I was trying to remember when was the last time I heard an audience applaud at the end of a movie. Lee thinks it was Do the Right Thing, which we saw with a heavily black audience, and she may be right. I might have heard some scattered applause after one of the Lord of the Rings movies, but I’m not sure. But this afternoon we heard long and loud applause at the end of Dreamgirls, in a heavily white audience at the Vista on the corner of Hollywood and Sunset, not only at the end, but in the middle, after Effie sings her showstopping number at the end of the first act. And it was well-deserved. I didn’t applaud. I don’t see the point. But if any of the people involved, from Eddie Murphy to Jamie Foxx to Jennifer Hudson to Beyoncé, to Bill Condon who adapted and directed it (and came up with the brilliant adaptation of Chicago) to the costume designer and the choreographer … if even one of them had been there in the theater I’d have been standing on my seat like Roberto Benigni, shouting and beating my hands bloody. This show really rocks. It is relentless, in a good way, from the first frame to the last. Transitions are so smooth you hardly know how you got from one scene to the next. Editing is brisk and fast, but not whiplash-inducing. Every shot pays off, and a lot of story is crammed into just over two hours, not counting end credits.
That’s all the gushing I’m going to do. Now a few thoughts on celebrity, on who gets famous and who doesn’t, a process that has a nodding relationship with talent, but is no means reliant on it, as we’ve seen more and more lately as the minimally-talented but gorgeous people have all but monopolized public adoration.
The movie was obviously inspired (though not even close to a bio-pic) by two giants of the early days when “race music” was making the crossover to the larger, white audiences. Those giants are Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. Deena, played by Beyoncé Knowles, is Diana, and Effie, the newcomer Jennifer Hudson, has a voice like Aretha. She also has a body like her, what Mme. Precious Ramotswe in the novels by Alexander McCall Smith, would call “traditionally built.” Okay, she’s fat, though well short of obese. Aretha’s a big mama, too. Question: Could Aretha have made it in today’s climate of MTV and music videos? Another question: Will Jennifer?
Jennifer Hudson was a contestant on that creepy slaughterhouse known as “American Idol.” She came in 6th. This implies that talent such as hers can be ranked, can be usefully compared to other kinds of talent. Is she as good as, for instance, Aretha? I can’t say. Are there other large black women out there who are as good as Aretha? You bet. There are hundreds of them. There are white women as good, too. If you study the music business even a little bit, as I have, you will quickly learn that there are people out there, unsung, as it were, who are as good as anybody who is rich and famous. It’s the breaks, man, it’s the breaks. It’s also the payola, who you know, who represents you … and to an increasing extent, how you look. Beyoncé is gorgeous, by almost anyone’s definition. Jennifer is … a big lady. It was ever thus, I know, but Lee and I were remembering back to the days of radio and vinyl, something most music fans alive today can’t do. Making it still had to do with all those things I mentioned above, but beauty didn’t play as large a part. Who cared what you looked like or how well you could dance or how well you were lit and edited when you were just a beautiful voice coming over the radio.
We now have the most beautiful musical celebrities we have ever had. Every once in a while you still get a homely one, but it’s a dying breed. They may soon be relegated to doing voice-overs for their less-talented brothers and sisters, like Kathy Seldon in Singin’ in the Rain, or Marni Nixon in just about every musical of the ’60s.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this is a new injustice; the beautiful people have always had an edge, probably always will. And it’s impossible to tell how much that beauty contributes to that indefinable quality we call charisma. It seems to me that Beyoncé has charisma and Jennifer Hudson doesn’t … but it could be I’m just being bedazzled by Beyoncé’s beauty. It might be as simple as that.
Anyway, what fascinated me about Dreamgirls was that the story made clear that Beyoncé’s character was the less talented of the two, that Effie was the one with the real genius … and Beyoncé was willing to take that part. And it’s true. Her voice, though very good, does not have the depth, the tear-out-your-heart soul of Hudson’s, and never will. Does Miss B realize this? If she does, I take off my hat to her.