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Eddie Murphy: Oscar Nominee?

By Ronald Grover Can a smart-aleck cartoon jackass with a penchant for jokes about flatulence get nominated for an Oscar? That's what the good folks at Dreamworks are working hard to find out.

The jackass -- arguably the funniest character Hollywood put on film last year -- is featured in Dreamworks' monster hit Shrek and is given life by the voice of Eddie Murphy. The wisecracking donkey has already worked his magic at the box office, helping Shrek pull in more than $455 million worldwide. On Feb. 12, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announces Oscar nominations for 2001, we'll see if that magic also wins Murphy his first nomination.

The odds aren't great that the 40-year-old comedian will get the nod for best supporting actor, the category for which Dreamworks is heavily promoting him these days. In fact, no actor in an animated film has ever been nominated by the Academy's voters for any award. Still, stranger things have happened.

BIG BUZZ. On Jan. 28, Murphy became the first "voice" to be nominated in the best supporting actor category by the British Academy of Film & Television Arts, Oscar's much less well-known London cousin. His distinguished competition includes Moulin Rouge's Jim Broadbent, Harry Potter's Robbie Coltrane, and Colin Firth of Bridget Jones's Diary.

Landing Murphy the Oscar nomination would no doubt be a coup for Dreamworks, which is fast getting a reputation as an actor's studio for its willingness to go the extra mile to promote the stars they pay millions to. Promoting its stars is also good business. The best picture Oscar nomination for Disney's Beauty and the Beast -- the first time an animated film was nominated -- boosted the flick's video sales mightily. There's no telling how much added buzz Shrek will get if Murphy becomes the first "voice" nominated for best supporting actor.

That's why Dreamworks' marketing whiz Terry Press is pulling out all the stops, even if it's an uphill battle. Press is already spending tons of money to promote Shrek, which will likely be nominated this year for the first best animated film Oscar. She has spent well over $5 million so far, putting ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, many of which heavily stress the lovable donkey. Notable is the full-page back cover Dreamworks took out showing him wearing black shades and a goofy grin as he thanks the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. for nominating Shrek as the year's best animated feature.

MARKETING MASTERS. Late last year, when the film won eight Annie awards (which are given only to animated films), the studio plastered the front page of the trades with an ad showing the donkey and his Shrek love interest, the fire-breathing dragon.

No one wages such campaigns better than the crew at Dreamworks, which cranked up its marketing machine in 2000 to get a best picture statue for American Beauty and did it again last year with Gladiator. And their chances for a score look pretty good this year. Shrek may well walk off with the less-glamorous best picture Oscar for an animated film, and it has a financial interest in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, a likely multiple Oscar nominee. But can even the aggressive, go-for-broke Press get Murphy's disembodied voice recognized?

"If the nominations go to the actor that gives the best performance, how can you not vote for what Eddie Murphy did in this film?" she asks. "Anyone who thinks that doing the voice for an animated film isn't acting just doesn't know what they're talking about. It's hard work."

DIMINISHED ODDS.And that's the rub. Is such work acting? Press argues that providing the voice for an animated film may be even harder than playing a traditional role, since the actor often does the work without another actor to play off and while standing in a soundstage rather being in character on a set. But will that cut it with the 1,315-member Actors Branch, which votes on the acting nominations before the entire 5,739-member Academy selects the finalists? The Academy rules say an actor or actress "in any role shall be eligible for nomination" unless "all the dialogue has been dubbed by another actor."

Murphy's chances took a bit of a nosedive last year when the Golden Globe nominations were announced. The Globe nominations are usually pretty good indicators of how the Academy is likely to vote. Murphy lost out in that voting to nominees Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, Hayden Christensen in Life as a House, Ben Kinglsey in Sexy Beast, Jude Law in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Jon Voight in Ali.

The winner was Jim Broadbent, who won the Globe for his work in Iris, in which he portrays the husband of Alzheimer's afflicted writer Iris Murdoch. Dreamworks says Globe voters were confused about Murphy's eligibility for a nomination. This time, Academy members know he qualifies. The question is: Will they they care? Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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