The two-year anniversary of my blog is just a few days away. It was last year on that day that I finally changed the name of my blog from “Andy Hardy Writes a Blog” to “Jew Eat Yet,” a name I’m still mildly embarrassed explaining to strangers when they ask. When I was trying to come up with a new title last year, one suggestion that I thought was funny was “Straight Man/Gay Blog.” Do you think my choice of topics reveals a bit of a gay sensibility? Well, hold on to your rainbow flags, kids, because I’m about to send the blog gaydars into the stratosphere with my response to the new movie “Dreamgirls.”
Kendall, Leah, and I saw the film last night at the Cinerama Dome, one of my favorite movie theatres in the world (which is surprising since it was built in the 1960s). While “Dreamgirls” opens nationwide on Christmas Day, they’re having a special 10-day presentation at only three theatres in the country: the Dome in L.A., the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, and the Metreon in San Francisco. Tickets are $25 each which is crazy but you get a souvenir program and a limited edition lithograph of the poster art with a certificate of authenticity.
Leah started listening to the soundtrack a few weeks ago and has already choreographed her own versions of most of the numbers. She can’t decide which of the Dreams she wants to play, Deena or Effie. I don’t have the heart to tell her that her theatre company of mostly white 10-13-year-old girls will probably never put on this show. Kendall saw “Dreamgirls” when it premiered in Los Angeles with the original cast including Jennifer Holliday’s knock-down performance as Effie White, the Florence Ballard-like member of the Dreams who is booted out of the group even though she has the best set of pipes. I happened to be in New York in early 1982 and scored a front row seat to the original Broadway production at the Imperial Theatre. In addition to Holliday, the Dreams were played by Sheryl Lee Ralph as the Diana Ross-inspired Deena Jones and Loretta Devine as the Mary Wilson-ish Lorell Robinson. I loved the play and was stunned by the raw emotion in Jennifer Holliday’s explosive signature song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” which she recreated that year on the Tony Awards. A bunch of movie versions of the musical were planned over the years including one in the 80s with Whitney Houston as Deena (she tried to get them to rewrite the story so that she could sing Effie's “And I Am Telling You”) and one in the 90s with Lauryn Hill. Thankfully, the project languished in development. Now, 25 years after the Broadway opening, the movie version is finally here. So how did it turn out?
I can’t remember the last time any movie I’ve seen has lived up to its hype but “Dreamgirls” surpasses even its own advanced press. I had been looking forward to seeing the film but it was WAY better than I anticipated and even more enjoyable than the play. Several of the characters were fleshed out in a very satisfying way and Bill Condon’s deft direction allowed more elements of the changing times and the civil rights struggle to find their way into the story which added a lot. The film has an energy that I can’t even describe (I’m tempted to call it “electric”) and the look of it is total perfection from the simulated album art to the 5,000 pairs of false eyelashes I read they went through during the first month of shooting.
If I rack my brain I can’t come up with a negative comment about the cast. The biggest surprise to me was Eddie Murphy’s fantastic turn as soulful R&B singer James Thunder Early. There were so many opportunities for Murphy to fall back on some of his old (funny) shtick in this very over-the-top role but he avoided that temptation completely and gave a performance that was wild and raw and yet full of poignancy and complexity. Amazing. I read that Jamie Foxx first turned down the Berry Gordy-like role of Curtis Taylor and the part was offered to Denzel Washington who had to decline because he just can’t sing. When Murphy signed on, Foxx relented and it’s lucky that he did, he is superb in the role of the visionary but ultimately corrupt and power-hungry Svengali who brings the Dreams and their “new sound” into the mainstream and turns the once timid Deena Jones into a world class performer. I loved seeing the always moving Danny Glover in the role of the passed-over agent Marty and newcomer Keith Robinson was quite effective as Effie’s composer brother C.C. White.
My last comment about Beyoncé Knowles on this blog was mocking her overexposure at the 2005 Academy Awards. She sang three of the nominated songs which, in my opinion, was two too many. She had a nice enough voice but I just didn’t get the appeal. I do now. Knowles was apparently so desperate to play this role (she wanted it since she was 15 years old) that she begged the producers to give her a chance and swore that we would not see any trace of Beyoncé in her performance. And we don’t. It is Deena Jones all the way through, with a healthy dose of Diana Ross, of course. The Deena-Diana connection is so much more pronounced in the film version than in the stage play that I’m frankly surprised they could get away with it. Most of Deena’s incredible outfits and hairstyles (and she must have 100 costume changes in the film) are lifted straight from the historic annals of Miss Ross’s heyday, as are many of the situations (e.g., trying to break free from her mentor’s influence to become a serious actress) but the parallels have their limits. When the musical came out in the 1980s it was widely disowned by the real-life Supremes. Times have changed, though. Last week Mary Wilson was asked about the film and said that “it was closer to the truth than they even know.” When asked how similar Diana Ross was to the character of Deena (I love that Mary Wilson will only refer to Ross as “Diane,” her real name and what she called her when they were girls in the Detroit projects), Wilson said, “Nowhere near it. Not near it.” “You mean she wouldn’t have been as sweet?” the interviewer asked. “You said it!” Wilson exclaimed. Ouch. After turning down the role of Deena’s mother in the film, Diana Ross is trying to distance herself as much as possible from the film, the same way she’s avoided talking about the play which she claims she’s never seen or listened to.
Anika Noni Rose struck just the right note as Lorell in “Dreamgirls” and she had big shoes to fill. I loved Loretta Devine’s original (her character provided most of the comic relief in the play) and thought she had a killer voice. In a very sweet and fan-pleasing move, Devine has a nice cameo in the film as a jazz singer and former acquaintance of Jimmy Early (who was her married boyfriend in the play). Last week Leah and her mom were shopping at the Grove shopping center in L.A. In a cell phone store, Loretta Devine came over and was admiring Leah’s new cell phone. Sophie recognized her and told her how much she enjoyed her work in “Boston Common” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” After they walked away, Devine’s husband doubled back to Sophie and Leah and whispered, “You know, my wife was in the original ‘Dreamgirls’ and has a role in the movie version that’s coming out!” Now that’s a supportive hubby.
No sign in the film of Sheryl Lee Ralph, the original Deena, who has criticized the casting of Beyoncé on the grounds of her light skin. “When Tom Eyen who is the creator, had this idea, he said that the Dreams have to be three obviously black girls,” Ralph said in a recent interview. “Why? Because America will always go for that light, bright, long-haired black girl because they will feel comfortable building her up, since they see themselves in her. But for the obviously black girl, if she makes it, she deserves to be right there…So, when they cast Beyoncé in the role of Deena Jones, I said, ‘Wow, this is exactly what Tom Eyen said would happen. They are going to take to that light, bright blackish blonde girl because they feel comfortable with her. That's the reality.’” I’m not sure I agree with her concerns about Beyoncé but I’m still sorry they didn’t find a small role for Ralph in the film. “For us to be so much a part of theatrical history and then to be treated like we did nothing is heartbreaking,” she said last week. “I don't take offense. It's just show business, baby. I wish them every success.” Until this year Ralph had a child at my daughter’s school and we used to trail after her at school events (violating the strict rule in the parent handbook to avoid approaching celebrities on campus) humming the lyrics to her songs under our breaths. “Every man has his own special dream, and your dream is about to come true. Life’s not as bad as it may seem, if you open your eyes to what’s in front of you…” Sheryl Lee Ralph is still as stunningly beautiful as she was when she was playing Deena Jones a quarter of a century ago.
Jennifer Holliday seems to be the most bitter former cast member, raging mad that she wasn’t asked to be involved with the project in any way and feeling like she was being disappeared from the history of the show in the same way that Efffie White was excised from all the Dreams PR after she left the group. “Why is it necessary for them to wipe out my existence in order for them to have their success?” Holliday has publicly pondered. “It’s scary that they can be so cruel. I know it’s business, but why do they have to do to this extreme? I’m a human being. Why do I have to die to make them a winner.” Those criticisms sound a little unfair to me, and I’ve always heard how difficult Holliday was back in the day (just like Effie) but I can see why she feels excluded. Following her huge success as Effie White, Holliday's life took a few Effie-like turns. She suffered from severe depression, had two failed marriages, and tried to commit suicide on her 30th birthday. She later lost a whopping 200 lbs. and started recording again but it's been an uphill struggle. I can understand how Holliday's ego might be taking a hit since her mantle has been passed on to someone as extraordinarily talented as Jennifer Hudson. The one-time “American Idol” performer does not revisit Jennifer Holliday’s tour-de-force in the film version of "Dreamgirls" but instead gives the role an entirely new interpretation, one that is so real and so natural you just can’t believe she’s never acted before. But as Kendall pointed out, a good singer is a good actress.
Hudson never once hits a false note in this film and for my money, is the best thing in it. When’s the last time you heard someone sing a song with such pure emotion that people were crying all over the theatre and then furiously applauding at the end of the number? In another case of life imitating art (as if Jennifer Holliday’s sad life isn’t enough), the Golden Globes were announced the other day with Beyoncé being nominated for Best Actress but Jennifer Hudson getting the nod for Best Supporting Actress. Huh? Isn’t her part just as big and critical to the story? I think it may be the studios themselves who submit actors for different categories and it was probably a calculated move to give Hudson a better shot at the prize, but it makes no sense. Is Knowles more the lead than Hudson because she’s prettier and thinner?
I love the fact that movie musicals are making a comeback and “Dreamgirls” director Bill Condon deserves a lot of the credit for that. After so many failed stage-to-screen transfers (from the abominable “Chorus Line” to the lukewarm “Rent” and “The Producers”) the total success of “Dreamgirls” as a film is even more heartening. In the recent “Chicago,” which Condon penned, all the musical numbers had to be seen as Renee Zellweger’s fantasies. “Dreamgirls” uses no such gimmick—there are lots of actual staged numbers since this is a story about show biz, but there are also plenty of instances where the characters just burst into song (without apology) to convey their emotions. Hooray! I say we elect Bill Condon our new National Musical Czar and see what he comes up with next.