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By Lawrence Ferber
They say the camera adds 10 pounds. But that wasn’t enough for “American Idol” finalist Jennifer Hudson, who landed the plum – and plump – role of Effie White in out screenwriter/director Bill Condon’s long-awaited film version of “Dreamgirls.”
Thanks to an all-hours pastry regimen, she bulked up from a size 10-12 to a 14-16 to play Effie, the talented lead singer of a Supremes-esque ’60s girl group, The Dreams, who is booted by a manipulative manager, Curtis (Jamie Foxx), to make way for svelte and camera-friendly frontwoman, Deena (Beyonce Knowles). Effie’s devastating fall from grace, and showstopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” is followed by a phoenix-like rise from the ashes and moment of glory. It’s like a valentine to the big black women with big beautiful voices gays have loved, embraced and identified with for years.
Condon, during the film’s press junket at New York’s Regency Hotel, agrees that the power of a story of triumph over adversity is not only appealing to gays, but is also a universal theme. “I think we all have been in that Effie predicament and know what it feels like to be so stifled, frustrated and rejected and trying to stand up for yourself,” he says.
Dressed in an olive leather jacket and creamy turtleneck shirt, Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx is staring me down, his hand on my arm. “What do you mean, black?” he demands. Then he laughs and admits he recognizes that Effie represents more than just a driven female performer.
“When Jennifer starts to sing she is singing for that woman who has been ostracized,” he nods. “Whether she’s black or white, because of her weight, because she don’t fit the bill, for everybody that didn’t have a voice. My grandmother sat in church and was the voice for everybody. When a preacher preached against homosexuality my grandmother stood up and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve run a nursery school 30 years and I’ve seen everybody in different situations.’ So that’s the voice you hear coming from Effie. She’s doing it first for herself and then anybody else who wants to plug into that energy can easily.”
As for the now trimmed-down Hudson, who proves a force to be reckoned with in her film debut (thanks in no small part to Condon’s schooling her in, as Hudson says, “Diva 101 – having that attitude, walking in when I felt like it, walking out when I felt like it, saying what I wanted to say, stuff like that”), she wanted to plug nods to the great black female vocalists who came before – Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Holliday (Broadway’s original Effie), Whitney Houston – into her performances. And whether Condon intended “Dreamgirls” as a gay man’s valentine to our soulful black sisters or not, she’s looking forward to the inevitable love and impersonations from drag queens. “I hope they dress up as me,” she enthuses. “I will go to every drag show to watch that.”
From stage to screen
Having debuted Dec. 20, 1981 on Broadway, the original production of “Dreamgirls” was directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett (who passed away due to AIDS complications in 1987, and to whom the film is dedicated).
The original composer/lyricist team of Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen returned for the film, contributing four new songs including “Patience,” a catchy duet between third Dreams member Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose, Tony-winning star of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change) and the James Brown-esque James “Thunder” Early (an Oscar-worthy Eddie Murphy). Choreographer Fatima Robinson “honored” Bennett’s original moves (which Condon confesses seemed designed for drag queens) while giving “our Dreams a few new steps.”
As with “Chicago,” it has been a long road for “Dreamgirls” to make it to screen with a number of creative forces attached at one time or another (it was once rumored that Whitney Houston would appear as Deena, yet somehow perform the defining Effie number “And I Am Telling I’m Not Going”). Condon seamlessly melds a combination of cinematic montage, straightforward performance numbers and breaking-into-song musical styles.
When it came to casting the critical, even iconic role of Effie, it became clear that a newcomer was the only choice (although, FYI, atypically thin actresses were also in the final running).
“I love Queen Latifah, but this is a realistic movie and you have to believe she was a teenager in the beginning,” says Condon. “So by definition it was going to be somebody who was not well-established and didn’t have much of a track record. And anybody who got the part was someone you had to work with closely. There was something in the screen test Hudson did that really told me she would get there emotionally. She was funny and heartbreaking and all those things you see in the movie.”
A deeper connection
While gays will surely appreciate “Dreamgirls'” subtexts about continuing to sing in the face of adversity and repression, it’s lacking in overt LGBT representation. “I think this is the first movie I’ve done in a while without a gay character and it’s the gayest movie I’ve ever made,” Condon laughs. “I’m just kidding!”
Yet on a personal level, Condon, whose past successes include the Oscar-nominated screenplays for “Chicago” and “Gods and Monsters,” admits he connected differently, and more deeply, to “Dreamgirls” (which he saw during its original Broadway incarnation) than “Chicago.”
“I love both of them but there’s no question this has a stronger emotional connection,” he says. “The predicament of the characters, of in some way outsiders trying to break into the mainstream and hold on to their identity at the same time, is something that speaks very strongly of me.”
“Dreamgirls” also spoke very strongly to Beyonce Knowles, who was determined to connect herself to the project even if it meant taking a small role or zero dollar paycheck.
“I wanted to lose every trace of myself,” she says. “I’ve done movies but never had a part that was a real person. A character with problems, that has as much range and growth as Deena. And I really worked hard. Even the (musical) performance scenes, I didn’t treat them like I was performing. I treated them like dialogue and broke down all of the lyrics and did inner monologue. And when I watched it I did not see myself and that was the biggest reward.”
Knowles went through some 40 costume and wig changes, lost weight and co-wrote a new song (“Listen”) for the production. Having sprung to fame as frontwoman of a real life three-member girl group, there are certainly parallels to be drawn between Knowles and Deena, including their respective passion and evolution into solo artists. Yet she insists there are more canyon-wide gaps than commonalities, from upbringing to the way Destiny’s Child was managed (or, as she testifies, left alone).
“Deena grew up in the projects with only her mother, and back then it was harder to become a big star when you were African-American,” Knowles shares. “Because of her looks she became lead singer, not because of her talent. She didn’t have a father and she allowed Curtis to take control because she was searching for that father figure.”
Still, the “Dreamgirls” creative team agrees that the music industry does puppeteer its artists even today, regardless of weight and looks. Musician/actor Keith Robinson, who plays Effie’s brother – and the Dreams’ songwriter – C.C., has been burned a few times.
Even Oscar-winner Foxx has seen his share of soul-crushing Curtises. “I did my record, and the record execs will tell you something crazy out they ass so they get you not thinking about your project,” he shares. “One guy said to me, ‘I don’t care if you sell one record or a million records my check’s still the same.’ I said damn, I’m part of your record company? This was right after the Oscar stuff!”
Dreaming of Oscars
Speaking of Oscars, a number of “Dreamgirls'” actors are already garnering audible buzz. Yet Hudson, being one of them, hasn’t yet given awards much thought yet. She’s still recovering from the profound, intense experience of making the film. And a few of its outfits.
“Yes! That outfit (we wear during the “Heavy” number) was the worst in my life!” she screams. “It felt like you were in a box and I had these fishnets on and when your legs are thick and they rub together … . Do they not like me or something? And the shoes are custom made. Don’t ever get custom made shoes for your feet. It took four people to get them on me and eight to get them off. I had blisters. My feet still don’t look right!”
So perhaps she’ll be happy to let her gay, aspiring drag queen friends borrow some of her outfits for Dreamgirls night at the club in 2007?
“That is funny, but I didn’t get to keep the costumes,” she confesses. “For one thing I’m not the same size as in the film. The only thing I did keep was the coat I wore during a funeral scene. I love it.”