny. Horrifying,” wrote Timeout’s Anna Smith. “It’s offensively bad,” said Dreamgirls rally caller Roeper.
“The reaction was vocally, ostentatiously negative. And not without good reason,” says Joe Reid, host of This Had Oscar Buzz podcast now. “Not only was Norbit a bad movie, but it was a movie that represented everything about Eddie Murphy's 2000s career that critics were eager to see him move away from with Dreamgirls. The Klumps, the fat suits, the Dr. Doolittle-style cash grabs, the Pluto Nash-style disasters — Norbit kind of summed up everything that had curdled about Eddie Murphy's film career all wrapped up in one.”
That didn’t keep audiences away. The movie exceeded expectations with an opening weekend gross of $34.2 million, ultimately earning $95 million in the U.S. and $159 million worldwide. Not too shabby for a February comedy.
It helped that Norbit’s distributors, DreamWorks and Paramount (the same studios that released Dreamgirls), executed a full-on marketing blitz for their $60 million investment. Norbit was everywhere, and so was Rasputia.
In film circles, Norbit’s instantly infamous labeling as contender for the worst thing Murphy has ever made naturally made its way into the Oscars conversation. Ballots had been mailed out Jan. 31, and Academy members were in the thick of voting as Norbit was being shredded to pieces in the press. Ballots were due Feb. 20, exactly two weeks after the movie’s ballyhooed opening.
“Is this what a future Oscar winner looks like?” asked the Los Angeles Times’s Greg Braxton and Robert W. Welkos.
“Eddie Murphy should lose the Oscar for doing Norbit in the same manner that a substance abuser should be put back in rehab for lapsing at their 'welcome back' party,” wrote Laremy Legel for MTV News. “It's a raw deal for Eddie because he was tremendous in Dreamgirls, but if losing the Oscar gets us out of another decade of bad choices by him, it's a price we should all be willing to pay.”
Still, Murphy was largely predicted to still win gold right up until showtime. “Eddie Murphy wins the category, deserves to, and will be back in starring roles unless he continues to choose unfunny comedies done just for the money,” wrote Roger Ebert. “The horrible ads for the horrible Norbit certainly haven’t endeared Murphy to voters in the last few weeks, but I think his momentum is such that he’ll win anyway,” opined Eric D. Snider. “He’s the one people have been talking about for months.”
It was 2006 Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) who delivered the verdict on Sunday, Feb. 27 at the Kodak Theatre (now the Dolby) in Hollywood, Calif.
“And the Oscar goes to… Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine,” Weisz proclaimed as the telecast depicted a five-way split-screen of nominees, Arkin shaking his head in disbelief when the others cheered. That included Murphy, though the actor famously left the ceremony early after losing.
“That he took a chance and allowed his legions of fans to see him in a serious drama was brave, but he acted like a spoilsport,” says Susan Wloszczyna, RogerEbert.com Oscarologist who visited the set of Dreamgirls and covered the film for USA Today “like a rug” when it was released.
And just like that, “Norbit cost Eddie Murphy the Oscar” was written into the annals of film lore. "Norbit became a verb for how to mess up your chance to win an Oscar,” remembers Wloszczyna.
“Obviously, the critics weren't fond of Norbit, but I think what hurt Murphy more then the reviews were the then-inescapable ads and the silly-sounding name,” says New York Times’s The Projectionist Kyle Buchanan. “The Academy likes to see comedians get serious and just when he'd pulled that off in Dreamgirls — to the tune of his first Oscar nomination — all those bad-taste Norbit commercials made them view Murphy as a dramatic dilettante.”
In 2013, Entertainment Weekly went so far as to dub the phenomenon of losing an Oscar because of a maligned follow-up release, “The Norbit Effect.” Though, curiously, among all the other examples cited — the release of the comedy dud All About Steve (2009) as Sandra Bullock chased an Oscar for The Blind Side, Anne Hathaway starring in the rom-com Bride Wars (2009) as she had buzz for Rachel Getting Married, Natalie Portman appearing in the rom-com No Strings Attached (2011) as her hype train for Black Swan felt unstoppable — it was only Norbit that EW proclaimed a true Oscar killer. (Bullock and Portman still won, while Hathaway was considered the underdog to Kate Winslet in The Reader.)
“Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore still walked away with Oscars in 2015 despite terrible reviews for Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son,” Reid points out. “What happened with Norbit was that it directly contradicted the narrative that had become central to the Eddie Murphy Oscar campaign: namely that Eddie Murphy was back! He'd returned from the wilderness of so many bad movies and bombs, and now he was back to using all that charisma and talent towards something excellent. The Norbit release took some air out of that balloon.”
Of course, there’s no way of telling if it was actually Norbit that hijacked Eddie’s inevitable Oscar. You’d have to attempt to poll the roughly 6,000 members of the Academy at the time, several of whom we’ve no doubt lost over the past 15 years.
There were other factors working against Murphy as well. Though Dreamgirls lead all films that year with eight nominations, that seemingly impressive haul was actually considered a disappointment at the time. Considered the Oscars favorite as both a critical and commercial hit (the musical racked up $103 million in the U.S. and $155 million worldwide), Dreamgirls failed to land nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Bill Condon) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Condon). Those were heavy “snubs.” In fact, Dreamgirls became — and remains — the only film ever to collect the most Oscar nominations in a single year without one of those being for Best Picture.
“I think Academy members just liked the other movies better,” Condon said at the time.
It’s worth noting the demographics of those Academy members. This was 11 years before the first #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and longer before the organization’s efforts to diversify its ranks. Six years after the Dreamgirls snubs, the Academy was still 94 percent white, 77 percent male, and 86 percent age 50 or older. Sure there had to be some Supremes fans in that older white boys club, but as Condon said, they liked The Departed (which won Best Picture) and other noms Babel, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine and The Queen more.
And while the Academy does have a history of honoring actors as much for their collective body of work as opposed to a singular performance (Al Pacino in Scent of Woman, Denzel Washington in Training Day, etc.), Murphy’s concentration in comedy — Trading Places, Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, The Nutty Professor, Shrek — may not carry as much goodwill for serious-minded Oscar voters.
Carrey couldn’t even muster a single nomination for The Truman Show, The Man on the Moon (1999) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), neither could Sandler for Punch-Drunk Love or Uncut Gems (2019).
Arkin won on his third nomination, and had been working primarily in drama since the mid-1960s, even if he was hitting comedic beats as the lovable, drug-addicted grandpa to the precocious Olive (Abigail Breslin).
Wloszczyna thought Murphy was going to win. “But Alan Arkin is more of a typical beloved actor, one who had been nominated two times previously for an Oscar without a win,” she says. “He was a stitch" in Sunshine.
Murphy’s reputation in the industry could have played into his loss, too, Reid says. “There was also talk that Murphy wasn't incredibly well-liked in Hollywood circles, the same kind of chatter that arose when Sylvester Stallone lost the Oscar he was widely expected to win for Creed. That's all rumors and ephemera, of course, but it all is.”
Even beyond Murphy’s loss, all that glitter in Dreamgirls didn’t make for much gold. It won only two of its eight nominations: Hudson for Best Supporting Actress, and Best Sound Mixing.
Murphy, meanwhile, is still seeking his second nomination, though it’s not from lack of effort. He drew Oscar buzz again in 2019 for his brash yet heartwarming turn as underground comedy legend Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name, but like Sandler that year for Uncut Gems, failed to crack the Oscar ballot.
“Whether or not Murphy should have won the Oscar for Dreamgirls, it's wild that it remains his only nomination,” says Buchanan. “He should have been in the mix for The Nutty Professor, Dolemite... hell, even Bowfinger! But Oscar voters have never sparked to the act of comic transformation like you'd hope.”
Adds Reid: “We'll never know for sure if Norbit was really part of the reason why Eddie Murphy lost, but the bottom line is that if voters loved him in Dreamgirls enough, Norbit wouldn't have mattered.”