For as long as there have been movies, there have been movie stars.
As early as the 1910s film studios realized familiar faces could bring in audiences. From Florence Lawrence to Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe to Charlton Heston, Tom Cruise to Will Smith, the right movie star can trump story, script, and even production value and turn terrible films into box office gold.
As a child, though, I didn’t understand the concept of following actors; instead, I followed characters. I wanted to see the next film with Kermit the Frog, Luke Skywalker, or God. I wasn’t thinking about Jim Henson, Mark Hamill, or George Burns.
That changed in 1984 when I found my first cinema idol, the man I wished I’d grow up to be.
Much to my parents chagrin, that man was Eddie Murphy.
I was not much of a Saturday Night Live fan when I was young. While I didn’t have a set bedtime, midnight was a bit later than I usually stayed up. I’d seen the show a few times but I was neither a fan, nor did I even know the comedians in the cast.
But in 1984 I had become a cinephile, seeing dozens of films in theaters and countless more on VHS. In addition to the standard kids fare, like Ghostbusters and The Neverending Story, my tastes were starting to evolve. Thanks to Siskel & Ebert I was asking my parents to take me to see some movies where I was clearly not the target audience, such as Amadeus, as well as the fairly risque Johnny Dangerously (I saw it in theaters once… once).
My older sister Susan, home from college for Christmas break, witnessed my maturing interest in film and felt there was one movie phenomenon I was totally missing: Beverly Hills Cop. It had been out a few weeks and had started to build amazing buzz. Critics loved it, and it was topping the box-office.
But it had a hard-R rating, with nudity, intense gun violence, and more curse words than I could count. My parents were fairly lax about what media I consumed (a year later they’d let me rent Revenge of the Nerds knowing full-well what I was about to see), and Susan decided it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. So she took me to the mall, ostensibly to Christmas shop, but, in fact, to see my first R-rated film: Beverly Hills Cop.
I was absolutely awestruck. I had never seen a movie as extreme as this.
The story, originally intended to star Sylvester Stallone, followed fast-talking Detroit police detective Axel Foley’s trip to Los Angeles investigating the murder of his childhood friend. But the cop becomes the criminal when clues point to wealthy art dealer Victor Maitland, and police actually authorized to act in the Beverly Hills jurisdiction try to reign in Foley’s unorthodox inquest. The result is quite a bit of 80’s action, as well as the usual fish-out-of-water jokes, as Foley works both with and against the Beverly Hills Police Department in trying to bring his friend’s killer to justice.
The violence excited and frightened me. I’d seen guns on the big (and small) screen, but before Beverly Hills Cop I’d never seen a man shot twice in the head; chunks of the victim’s skull falling to the carpet. I’d seen car chases on Dukes of Hazzard and other shows, but none had the metal carnage like the truck chase in the film’s opening minutes. I’d seen machine gun shootouts on The A-Team, but those didn’t actually have people falling dead from the wounds.
Then there was the language. My parents had been known to use a few choice words but never had I heard expletives used in this way. Murphy had gone beyond just cursing, he turned his Beverly Hills Cop dialogue into a virtual tone poem of profanity. So shocked was I that I completely misunderstood the main character’s name — in my mind Murphy starred as “Asshole Foley”, with every single character referring to him by that descriptive term. Given the way he acted, who could blame them?
Yet, the entire picture was set to a light, pop score. The synth tones of Harold Faltermeyer ran throughout, interrupted only by chart-topping hits by The Pointer Sisters, Glenn Frey, and Vanity. I was never afraid or scared, I was enthralled. My adrenaline was pumping, I was rocking, and, most importantly, laughing. I had never before experienced a film that felt subversive, like I was seeing a peek into the adult world, hearing how they talked with no kids around.
I loved it.