I was planning on writing an entirely different column about “Coming to America.” It would’ve been about the American dream and Eddie Murphy’s super-nova ’80s career, with maybe a joke or two about the royal wipers.
Then I saw this weekend’s “Game of Thrones.”
Don’t worry. For anyone who hasn’t seen the episode yet, this post is spoiler-free. For those who don’t watch the show, it’s what I describe as “Dungeons & Dragons” meets the “Sopranos.” I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of sexposition (sex + exposition), ice-zombies, beheadings, beheadings of ice-zombies and beautiful white people doing ugly things.
For those who did watch, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say it was one of the most shocking episodes in television history (as your Facebook feed confirmed yesterday). That night, in a weird fever dream about a medieval/African wedding, it occurred to me that there were some connections between the unforgiving world of Westeros and the limitless world of Zamunda. Royal families. An arranged marriage. Unapologetic nudity. And most importantly…
Both are essentially fairy tales.
Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman called “Coming to America” (her work was nominated for an Oscar) “An African Cinderella story.” The tale of Prince Akeem of Zamunda and his search for love in Queens was the culmination of a real life Cinderella story for its three principals: Eddie Murphy, who went from the projects of Brooklyn to ’80s megastar. John Landis (“Animal House,” “Trading Places”), who worked in the 20th Century Fox mailroom before directing some of cinema’s best comedies. And Arsenio Hall, who was propelled from “Real Ghostbusters” voice actor into his own ’90s talk-show.
So what made “Coming to America” the third highest grossing film of 1988 and one of Murphy’s most beloved films? Yes, it’s endlessly quotable (“Sexual Chocolate!”). Yes, Rick Baker’s makeup is incredible (he went on to win an Oscar for Murphy’s “Nutty Professor”). Yes, it makes me crave two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a bun. But what we really fell in love with was the fairy tale. The idea that true love could conquer all. That you could be a bookkeeper at a McDowell’s one day and become a princess the next. That the American dream could come true.
On the flip side, “Game of Thrones” takes the fairy tale and subverts it at every turn. The comedy turns to tragedy. The princesses always marry the wrong men. The redemptive ride into the sunset never happens. The honorable lose, the corrupt win, and there is no happy ending. At it’s best, the show is unpredictable, uncompromising and as addictive as a Scooby Snack. At it’s worst, it’s the American nightmare.
So for those “Thrones” virgins who have no clue what I’m talking about, go out and enjoy “Coming to America” for what it is: a classic fish out of water film and one of Murphy’s best. For those still suffering from GOTPTSD (“Game of Thrones” post-traumatic stress disorder), think of Wednesday’s screening as the cleansing cracker after a mouth full of bread and salt.
For now, let’s forget that world of fire-breathing dragons. It all feels a little too real. Let’s travel to the magical world of Queens, where happily ever after feels just real enough.
“Coming to America” screens on Wednesday, June 5th, at 7 and 10 p.m., at Ward Consolidated Theatres as part of the Hana Hou Picture Show. The “Game of Thrones” season 3 finale premieres this Sunday night on HBO.
“Coming to America” nerd trivia:
• For the role of Lisa, the studio wanted to hire Vanessa Williams (“Ugly Betty”). Murphy and Landis pushed for Shari Headley.
• This film was Eric La Salle’s (E.R.) breakout role and was the very first film for Cuba Gooding Jr. (He was the “Boy Getting a Haircut”).
• A TV pilot of “Coming to America” was filmed starring Tommy Davidson (“In Living Color”). The pilot went unsold but you can still find the show on the Internet.
• The dance performed before presenting Prince Akeem his Queen is lifted from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, which John Landis also directed.
• King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair) reunited as another King and Queen: as the voices of Mufasa and Sarabi in “The Lion King.”
Movie posters courtesy of MVNP