By DAVID GERMAIN
LOS ANGELES — It’s a dramatic shift, when funny men turn serious. Even Eddie Murphy, the latest of Hollywood’s top comic performers to try, has had some laughs over his own transformation, which could bring him an Academy Award.
At the Screen Actors Guild awards, where he won yet another supporting-actor prize for ‘‘Dreamgirls’’ amid the build-up to Oscar night, Murphy copped a British accent as he soberly remarked how honored he was to be recognized by his peers. Murphy could not keep the wiseguy with the broad grin in check for more than a few seconds, though. ‘‘No, I’m sorry,’’ Murphy said after a moment, cracking up with laughter. ‘‘It’s just when the British people come and get the awards, it’s so smooth with their stuff. And I feel goofy up here, ’cause I don’t be winning stuff.’’
And most comic actors don’t be winning stuff like an Oscar when they turn in a worthy serious performance. Some, like Will Smith, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, at least can get nominated. Others, such as Steve Martin, Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler, never get that far.
Yet Murphy looks as though he will follow ‘‘Dreamgirls’’ co-star Jamie Foxx, the best-actor recipient two years ago, as an actor who started in comedy and made good with a dramatic role.
Murphy also won the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards as supporting actor for ‘‘Dreamgirls,’’ a role that let him cut loose with a twist on his blistering James Brown impersonation from his stand-up and ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ days.
As 1960s and ’70s soul singer James ‘‘Thunder’’ Early, Murphy also displays a dark side, portraying with tragic restraint a doomed man whose desires to venture beyond his showy pop persona are thwarted.
It’s not as though Murphy was revealing some inner pain he’s been carrying since he shot to celebrity at age 19 on ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ and became one of the most resilient movie stars of modern times.
‘‘I can’t relate to the tragic side of Jimmy Early. I have the closest you can get to having a charmed existence in this town,’’ Murphy, 45, said in a recent TV interview.
Unlike comedic roles that might benefit from his improvisational wit, ‘‘Dreamgirls’’ had Murphy sticking largely to the script.
‘‘I was in completely uncharted waters doing a movie like this, so I wasn’t as quick to improvise, because they are not going for the joke,’’ Murphy told APTN. ‘‘My character has some moments when he is funny, but he is really this tragic figure, how he winds up. He is kind of cool and charismatic in the beginning, but he wasn’t really supposed to be that funny, so I wasn’t doing a lot of improvising.’’
Turmoil in Murphy’s private life clearly helped him capture Early’s anguish, ‘‘Dreamgirls’’ director Bill Condon said. During filming, Murphy was enduring the breakup of his 12-year marriage.
‘‘No question, he was being wiped out emotionally,’’ Condon said. ‘‘He would talk about the fact he was glad to have to channel some of this into the part and how he almost wished he was doing a completely serious, full-on drama, because he could take all that pain and kind of channel it there.’’
After establishing himself as one of the biggest box-office draws of the 1980s and early 1990s with ‘‘48 Hrs.,’’ ‘‘Trading Places,’’ ‘‘Coming to America’’ and the first two ‘‘Beverly Hills Cops’’ flicks, Murphy has seesawed through hits and flops for more than a decade.
He’s also had his share of public embarrassment, including a 1997 incident in which police pulled him over after he picked up a transsexual prostitute. (Murphy said he was just being nice and giving the person a ride.)
In December, a paternity feud erupted after Murphy said he was unsure if he was the father of ex-girlfriend Melanie Brown’s unborn child. Brown, formerly of the Spice Girls, said Murphy is the father.
In the mid-1990s, Murphy pulled himself out of the box-office doldrums with ‘‘The Nutty Professor,’’ followed by a sequel, ‘‘Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,’’ in which he went the Peter Sellers route by playing multiple roles, a feat he pulled off in such films as ‘‘Coming to America.’’
He does the same in his current comedy, ‘‘Norbit,’’ which opened as the No. 1 movie with $33.7 million last weekend. Murphy stars as mild-mannered Norbit, his grossly overweight wife and the Chinese orphanage owner who raised him.
The makers of ‘‘Norbit’’ hesitated over releasing the broad comedy in the middle of a potential Oscar campaign for Murphy, said director Brian Robbins, but Murphy wasn’t buying that.
‘‘It was Eddie who said, ‘Hey, you know what? I love ‘‘Norbit.’’ It’s funny, it works. It’s good for me to not only do ‘‘Dreamgirls’’ but have ‘‘Norbit,’’ out there, too,’ ’’ said Robbins, who also directs Murphy in his next flick, the sci-fi comedy ‘‘Starship Dave,’’ which begins shooting right after the Oscars.
‘‘And look what he does in ‘Norbit.’ This is what this guy can do. It’s nice that he embraces both. He’s conscious enough to embrace his strengths.’’