Eddie Murphy has been busy lately. The sequel to Coming to America has just come out, and the Golden Globe-nominated Dolemite Is My Name was released in 2019. But prior to this comeback, Murphy was conspicuous by his absence. His previous film was a sugary drama called Mr Church, which flopped in 2016, and the one before that was a sugary comedy called A Thousand Words, which flopped in 2012. In short, an actor who used to star in a film every year spent most of the last decade starring in almost none. The reason? “They’re giving me Razzies,” Murphy explained on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast earlier this month. “[They] gave me the ‘worst actor ever’ Razzie. [I thought,] ‘Maybe it’s time to take a break.'” The co-founder of the Razzies, John JB Wilson, is proud to have prompted such a response. “Just think of all the movies we saved you from,” he tells BBC Culture.
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The Razzies – or, to use their grander title, The Golden Raspberries – are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. In case you haven’t heard of them, they are the anti-Oscars: the annual awards bestowed upon the year’s worst Hollywood films, from Howard the Duck to Hudson Hawk, from Showgirls to Striptease, from Battlefield Earth to The Last Airbender, leading all the way to this year’s nominees, which include a shambolic Robert Downey Jr vehicle, Dolittle, and Sia’s misjudged directorial debut, Music. (Rudy Giuliani gets a worst supporting actor nod for his appearance in Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm.) The Razzies may not be as well-known as the Oscars themselves, but they have become synonymous with America’s most heinous crimes against cinema – as Eddie Murphy will tell you. If a film “wins” a Razzie, that mark of shame is sure to feature on its Wikipedia page and in every article that’s ever written about it. And the whole thing started at an Oscar night party held in Wilson’s living room in Los Angeles in 1981.
The Robert Downey Jr vehicle Dolittle is nominated for worst picture at this year’s Razzies, alongside 365 Days, Fantasy Island, Absolute Proof and Music (Credit: Alamy)
Born in Chicago, Wilson studied at UCLA’s film school, and then landed a copywriting job at a company that produced trailers. In 1980, he went to a double bill of disco-tastic musicals, Can’t Stop the Music, starring the Village People, and Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John. They were so awful, he thought, that they deserved to be named and shamed. “I was driving home,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles, “and I very clearly recall thinking, ‘There are Oscars for good films, but there’s no award at the other end of the scale.'”
And so it was that Wilson and his friend Mo Murphy staged their own zero-budget awards ceremony for the amusement of his colleagues from the trailer company. Programmes were printed, ballots were filled in and counted, and after the party guests had watched the Oscars on TV, Wilson remembers, “we did our little thing next to the buffet table”. Satisfyingly, the Razzies’ inaugural worst picture was Can’t Stop the Music, and the worst director was Robert Greenwald for Xanadu – although Stanley Kubrick was shortlisted for The Shining.
Wilson was so happy with the results that he sent out a press release a few days later. Three years after that, he reasoned that if he shifted the event to the night before the Oscars, all the showbiz reporters who were hanging around Los Angeles would be grateful to have something to write about. “When CNN asked to attend and cover it in 1984, I realised it wasn’t just a silly little thing anymore.”
A hatpin to the Oscars’ balloon
The Razzies received an even greater publicity boost in 1988 from Bill Cosby. The now-disgraced comedian had produced, starred in, and plotted a disastrous spy spoof, Leonard Part 6, which went onto win Razzies for worst picture, actor, and screenplay. Keen to turn the debacle to his advantage, Cosby announced that if Wilson and Murphy were going to associate themselves with a star as beloved as he was (yes, the irony is excruciating), they should present him with bona fide gold prizes. That wasn’t standard Razzie practice. The trophies, which were rarely presented to anyone, were plastic raspberries stuck to the top of a film canister. “We like to say that the trophy itself is worth $ 4.97,” says Wilson, “as is most of what we’re honouring.” But Fox’s The Late Show went along with the joke, and paid to have three Golden Raspberries cast in actual gold and mounted on Italian marble bases. Cosby was given these on The Late Show, and he later brought them to NBC’s The Tonight Show, telling Johnny Carson: “I swept the awards!”
Sandra Bullock won a Razzie for her performance in All About Steve in 2010, while also taking home an Oscar for The Blind Side (Credit: Alamy)
Cosby set a trend: A-listers began using the awards to prove how willing they were to laugh at themselves. Some even came to the ceremony, which moved in its early years from Wilson’s house to larger and larger venues around Hollywood. Paul Verhoeven picked up the seven Razzies won by Showgirls in 1996; Halle Berry accepted her acting prize for Catwoman in 2005; and Sandra Bullock collected hers for All About Steve in 2010, the night before she won an Oscar for an even worse film, The Blind Side. Other winners may not have shown up in person, but the likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have tweeted and made videos to acknowledge their “victories”. The big four prizes in the US entertainment industries are the Emmys for television, the Grammys for music, the Oscars for film and the Tony awards for theatre, so someone who has all four is said to have an EGOT. When Alan Menken, the Disney composer, added a Razzie to his collection, he boasted that he had gone one better: he now had a REGOT. Murphy, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so pleased to be named worst actor of the decade in 2010.
All good clean fun, then? A healthy, irreverent antidote to the pomposity of awards season? Wilson believes so. “It’s a counterpoint, a reality check,” he says. “The Academy Awards take themselves so seriously that the Razzies exist to take a hatpin to their balloon.”
But not everyone agrees. There is a groundswell of grumbling in the media that the Razzies are outdated, complacent, sexist, and a wasted opportunity to skewer genuinely reprehensible filmmaking. Articles in The Guardian and The Irish Times have called them “dim-witted”, “deadeningly obvious”, “lazily inaccurate”, and “far more in thrall to celebrity than the Oscars”. One of the criticisms is that the Razzies tend to “honour” the same favourites year after year, while overlooking more worthwhile, ie, more abysmal contenders. Another complaint is that they are stuck in a rut while other, supposedly more conventional awards ceremonies have moved on: when James Corden and Rebel Wilson mock their own film, Cats, at the Oscars, what’s the point of the Razzies doing the same? A further issue is that if a turkey is in contention for the worst picture award, it gets over-represented in all the other categories. For example, it may be fair enough to choose Cats as the stinker of the year, but why nominate its star, Francesca Hayward, as worst actress when she did the best that anyone could have done in the circumstances?
Cats swept the Razzies in 2020, winning six awards, including worst picture and worst director for Tom Hooper (Credit: Alamy)
Wilson doesn’t accept these criticisms. The Razzies, he says, are simply reflecting the average cinema-goer’s view of Hollywood’s latest offerings. Anyone who pays a small fee can vote, so there are now 1100 Razzie members who are being honest about what they loathe. “It’s not supposed to be mean, it’s supposed to be in the spirit of fun, but it expresses a real opinion. People really didn’t like those films. And I would argue that we have been pretty accurate. Our members are pretty good at picking films that did deserve to win.”
What about piling on actors who have delivered solid performances in regrettable projects? Wilson counters that this isn’t about the acting per se, but about collective responsibility. “The actors all have a choice and I assume they all read the script before they said yes, so they have to take some of the blame. And if they were offended by what was going on around them on set, why didn’t they say something to the director? What we’re really saying is, ‘You’ve shown us you can do better stuff, so why are you in Cats? Why are you in Battlefield Earth?'”
Their detractors may not be convinced, but the Razzies never claim to be anything they aren’t. For all the press coverage they get, and all the influence they have, they are still cheap and cheerful party entertainment, run by the people who founded them, and staged with the trashy thrift-store aesthetic of an early John Waters film. Instead of signing up with corporate sponsors or bringing in famous comedians as guest hosts, Wilson and Murphy have stubbornly kept on doing their own thing for four decades – and, in Hollywood, that’s worthy of an award itself. “Years and years ago,” says Wilson, “a company that puts on one of the very big awards ceremonies came to us and asked if they could be involved. We talked to them, and the first thing they said was, ‘Do you have to use the word “worst”?’ We knew it wasn’t going to work out.”
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