Season three of “American Idol” was set up to be a battle of the divas: Fantasia Barrino vs. LaToya London and Jennifer Hudson. But when fans ousted Hudson during week six, before less-talented singers such as Jasmine Trias and John Stevens, there was an outcry of vote fixing and guest judge Elton John made accusations of racism.
When Barrino went on to win the competition, it was easy to assume that Hudson would join the ranks of has-been “Idol” finalists such as Ryan Starr (season 1) and Carmen Rasmusen (season 2). But that’s not what happened.
Hudson is about to enter yet another high-profile contest. But this time primetime TV viewers won’t be deciding her fate. Instead, Academy Award voters such as Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson will make the choice. With her role as Effie White in “Dreamgirls,” Hudson not only becomes a contender for Oscar, she’s a lock to take home the prize.
By taking on this role, she steps into some big shoes. Look no farther than YouTube and you’ll find Jennifer Holliday’s breathtaking performance of the same role at the 1982 Tony Awards. Does Hudson have Holliday’s voice? No. Hers is strong, but she’s not Holliday. What Hudson does have is the vulnerability that is required to play Effie White.
This story, loosely based on the Supremes, tells how, during girl group The Dreams’ rise to success, Effie is pushed aside for the more beautiful Deena (Beyonce Knowles) by her own lover-manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). In the moment she finds this out, she breaks into the musical’s showstopper, “And I’m Telling You.” The song is a showcase for Effie’s toughness, but it’s also a moment of pathetic beauty, in which Effie tells someone who has already walked away that she’s not going anywhere. She literally winds up singing to an empty room.
It's a brava performance that elicits pains of empathy for someone who is putting their most raw emotions out there only to get nothing in return. You feel for Hudson’s Effie White. Her pain becomes yours.
Of course, one number does not make a role, and Hudson (who comes in as the novice actor in this cast) has to play the biggest diva of the bunch, and she succeeds — whipping one-liners at Foxx and Knowles. Hudson lets the audience enjoy her toughness and humor, but never once seems impervious to hurt. She is all too vulnerable — and we see her fall long before it comes.
Is her debut performance a fluke? Is she this year’s Haing S. Ngor (best supporting actor winner for “The Killing Fields”)? Perhaps. Maybe that’s what Simon Cowell thought, too, when he watched her walk off the “American Idol” stage. But that’s no reason not to reward this powerhouse performance with a best-supporting actress Oscar.