Eddie Murphy Was Going to Host the Oscars. Then Brett Ratner Happened

In 2011, the comic legend seemed poised for his comeback. His ‘Tower Heist’ director was the man who masterminded it — and also sabotaged the whole thing
Eddie Murphy Was Going to Host the Oscars. Then Brett Ratner Happened

Who would want to host the Oscars? Long ago, it was an honor to get to emcee the classiest and most prestigious of awards shows. But now? In our modern age of shrinking ratings and overabundance of telecasts where celebrities give each other prizes, the person who’s the face of the Academy Awards is often the one blamed for everything that’s wrong with a show that has struggled to stay relevant. These days, it feels less like an honor and more like a suicide mission. 

This doesn’t keep Oscar fans from holding out hope that the right host could turn things around. There was a period of time when observers thought that Neil Patrick Harris, so great on the Tonys, could help right the ship. He failed. During the 2016 Oscar ceremony, Louis C.K. killed as the presenter for Best Documentary Short, prompting journalists to suggest he’d be a great host. (His name is probably not coming up much now.) Tom Hanks is often mentioned as an ideal Oscar host, but that never materialized. Tina Fey, along with Amy Poehler, was excellent as host of the Golden Globes — and was also really funny presenting at the 2019 Oscars with Poehler and Maya Rudolph (inspiring supporters to say, “Hey, they should host someday!”) — but Fey shot down that possibility: “I just feel like that gig is so hard. … No way.” 

Indeed, the Oscars have become such an uninviting gig that, for a few years, the Academy tried going without a host completely. When it comes to picking an ideal host, the show’s producers are constantly trying to find someone — anyone — whose mere presence will lure in younger viewers and energize the Oscar’s slumping viewership. But the truth is, there’s probably no magic name that can do that. Come up with your dream list of candidates — George Clooney, Tig Notaro, bring back Steve Martin! — and none of them will move the needle. No one can save the Oscars from their inherent Oscar-ness.

And yet, in 2011 a lot of us were very excited that Eddie Murphy was going to be hosting the Academy Awards. It didn’t happen. We have Brett Ratner to blame.

In the early 2010s, Murphy’s career was probably at its nadir. Sure, 2010’s Shrek Forever After was a predictably sizable hit. But for about a decade leading up to that forgettable sequel, he starred in a string of movies that were critically derided and/or commercial disasters. Dreamgirls, which earned him his only Oscar nomination to date, was the great exception, but he lost out on Best Supporting Actor to Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, leading to stories that he supposedly stormed off during the show because he was allegedly so angry. Whether it was that overblown controversy or dreck like Meet Dave and Imagine That, Murphy was getting more bad press than good. 

Still, for those who remembered what a comet he was in the 1980s, electrifying Saturday Night Live and then immediately appearing in a series of hit comedies, the hope of a comeback was ever-present. Murphy was simply too talented not to bounce back — and Dreamgirls proved he wasn’t content to just coast in broad comedies and toothless family films. Even at close to 50, that hungry young guy was still in there.

Ratner thought the same. Just as Murphy’s career was losing its luster, Ratner’s was taking off. A Miami kid who went to NYU film school and then started making music videos, he soon transitioned to movies, hooking up with fellow rising star Chris Tucker on Money Talks. Their next film, Rush Hour, made Ratner an A-list director with his own action-comedy franchise. (The Rush Hour trilogy grossed about $850 million worldwide.) In short order, he was working on starry Hannibal Lecter films (Red Dragon) and then 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which became (at that point) the highest-grossing movie ever over Memorial Day Weekend, besting Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Ratner was on a hot streak, and he wasn’t shy about flaunting it, even when he tried to be humble. Hearing about The Last Stand’s record, he responded, “I feel sort of guilty, because I look up to guys like Spielberg, and I beat every record of his.” 

During his meteoric rise, Ratner positioned himself as someone with a passion and respect for Hollywood history. He balanced brashness with reverence for the masters who came before him. And he also let it be known that he was rubbing elbows with those masters. In a 2015 interview, Ratner declared, “People who know me know that I’m a real fan of movies. I’m not just in it for the commerce. I didn’t become friends with (Roman) Polanski because I’m sexy and handsome. It’s only the critics that are the snobs. When I did Rush Hour, Jonathan Demme, Polanski and Warren Beatty called me and said it was their favorite movie of the year, because they know how hard it is to make an action-comedy that works.” This guy was connected, and he was just getting started.

After 2007’s Rush Hour 3, Ratner was looking for his next project. He had always revered Murphy. “If it wasn’t for Eddie, Rush Hour wouldn’t exist, for sure,” Ratner told The Guardian. “I grew up watching 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop. He invented the genre.” And as it just so happened, Murphy had developed a pitch for a crime comedy that would feature a murderers’ row of Black comic actors. The cast changed over time, but Murphy was more invested in the story’s central heist element. “My idea was just a bunch of disgruntled employees trying to knock off Donald Trump,” Murphy later said

Inspired by classic American heist pictures like The Hot Rock and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Murphy watched the project go through development hell. Then Ratner got his hands on it. Initially, he had considered directing what became the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven remake, so Murphy’s project (known as Trump Heist) felt like a second chance on that missed opportunity. “The major difference from the Ocean’s film is those guys were expert thieves,” Ratner said in 2010 when the renamed Tower Heist was officially announced. “These are real guys whose talent is they know the inner workings of the building and the people in it. It took a long time for this to come together, but it was totally worth the wait. This has a lot of heart to go along with the humor.” 

The film starred Ben Stiller as Josh, a high-rise building manager, and Murphy as Slide, Josh’s old friend who’s a thief. Together, they — along with an all-star cast, including Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Michael Peña and Gabourey Sidibe — plan to steal money from a crooked, Bernie Madoff-like swindler (Alan Alda) who’s under house arrest in his swanky pad in the building. But for most film lovers, what was exciting about Tower Heist wasn’t the premise but the fact that Murphy was going to be in it. After wasting time in mostly disposable films in recent years, Murphy seemed to be doing something a little more substantial with Tower Heist — not necessarily an artistic masterpiece, but a high-concept action-comedy that could be a big hit. Maybe that comeback was just around the corner?

Tower Heist was slated to be released in early November, which is also around the time that the Academy revs up its preparations for the following year’s Oscar ceremony. Over the summer of 2011, it was announced that, alongside Don Mischer, a veteran of producing live television events, Ratner would be in charge of putting together the 2012 Academy Awards. Big-time Hollywood directors are rarely tapped for the job, so Ratner’s hiring was a surprise, especially to him.

“I almost felt like I was in The Twilight Zone,” he said soon after the announcement. “I didn’t know what to think. I was just trying to keep my cool.” So what made Tom Sherak and Dawn Hudson, the president and CEO, respectively, of the Academy pick him? “I think my love of comedy had a lot to do with it,” Ratner offered. “To their credit, Tom and Dawn really understand what is needed, and comedy is a big part of it, and I want to make that part of it. I think that is going to be tremendous.”

Once the Oscar producers are selected, then the next big question is: Who’s going to host? Quickly, the hot rumor was that it would be Murphy. What better way to cement his return to glory than by having him handle the Academy Awards? Those rumors became reality in early September when the Academy revealed Murphy as its choice for host. “I am enormously honored to join the great list of past Academy Award hosts from Hope and Carson to Crystal, Martin and Goldberg, among others,” Murphy said in a statement

As an added bonus, the gig would be a way for him to demonstrate that, although he had left early that night, he had no hard feelings about losing the Oscar for Dreamgirls. Years later, Murphy told Rolling Stone, “People were like, ‘He’s upset (about not winning)’ and I’m like, ‘I wasn’t upset!’ … I didn’t have sour grapes at all. That’s another reason I wanted to host the show — to show them that I’m down with it.”

For two months in the fall of 2011, we all got to relish the possibility of what an Eddie Murphy-led Oscars would look like. The Academy had made an inspired choice. Murphy was a veteran stand-up, and while he certainly wouldn’t be as edgy as his 1980s routines, he was a reliable comedic presence who knew how to work big rooms — as opposed to James Franco and Anne Hathaway, who had co-hosted the previous year and bombed. And he wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power: When Murphy presented Best Picture in 1988, he began by calling out the Academy for not honoring enough Black artists. Even though he was probably as popular as he’d ever been at the box office at that moment, that took guts.

So, there were plenty of reasons to be excited. Hosting the Oscars on the heels of a sure-to-be-hit movie: Murphy’s second act was writing itself.

And then Tower Heist came out. 

The movie got only okay reviews, which wasn’t surprising, but what was a bit of a shock  was that, on its opening weekend in early November, it didn’t even land at No. 1 at the box office, defeated by Puss in Boots, which had come out a week earlier. That wasn’t what most film journalists were talking about, though. They were too focused on a Q&A Ratner gave on Tower Heist’s opening night, Friday, November 4th, after a screening at L.A.’s Arclight Theater. An audience member asked him about the film’s rehearsal process. “Rehearsal? What’s that? Rehearsal’s for ____,” he reportedly joked, using a four-letter homophobic slur. 

This was Ratner’s sense of humor. He always carried himself as a bit of a bad boy — a backslapping, irreverent guy’s guy who shot from the lip. He thought spouting slurs was funny. But it wasn’t the only obnoxious thing he said during that press tour. On Attack of the Show, he went after Olivia Munn, who had accused him of masturbating in front of her while eating shrimp. “I used to date Olivia Munn,” he said, “I’ll be honest with everybody here. … She was hanging out on my set of After the Sunset, I banged her a few times … but I forgot her. … So when she came and auditioned with me for a TV show, I forgot her, she got pissed off. And she made up all these stories about me eating shrimp and masturbating in my trailer. And she talked about my shortcomings. … She’s bitter.” (In that same interview, he noted that their hookups occurred back when she was acting under her legal first name, Lisa. “That was the problem,” he said. “She wasn’t Asian back then.” Munn would later claim that it was “a complete lie” that the two of them had been intimate.) 

Ratner also appeared on Howard Stern, bragging, “I’m now the producer of the Oscars, so I really can’t talk about all the sex I got.” During his segment, he discussed his love for oral sex and claimed that he made Munn “look like a whore.”

But it was the homophobic slur at the Q&A that most angered the Hollywood community and organizations like GLAAD. On Monday, Ratner was doing serious damage control, releasing a statement that read, “I apologize for any offense my remarks caused. It was a dumb and outdated way of expressing myself. Everyone who knows me knows that I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body. But as a storyteller I should have been much more thoughtful about the power of language and my choice of words.”

For a few hours, it seemed like Ratner might be able to hold onto his Oscar producing job. That same day, Sherak stood by Ratner, saying, “His remarks were inappropriate. He said it best in his apology, that his comments were dumb and insensitive. When you think of our community, it went against all the beliefs of the creative community we represent. He knew it was wrong, and he issued that response as quickly as any human being ever has. The bottom line is, this won’t and can’t happen again. It will not happen again. He apologized and we will move forward. How do I know this? I’ve known this man for a very long time. He has many friends who are members of the gay and lesbian community. The apology he gave I truly believe comes from his heart. If I didn’t believe it, I would do something about it. This is about integrity and honoring the Academy Awards, but we all make mistakes and I believe he didn’t mean it.”

But the handwriting was on the wall: Ratner had to go. “There’s not really a long, nuanced debate to be had about this,” writer and Hollywood historian Mark Harris argued in Grantland at the time. “If he had used an equivalent racial or religious slur, the discussion would go something like, ‘You’re fired.’ Apology or not. The same rule applies here. You don’t get a mulligan on homophobia. Not in 2011.”

A day later, Ratner was out. And just as rumors swirled after Ratner was initially hired that he’d tap Murphy to be his Oscar host, we all knew what was going to happen next: Murphy would step away, too. A day after Ratner’s departure, Murphy pulled out of the hosting gig. “I appreciate how Eddie feels about losing his creative partner, Brett Ratner, and we all wish him well,” Sherak said in a statement, with Murphy adding, in part, “I was truly looking forward to being a part of the show that our production team and writers were just starting to develop, but I’m sure that the new production team and host will do an equally great job.”

Just like that, the dream of Eddie Murphy hosting the Oscars was over. Billy Crystal was picked as his replacement, his ninth time as the ceremony’s emcee. Tower Heist failed to be a hit. Murphy went on to release A Thousand Words and Mr. Church, two of his all-time worst films, and then disappeared from the spotlight for a few years. Ratner made Hercules. The world moved on and tried to forget the whole thing.

The Ratner Oscar debacle happened 12 years ago — long before so-called cancel culture existed — but it was a precursor to the long-overdue repercussions that would finally be handed out for awful Hollywood behavior. It was ironic that Ratner touted people like Polanski as his close buddies: Soon, he would find himself in a similar pariah position. Almost exactly six years after Ratner lost the Oscar producing job, the Los Angeles Times published a story in which six women accused the director of sexual harassment or misconduct, including Munn and fellow actress Natasha Henstridge. Ratner denied the accusations, but Warner Bros. (which was the home for his production company) cut ties with him the same day. He hasn’t directed a film since Hercules.

As for Murphy, he did eventually get that comeback. His 2019 film Dolemite Is My Name was one of his strongest in years, and he hosted SNL soon thereafter. Since then, he’s been enjoying a renaissance of sorts.

This year’s Oscars will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. It’s hard to muster any excitement about that. It’s easy to start fantasizing about who would be a better choice. Eddie Murphy definitely comes to mind. But maybe he (and we) got the best of both worlds: He got picked to host but didn’t have to deal with the inevitable audience disappointment when he didn’t live up to our lofty expectations. Sometimes the idealized version of something is better than the imperfect real thing that might have actually occurred. Maybe Murphy would have been a bad Oscar host. He would hardly be the first talented performer to fall victim to a show that’s immune to change. 

For better or worse, we’ll never know.

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