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Oscars mystery: Can 'Dreamgirls' win best picture?

December 27, 2006 |  7:53 am

Officially, "Dreamgirls" is now a box-office hit that'll probably earn more than $100 million, which is the magic number movies usually need to surpass in order to win the Oscar for best picture.

So now we must ask: Can it really win?

There are two ominous omens opposing it. The first is a lack of major support from print journos. "Dreamgirls" is missing from the ranks of many key lists of Top 10 Films of 2006 — not cited by the New York Times, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Hollywood Reporter and Chicago Sun-Times (Richard Roeper), for example. Reviews have been good-to-excellent (scoring 76 at Metacritic.com), just not consistent, scream-from-the-rooftop raves like you see for "The Departed" (85 score) and "Letters from Iwo Jima" (91) — two serious "Dreamgirls" rivals. That's typical, though. More than 85 percent of leading film critics are guys, more than two-thirds of whom are straight. Testosterone usually blinds them and they get caught up in a game of macho swagger that's hilarious to watch when you see them gabbing at industry events. Sissy movies are not only dismissed, but pummeled like school kids by bullies. The critics' cocky strutting gets so out of hand that female critics start straining the hardest of all just to fit in. Sometimes even the gay boys, desperate for social approval, betray their own, but not always. Psychologists could have a field day analyzing the ridiculous dynamic of the phenom.

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When that phenom occurs, it doesn't mean that the male-dominated Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will follow suit. Often, they'll break and go their own way, if they become suckers for a film's emotionalism. It's curious how one male-dominated group (Oscar voters) can differ so significantly from another (film critics). The reason has to do with proportion, methinks (about a third of Oscar voters are women — a much-higher percentage than among critics), and age. Oscar voters are north of 50 years old. They're head-strong geezers who aren't afraid to break from the hormonal frenzy of young gangs. They have the wisdom of age, they don't confuse romantic yearnings with weakness and they appreciate sentiment, especially if it's selling well at the box office.

Support is not just weak among some U.S. print journalists, but some foreign ones, too. That's really strange, because Golden Globe voters usually side with Oscar voters when the academy breaks from the critics' consensus. At the Globes, Bill Condon isn't nominated for best director or screenplay. When you ask HFPA members why, you hear awkward mumbo-jumbo about how they like the performances in "Dreamgirls," but not the aesthetic execution of the film. I don't buy the sincerity of that response, frankly. It's clear from the looks on their faces that some HFPA members just don't want to like it. That was obvious while seeing them at the special screening of a 20-minute preview at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles back in September. Before and afterward, I heard many of them grousing in the lobby about how they don't expect "Dreamgirls" to do well overseas, which matters to them a lot, being foreign journalists.

Or was their grousing a tribal response by mostly white people? This is the most difficult question of all to ask this awards season, but it's the key point. As one of Hollywood's top studio chiefs told me a few weeks ago, "Brokeback Mountain" lost the Oscar for best picture last year because of anti-gay prejudice. Not hatred. Hollywood is obviously a gay-friendly place. It's just that voters — the vast majority of whom are straight, of course — didn't see it as their film. The same thing could happen with "Dreamgirls" among the mostly white voters — let's be honest. They might like the film, but pull back a bit emotionally from it because they don't feel like they belong amidst an all-black cast. Let's not forget how, up until the recent joint wins by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, only one African-American ever won a lead-acting Oscar: Sidney Poitier ("Lilies of the Field"). No all-black film has ever won best picture. One all-black film is tied as the biggest loser in Oscar history ("The Color Purple").

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But Golden Globe voters picked "Brokeback Mountain" last year and they'll probably, despite some reservations, give "Dreamgirls" their award for best musical/comedy picture this year. Successful musicals usually win that category and chances are voters will want to acknowledge its importance in Yankee pop culture. Its only threat is "Borat" and voters can pay off that film in the best-actor race, giving Sacha Baron Cohen a separate chunk of gold.

When Globe and Oscar voters break from the macho groupthink of America's gritty print journos, we often see a sneak peek of that at the Critics' Choice Awards, which are bestowed by members of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. They're mostly TV journalists who don't always goose-step with the mean print boys — they tend to be more in line with Oscar and Globe voters. This year they put "Dreamgirls" on their list of Top 10 films. "The Departed" and "Iwo Jima" are there, too, but what's important is they didn't shut out "Dreamgirls."

"Dreamgirls" is also on the Top 10 List of the American Film Institute, which occasionally breaks with the critics' gangs. If one of those rare splits is coming between tough critics and academy members, we need to see it happen here first. But "Dreamgirls" made this list.

There's another key sign that academy members feel differently about "Dreamgirls" — that, in fact, they love it. It's a story about showbiz, after all, and it's getting the most enthusiastic responses of all 2006 films from audiences at academy screenings. And, happily, many film critics love it, too. Most important of all is Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times, who wrote: "'Dreamgirls' is the entire musical package, a triumph of old school on-screen glamour, and we wouldn't want it any other way." It got one of the best rave reviews from the New Yorker, which declared that "a great movie musical has been made at last."

In the big Oscar picture, "Dreamgirls" will probably have another plus — the most Academy Award nominations, which usually foretells the best-picture champ. Over the past 20 years, the movie with the most bids has won best picture 16 times. The exceptions: In 1991, "The Silence of the Lambs" (7 noms) beat "Bugsy" (10), "JFK" (8) and "The Prince of Tides" (7). In 2001, "A Beautiful Mind" (8) beat "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (13), At the 2004 derby, "Million Dollar Baby" (7) beat "The Aviator" (11). At the 2005 race, "Crash" (6) upset "Brokeback Mountain" (8).

"Dreamgirls" could get 13: best picture, directing, writing, supporting actor (Eddie Murphy), supporting actress (Jennifer Hudson), art direction, cinematography, costumes, film editing, sound editing and mixing, and song ("Listen," "I Love You, I Do").

That doesn't mean that "Dreamgirls" will win, but it'll get a fair shot. Right now it's enjoying the spotlight of success, but part of that will wear off in weeks ahead as initial excitement levels off.

Then we can expect renewed surges for its chief rivals after "The Departed" wins best drama picture at the Globes and sentiment builds for Marty Scorsese to win his overdue Oscar for best director. Remember, that award usually pairs off with best picture. Historically, anyway. The voting pattern has split over the past six years. Three times the two awards have lined up and three times they haven't. The fact that there's a strong pull toward Scorsese right now signifies a pulling away from "Dreamgirls'" Bill Condon and therefore, maybe, "Dreamgirls."

There will also be a tugging away from "Dreamgirls" in favor of rewarding Clint Eastwood for taking a bold artistic chance with "Letters from Iwo Jima," which seems very different, very special.

"Dreamgirls" might fend off such tugs. The last musical to win best picture managed to do so — "Chicago" — when voters wished to reward an overdue director (Roman Polanski).

But — hmmmm — can "Dreamgirls"?

There's a big, perhaps crucial difference between these two musicals. "Chicago" had a strong heterosexual vibe. Man-hungry Catherine Zeta-Jones seduced Oscar voters with a naughty wink and a wiggle of naked thigh. Its story line was rather macho as it invited viewers to cheer on characters to get away with murder. "Dreamgirls," by contrast, features pretty gals in pretty dresses, but in a camp way, making it a gay man's dream. Uh-oh. Too "Brokeback Mountain"?


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