It was 40 years ago when Canadian actor Dan Aykroyd participated in a Hollywood practice that has since been deemed highly inappropriate. He recently reflected on when he wore dark makeup in a scene from Trading Places, and noted that it would not fly these days. He also reflected on the changing sensitivities in the comedy world in the four decades since the film’s release.
The film was an absolute success
When Trading Places hit theaters in 1983, it became a commercial success. While it never claimed the top spot in box office sales, it did spend seventeen straight weeks in the top ten-highest-grossing films. It also earned the title of the fourth-highest-grossing film that year.
The movie, directed by John Landis, follows Aykroyd as the rich commodities broker Louis Winthorpe III and Eddie Murphy as the poor street hustler Billy Ray Valentine. These two men of different social tiers are the subjects of a bet that sees them switching their financial situations.
Aykroyd used dark makeup in the movie
“I probably wouldn’t be allowed to do a Jamaican accent, white face or Black,” he said. Throughout the 20th century, the practice of wearing dark makeup for caricature purposes diminished as more people began to recognize how highly offensive it is, though it did not disappear entirely – as Trading Places shows.
He says the scene couldn’t be done today
Aykroyd remembered, “Eddie and I were improvising there. Eddie is a Black man and his entourage were all Black people, and I don’t think they batted an eye. There was no objection then; nobody said anything. It was just a good comic beat that was truthful to the story.”
Now, he says, things are much different. “In these days we’re living in, all that’s out the window. I would be hard-pressed to do an English accent and get away with it. They’d say, ‘Oh, you’re not English, you can’t do it.'”
“Who can be the subject of an impression today?” he continued. “That’s an area of discussion. Can I do my James Brown imitation? He was one of my best friends. I do his voice pretty good. But maybe I shouldn’t anymore.”
He did stress the importance of the increased sensitivity in comedy, saying that comedians “don’t have to go pulling any divisive cards to get a laugh. There is so much in the world to comment on that is outside the realm of offensiveness. As a writer, you can go to other areas and have successful creative endeavors.”
When speaking of Trading Places’s legacy, Aykroyd said he thinks it’s “right up there with It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story” as a lasting fan favorite.