Eddie Murphy, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson: All indisputable geniuses in the 80s. Hit-or-miss in the 90s. And, at least before the outpouring of adulation for Jackson today, you probably wouldn't want to trade reputations with any of them.
[Ed. note: I've been enjoying T.A.N.'s stuff so much on Saturday afternoons that I decided to move him up to a primetime slot on Fridays where he'll post a couple things each week.]
Everyone should have a go-to quote to come off like a learned smarty-pants. Mine is from Nietzsche who said, "the only proof of strength is excess of strength". I love it because in our current link-don't-tell culture it speaks to how proof of brilliance needs to be hyperlinkably obvious. For Woody, Eddie, and Michael this was never an issue. No one ever calls into question their obvious excess of talent. But yet, reading the news and reviews from the past week or so, and it seems being a genius doesn't seem to hold the same water it used to. At the least, critics and journalists appear to be challenging the statute of limitations on genius privileges like never before:
Eddie Murphy: This post was seeded by Brooks Barnes in the NY Times (who also was involved with NYT coverage of MJ) wondering how/why Eddie Murphy still had so much Hollywood clout, despite being the butt of more jokes than he makes these days. In the sidebar they list his top 5 box office grosses, totaling up to $780 million. If you throw in Coming to America and a couple of his middling performers like, say, Boomerang and Harlem Nights, you're approaching a billion dollars in box office bank before you even get to ten movies. Murphy is the #2 man all time at the box office, right behind Tom Hanks and ahead of names like Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise. So, what's the question again? Asking Hollywood why they keep going to Eddie Murphy is like asking why the Yankees keep putting ARod in the cleanup spot (despite inconsistent production).
Make no mistake, it's not all bankability with Eddie (worth noting: the above tallies don't even include Shrek 1, 2, 3 paper; talk about "still spending money from '88"); the man is a true and living legend. You could probably make a decent argument that SNL is a franchise as much due to Murphy as Lorne Michaels. His approach to race-humor set the template for every non-Cosby comic alive today. He's a pillar of comedy, cinema, and racism. And, you know, he could even dabble with music a little bit.
But what has genius brought Eddie? Every review nowadays shits on him for wearing fat-suits. His old comedy specials are increasingly noted less for comedy and more for their rampant misogyny and homophobia (which he has apologized for). And the "Relationships" section of his Wiki entry is chubby from controversy; including phrases like "DNA testing" and "transvestite prostitute". That's enough drama to make a man want to make a movie in a fat-suit just to get away from it all. Or at least have some homicidal hot-flashes.
Woody Allen: For Woody, I can probably say even less. Or anything. Talk about prolific excess: Plays, books, movies, no one of today's generation remembers his career as a stand up, but yeah, that too. His brand of literary humor has influenced legions. He's responsible for the Jewish nebbish male ethnic archetype. The man is a pillar of comedy, cinema, and racism. And, you know, he could even dabble with the music a little bit!
And what has genius brought Woody? Here he's probably thinking he's the man because a script he wrote in the 70s still has enough legs to be made into a movie some thirty years later. It doesn't work and all of a sudden some critics might use it to erase his whole oeuvre from the Hard Drive of Cultural Import. Of course, he too has been married multiple times. And the "Relationships" section of his Wikipedia entry reads like some sordid psycho-sexual Freudian dream sequence gone awry and remixed by Danger Mouse and David Lynch. Don't geniuses just get the hot chick and live happily ever after?
In Woody's case you at least have the premise for it all being worth it to shoot Penelope Cruz and ScarJo lustily making out with Javier Bardem. But at his age all of that likely falls under the rubric of "indigestion". And can't you see Woody breaking the 4th wall and asking what a comic legend of his stature has to do to just be left alone to his work.
Michael Jackson: God bless his soul. This was originally conceived as strictly an Eddie and Woody comedy pairing, but much of the narrative is the same: Indisputable genius: check! A robust "Relationships" wikipedia section: check! A pillar of comedy, video, and racist implications: check! (re. comedy: Jackson jokes are now a genre unto themselves, no?). And, it turns out, he could dabble with the music a little bit.
Last but not least, a growing throng of critics stomping on his fading-but-timeless legacy was the man in Michael's mirror before his unfortunate cardiac arrest yesterday. But doesn't the genius required to sell a love-ballad-to-a-rat as a hit single last forever?
Nick Denton in an AdAge interview recently spoke of Gawker's audience having a significant percentage of content producers; in many ways it's like a comic working a room with a lot of other comedians in it. So maybe this is the best place to ask: if a legacy of genius only matters but so much, what's the point? Do we aspire to emulate the artist-genius anymore? Does a hot Twitter-feed qualify as such in the 0-9?
I guess all that's left is to fatten up our respective "Relationships" sections. The only proof of sex is excess of sex, or somesuch.