LEONTYNE IN THE HOOD
With box office stars like Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx, with international pop diva Beyoncé, and with an acclaimed golden girl performance by Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls had so much going for it that there’s a lingering nag that something or someone is to blame for its unexpected lack of blockbuster status. (Not a flop, doing $104 million in its U.S. theatrical run, $52 million overseas.) Would love to say it’s Simon Cowell’s fault: so much nonsense had been paid to him that many otherwise receptive moviegoers might have stayed away because they couldn’t bear further association of his egotism with what he did to chubby Jennifer. Had Eddie Murphy been terrible as a tribination of Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Marvin Gaye, there’d be convenience in picking on him. Or fault Foxx for an early bad flapper-like wavy hairdo that’s difficult to move beyond. Could cast a judgmental eye on Beyoncé, who seems to be the sweetest thing going until we learn that in real life she’s a super bitch but, between the expert mimics of Diana Ross gestures, she gets a pass for not yet knowing how to act; if at times she looks like a doe caught frozen in headlights, she is one dynamic presence on a stage. (Intentional that the movie’s fashion photo spread of her is lifted from Ross’s Mahogany; the results are about equal in the prima donna sweepstakes.) Given the outsized celebration of Hudson, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest we didn’t need to see her in Dreamgirls because she had been on the box every day for months, if not on “Entertainment Tonight,” “The Insider,” “Inside Edition,” then on all the morning talk shows and, on the way to Oscar glory, getting the Oprah and Barbara Walters fawning treatment. Overexposure can cause a backlash. Are we closet racists who didn’t want to spend the money on what is a rags-to-riches black drag show? Doubt it, because its DVD sales were initially spectacular—over $30 million the first week of release, doubling the box office of the first weekend opening. (Even if the 2016 presidential election confirmed the magnitude of avenging racism, honkies still keep Motown’s oldies-but-goodies business humming.) There were the incessant drumbeats of Oscar nominations or the lack of them and all that anticipated comeuppance for Simon when Hudson would win. Then, with timing everything, came something socially purgative—Anna Nicole’s demise; as degrading as that whole mess was and yet impossible not to get caught up in, what with all the juicy speculation, it proved more entertaining to watch on the box than to haul ass to the theatre. But back to the movie: with irony attached, it does end up that Hudson eventually gets the lion’s share of culpability for the box office deficiency. There’s an unfriendliness about her Effie, one of the Dreams, and as she sings there’s an anger that gets increasingly insufferable as the movie reaches conclusion. The resentment Effie feels is meant to basically reflect resentments felt by Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson over pompous Diana and Motown producer Barry Gordy dissolving the Supremes, yet Hudson’s ever-less friendly belting is displacing, jarring us out of any warmth or sympathy we want to feel for Effie having received the boot. As imposing and stirring as she tries to be, her singing becomes too much of the same refrain; she’s trapped by the character’s boring profundo pop soul bellyaching—she becomes a screeching Leontyne Price doing arias from the hood. This lack of empathetic response shouldn’t surprise: director Bill Condon, who wrote the adaptation of Chicago for the screen, has a penchant for bypassing emotions. His clear intent here is the opposite: he’s into making Hudson’s harping central and cohesive but made deadening by repetition. More clear is that he doesn’t get what we do: Ross and Gordy aren’t worth the wailing. He’s also at the center of the musical’s lack of eyeball appeal. Just where did he spend a budget of $70 million? Not much on the costumes, which are major disappointments as they’re stingy with the flash of sequins and absent of boas. How can a director miss the chance to instruct that Beyoncé be given the wardrobe of a lifetime? No mercy: the designer deserves a public execution for having put that white gown on Hudson, making her look like a pregnant whale, a sight causing considerable delay in audience recovery. (Though “One Night Only” is a plot pivot, we’re very grateful she isn’t shaking that booty in the disco version.) Despite the sags and blimps, Dreamgirls manages to keep us engaged because we don’t wait long for the next number. Understandable why theatre audiences reportedly broke out in applause after the showstoppers—there’s nothing much happening between them except bitchsplaining.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All