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Were Oscar odds stacked against ‘Dreamgirls’?

A film with a predominately African American cast has never taken home the big prize. By Miki Turner
/ Source: contributor

“Dreamgirls” was inarguably one of the most anticipated feature films of 2006. It had big names — Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Oscar winner James Foxx. It had the kind of musical score that kept you humming long after leaving the local multiplex. And, most of all, it had hype.

Based on the 1981 Broadway musical that won five Tony Awards, “Dreamgirls” purportedly chronicled the events that broke up The Supremes, one of the most successful girl groups in history. Was this the way it went down? Did Diana Ross become the Supreme diva? Was Florence Ballard forced out because Ross was seemingly more appealing to crossover audiences?

Probably. Maybe. Most definitely.

Also, could the new Dreamgirls — Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and Jennifer Hudson — top the original trio of Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine and Jennifer Holliday? Would Deena Jones (the Ross character) be that breakthrough role for Knowles? And most importantly, would “Dreamgirls” get any love during awards season.

Nope (I can say that because I saw the original play). Not so much. And, so far, so good.

The film has received multiple nominations from all the major awards shows — the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and the NAACP Image Awards. Hudson, who has generated the most buzz for her portrayal of Effie White (purportedly based on Ballard) has already been honored by the New York, Phoenix, Washington D.C. and Southeastern film critics as well as the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes. Hudson is favored to win this year’s best supporting actress prize at the Academy Awards next month. 

Additionally, Murphy got a supporting nod from the Oscars for his performance as the talented, but tormented R&B singer James “Thunder” Early. Knowles, who was up for best actress at the Globes and SAGs did not hear her name called on Tuesday, when the Academy nominations were announced. Hers is not an Oscar-worthy performance.

Is the film worthy?
But what about the film? Should “Dreamgirls” have been the first musical to win an Academy Award for best picture since “Chicago” in 2003? Despite the fact both films were scripted by Bill Condon (who also directs “Dreamgirls”), Academy voters could have been swayed by what the film ultimately does at the box office. When it opened on Christmas Day “Dreamgirls,” which cost an estimated $70 million earned an impressive $8.7 million in limited release (less than 900 screens). But it earned just over $18 million during its opening weekend and $8.8 million last weekend.  And, it has yet to claim the No. 1 spot.

In a town that values quantity over quality, these things matter.

In early January, however, “Dreamgirls” borrowed a page from the “Chicago” playbook and expand to 1,900 theaters. This move hopefully improveed its take, but apparently failed to convince those Academy voters straddling the line that “Dreamgirls” was a legitimate contender for best picture. The trickle factor obviously worked for “Chicago,” another film that started small, but finished big. “Chicago,” however, was a critically acclaimed film with a predominantly white cast.

You either loved it or you hated it.

“Dreamgirls” is a film with a predominantly African American cast. But it’s the gray areas — particularly when it comes to the performances — that may have affected its chances of winning.

Hudson is superb, but if she weren’t covering Holliday’s signature show-stopping tune — “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” — she might be struggling to emerge from the shadows like Rose, a Tony Award-winning actress who is underused. Murphy is good, but not great. Knowles is almost forgettable — save for her solo number — and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx was way too subdued to make any kind of memorable impact on audiences.

But then there’s the music. The title tune, the Hudson number and Knowles’ “Listen,” will most definitely encourage viewers to plop down $18 for the soundtrack and may even impress all of those jaded voters who feel that musicals belong on the stage and not the screen.

In this case they might be right. “Dreamgirls” was a phenomenal play. As a film, it’s entertaining but uneven. Sure, it will probably win the Golden Globe — particularly since the Hollywood Foreign Press honors films in two categories — musical/comedy and drama. But, it will have a hard time overcoming its likely competitors — sure shots such as “The Departed” and “The Queen” at the Oscars.

Battling historyPlus it had history going against it. No film with a predominantly African American cast has ever won best picture.

Is it time that one did? For sure. But Dreamgirls with all its star power and glam couldn't do in 2007 what  “The Color Purple” and “Malcolm X” (which wasn’t nominated) should have done in 1986 and 1993 respectively — and that is win. And while “Ray,” which was nominated in 2005, was both a critical and financial success, it was no “Million Dollar Baby.”

The critics who have praised “Dreamgirls” will likely claim that an Academy that recently honored Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx with golden boys for best actress/actor, was not ready to embrace a film detailing the struggles African Americans face when they fail to assimilate to the dominant culture. That would be like admitting that “Crash,” last year’s best-picture winner, was truly an accurate portrayal of life in America.

We can’t have art imitating real life and winning awards for it!

The collective victories of Berry, Washington, Foxx and others have opened the door a little wider for African Americans in the film industry, but it still remains only ajar. It’s often said by black and white actors alike that the only color studio heads ever see is green. Well, American currency is green and white.

The critics who have panned “Dreamgirls” will probably say that it was a flawed film and it didn't even deserve to be nominated. Musicals tend to bore “serious” critics who would much rather debate the camera angles Martin Scorsese used in “Gangs of New York” as opposed to the ones he used in “The Departed.” And, if by chance “Dreamgirls” had won, they would have said that it slipped through because the vote was spilt.

Regardless “Dreamgirls” received more nominations than some of the more favored films because it is a musical. That usually means nods for costumes, sound, mixing, cinematography and music — original songs and score. It most certainly deserves the most of these.