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Image: Dreamgirls cast
Kevork Djansezian  /  AP
When "Dreamgirls" took the Golden Globe for best musical/comedy, many thought it was a lock for an Oscar nomination for best picture. Co-stars from the film from left, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx pose backstage at the Globes on Monday, Jan. 15.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/5/2007 12:01:46 PM ET 2007-02-05T17:01:46
Commentary

At approximately 5:40 a.m. Tuesday, Eddie Murphy got a call he thought he would never, ever get. Murphy’s publicist, Arnold Robinson, who was sitting in the rear of the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, rang the “Dreamgirls” star and told whomever answered the phone: “Wake him up!”

Murphy, who has said publicly he’d never be nominated for an Oscar — particularly after his 1989 appearance when he joked about blacks routinely being dissed by the Academy Awards (the audience that night didn’t find that joke too funny) — was probably elated to get that call. After winning the Golden Globe for best supporting actor, Murphy is the favorite to win an Oscar in that same category when he goes up against Alan Arkin for “Little Miss Sunshine,” Jackie Earle Haley for “Little Children” and surprise nominees Djimon Hounsou for “Blood Diamond” and Mark Wahlberg for “The Departed,” on Feb. 25.

But Murphy was perhaps a little surprised, as were some of the reporters attending the announcements, when told that “Dreamgirls,” which led all nominees with eight nods — including Jennifer Hudson’s expected nod for best supporting actress — wasn’t nominated for best picture. Nor did Bill Condon get a nod for best director. That’s another kind of wakeup call.

The “Dreamgirls” snub was rather startling since the film had won the Golden Globe for best musical/comedy, and was seemingly one of the top picks of many respected film critics and a whole slew of arm-chair pollsters for an Oscar nod. Yet, it’s not shocking when you consider what films were nominated.

As I’ve written before, “Dreamgirls,” a film that purportedly chronicles the breakup of Diana Ross & The Supremes, is an entertaining adaptation of the Tony Award-winning stage play, but it was an insufferably uneven movie mostly because of the unbalanced performances of the cast. Some brought it, some didn’t.

Musical number propelled Hudson
Beyonce Knowles didn’t have the chops to convincingly portray the Ross-inspired character of Deena. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx was unimpressive as her manager/husband Curtis. Hudson, appearing in her first film, was a joy to watch but her greatness is tied to the show-stopping musical number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Without that and the momentum that followed in the press, Hudson’s name probably wouldn’t have been among the other nominees.

And Murphy, who was going through a stressful divorce while shooting the film, added some substance to an old “Saturday Night Live” character (James Brown) and hit pay dirt. If the rest of the cast had risen to his level, then the folks at DreamWorks and Paramount wouldn’t be scrapping those ad campaigns they’d already mocked up for the trade publications.

There will be critics and activists who will suggest that race played a factor in the film’s omission from the best picture list. While you can never be sure that’s not the case in this town, I don’t really think it applies in this scenario. It’s real easy — the best films of the year were nominated. You’ve got the cliché flicks — the little films that finished big like “Babel” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” You’ve got the epic drama in “The Departed;” the politically correct choice with “Letters from Iwo Jima;” and the amazingly substantive guilty pleasure, “The Queen.”

There was clearly no room for a musical this year regardless of the complexion of the cast.

The fact that “Dreamgirls” wasn’t nominated might be an indication that the vast majority of the old guard — the folks who rarely voted for anyone or anything non-white, are dead and gone. These were the voters reared on the old MGM musicals and love a good girl-meets-boy story set to music. The underlying message of “Dreamgirls” might have escaped them, but they would have certainly enjoyed the singing, dancing and cinematography.

Today’s Academy voters, however, are far more cerebral. They graduated from Ivy League schools, grew up in trailer parks, have had substance abuse problems, went from riches-to-rags and back again. They tend to vote their conscience and are not easily swayed by box office returns. Thankfully, the Oscars are becoming less and less of a popularity contest and more inclusive.

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A truly diverse field
That is why Hayek, a former best actress nominee, squealed with joy when announcing “Babel,” as one of the five best picture nominees. Written and directed by fellow Mexicans, the film earned a total of seven nods — including best director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and writer Guillermo Arriaga. Hayek was also thrilled that her good friend, Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, was among the nominees.

Additionally, Rinko Kikuchi, an Asian, and Adriana Barraza, a Latina, were also nominated for best supporting actress for their work in “Babel.” Two other Latinos — Guilermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”), are up for best screenplay.

Joining them are five African American nominees including Murphy, Hudson, Hounsou and best actor hopefuls Will Smith (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) and Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”). It’s going to be a really colorful year at the Academy Awards.

So, even though “Dreamgirls” got passed over for best film, there’s one dream that will be honored next month. It appears that equality will finally be the big winner on Oscar night.

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