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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.

Dreamgirls5a_2

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").

Dreamgirlsbluedresses_2

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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Comments

To answer CMY's comment of "How many more critics groups have to snub this film before people get it? Can someone please tell me why this film is the frontrunner?":

I scratch my head at the notion that some critics find Dreamgirls to be missing its soul. Having sat through the film twice now (and counting), I’m bewildered at their observation. They obviously saw a different movie than I did. I see a vibrant and alive piece of filmmaking. They see soullessness. It took my second viewing of this film to understand where these detractors are coming from. (Spoiler Alert) In an awesome scene, James Thunder Early and the Dreamettes are the first Black performers to ever play a particular club in Miami. As Jimmy breaks into the more soulful and passionate sections of the song complete with wailing, bending, pelvis thrusts and hip gyrations, the all White crowd look at him in disgust. One couple furiously walks out of the club before his performance is completed. And it hit me. That scene is the perfect metaphor to describe the negative reaction to the film. This film isn’t soulless after all. Maybe, just maybe, it’s got TOO MUCH SOUL for your average stuffy and stodgy film critic to handle. When you get right down to it, Dreamgirls is a very intimidating film in comparison to 2006’s other Oscar contenders. It’s bullish, it’s spunky, and it wears its heart and its emotions on its sleeve. And it makes no apologies. Dreamgirls is a true definition of soul cinema.

I actually hope the dreamgirls loses to Little Miss Sunshine -- the best movie of the year. And more love should be given for this great, great movie. It is Abigail Breslin who should be nominated and could be the only threat that Jennifer Hudson has.

Correction: "purveyors," not "perveyors," though there's a certain perverse logic to the typo.

Of course "Dreamgirls" will get nominated for best picture, especially after it snatches the comedy/musical Globe from "Little Miss Sunshine." As for "Crash," easily the worst of the five nominated pictures last year, and in many a year. Meretricious, unnuanced, tacitly xenophobic Showtime fare in faux-Altman guise, and the fireworks of its tireless A-List cast and highly dubious plot reversals/coincidences fell apart on second viewing. What insight did it offer? That everyone in L.A. is isolated, racist and drives a car. Well, that's certainly news. And told, from the first voiceover to the final fadeout, in the most heavy-handed, conventional way dressed up as though it were actually relevant art. It won the Oscar due to the presumed PC "safe choice" factor, the incessant tub-thumping of Ebert and Roeper and Oprah, the short-sightedness of the SAG membership and the very real homophobia that permeates the industry and certainly the AMPAS membership, about which most of its worst perveyors, many of them closeted, are in severe denial. If "Dreamgirls" loses due to racially/musical theater-skewed versions of the same, well, at least irony isn't dead. Which is more than can be said for Oscar's credibility.

I saw Dreamgirls the other day and, even though I saw the stage version several years ago, I still enjoyed it. Do I think it will get nominated for Best Picture? I don't know. Going against it is the fact that it, like its stage counterpart, lacks sufficient character development, assuming that most people viewing the property already know about the Supremes, James Brown, and other similar singers of the 1960s-1970s r&b/soul/pop music era. Without a solid background, it may be hard to relate to the characters, Effie White notwithstanding (though in spite of this shortcoming, Jennifer Hudson, like her original counterpart, Jennifer Holiday, is able to evoke our sympathy all too well). Going in its favor, however, is the fact that it is a backstage musical, and the Academy members can easily relate to, and root for, good stories dealing with showbiz. In short, while it may lack the weighter trials and tribulations of its potential competitors for the Best Picture Oscar nomination, it does have enough star power, glitz, glamour, and overall universal entertainment value to appeal to most Academy members' sensibilities.

The Major Problem with Dreamgirls is that it is not the best picture (or in the top 5) of the year. It one of the best crowd pleasures of the year tha is for sure, and Eddie and Jennifer are the favorties to win the supporting oscars (Through I'm starting to wonder if the "Babe" Factor leading to the upset will be Cate beating Jennifer, and you can't count out Jack). But there is better movies are all including a better crowd pleasurer in The Departed (abit in a different way.)

I saw "Dreamgirls" two days ago and I thought it was wonderful! Not perfect, but entertaining, riveting and well done. Definitely one of the best films of the year. I don't necessarily get the gay angle of this article. Outside of the fact that Bill Condon is gay (as well as the musical's original director, the late Michael Bennett) the film doesn't come off as a "gay extravaganza," unless you think ALL musicals are by default and stereotype gay extravaganzas. However, I do think race may play a factor. I was watching Fox News the same day I saw the film and the entertainment reporter was talking about how "Dreamgirls" may have problems "crossing over." So Fox News obviously views it as a "Black film" and others might too (which is retarded, but that's too lengthy to get into here). I think "Dreamgirls" is deserving of, and will get, an Oscar nom for Best Picture. But is it THE best picture of 2006? No. That belongs to "United 93." And I scratch my head wondering why such a masterful, moving film about the worst tragedy in modern American history is NOT the frontrunner for that award, even with the spring release. And to Daniel, who thinks that Jennifer Hudson is a horrible actress, dude, you are smoking crack! Is she the next Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett? No (but that's a tall order anyway). But Hudson OWNS that movie! I'll even go out on a limb and say her performance is as good as Barbra Streisand's Oscar-winning film debut in "Funny Girl."

jennifer Hudson nails every song (especially "THE SONG") and not only holds her own, but dominates nearly every scene she's in actingwise. I was astonished at how good she was. Nothing she did on "American Idol" prepared me for how great she would be in "Dreamgirls." My fear is that a backlash will start against Hudson, and that people will think she merely sang her way to an Oscar nomination and that the award should go to a "real" dramatic actress. I doubt it, but weirder things have happened at the Oscars.

Oh, and about "Brokeback Mountain." It didn't lose because of anti-gay sentiment. It lost because it was a seriously overrated film. The film is good, but It was not the best film last year; it's not even Ang Lee's best work, in my opinion. I definitely liked "Crash" more than "Brokeback," although if I had an Oscar vote it would have went to "Good Night, and Good Luck."

I agree that Tom has an agenda with all the Dreamgirls blathering. Either that or he's pissed he didn't get the Jennifer Hudson role. How many more critics groups have to snub this film before people get it? Can someone please tell me why this film is the frontrunner? Seriously. Tom. Put down the mic and turn off the soundtrack for two seconds to explain this logically.

Interesting article, but I fail to see why O'Neil turned 2006 into this particular three-picture race. I actually think THE QUEEN has a darn good chance of winning Best Picture, particularly over LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. Let's not forget that no foreign language film has ever won Best Picture. Wonderful as it is, I am quite sure LETTERS will look very much like an arthouse film by late February. And what about the potential backlash toward THE DEPARTED? It's not original, and is in fact a remake of a Hong Kong movie that is, in certain very key respects, better than Scorsese's version. Scorsese's film particularly suffers by comparison in its simplification of the Matt Damon character, its less believable love triangle, and its much less haunting resolution. I was more impressed with BABEL and, particularly, CHILDREN OF MEN. If it weren't such a last minute and largely unheralded release, I think more people would be talking about CHILDREN OF MEN for the top categories. There is little doubt in my mind that it will be more highly regarded than THE DEPARTED in the long shadow of history.

Little Miss Sunshine: Cute
The Departed: Phoned-in Scorcese
The Queen & Letters From Iwo Jima: I'm reserving judgment till I see 'em.
Babel: The movie that should have won Best Picture if it wasn't for...

DREAMGIRLS: The most soulful piece of cinema I've seen in nearly 20 years. Blew the roof off the Cinerama Dome and is now blowing the roof off of theatres across the country!

But it won't win. Even though it should, it won't. Three words: The Color Purple

The Departed or The Queen will win. I've already accepted it.

In the end, it will be BABEL.

Hey film lovers - pay attention to "Children of Men". It's getting awesome reviews that are well deserved. It's a thoughtful, compelling, beautifully shot drama that will leave you pondering your future and the future of society.

So if BBM could be embraced by macho critics because it wasn't REALLY gay, than where is the "academy is a hotbet of homophobia" talk coming from?

That's why this topic is a real mystery, Ed!

No, The Departed is winning

You know, Tom, I've read through this piece twice now and I still can't figure out if the answer is "yes" or "no" :)

Dear Dave,
It seems like you've all but crowned Dreamgirls as THE movie that SHOULD win best picture at the Oscars, and if it doesn't win you even spin conspiracy theories on why it is a "Black musical" and that because of that it will be robbed of the best picture Oscar. The reason perhaps why it is not on some important top ten lists is that even if it is "great", perhaps it's not THAT great and trails those in the top ten. Perhaps it's not really the best film of 2006. You overanalyze too much. Fact is, there is no science in predicting who will win because if those who are thought of going to win don't then we have another explanation for that. We always have explanation on whatever outcome. If Brokeback wins best picture we'll say it's because of liberal Hollywood, if it doesn't win, which happened, we'll say it's because the academy is still homophobic, etc.. geez.. you over analyze too much.. like how best director often goes hand in hand with best picture.. and if they don't then it's because it isn't the rule anymore. blah blah blah. get a life.. lighten up.. it's just showbiz!

Dear Goldderby,
It's really kinda amusing how you're deadset on making Dreamgirls win best picture and how you spin conspiracy theories on how it will NOT win because of prejudice against a "black musical". Perhaps the reason that it won't win, if that will be the case, is because it really is not the best film of 2006? The fact that you said that it didn't appear in certain important top ten lists perhaps tells us that it's yeah, great.. but not jsut as great as those in the top ten. Think about it. It seems like you've almost appointed it best picture at this point. For shame.

I haven't seen "The Departed", but have seen negative reviews from some critics.

"Flags of Our Fathers" continues to make me ponder the after effects of war on a young man's psychic behavior. Also, to have a war, there has to be the "Universal Soldier", that Buffy St.Marie once sang about. Perhaps the anti-war stance of the movie contributed to the less than strong boxoffice, despite critical acclaim.

I also think that part of it was mainly because the public is sick of that "morally unjust" war in Iraq.

Re: "Brokeback Mountain". This would be an excellent subject to write a story about. How a film could win so many Best Picture prizes in RED states, as well as BLUE states, and win Best Picture awards outside the USA; yet still be upset by a film that many critics, minorities and Angelenos hated. The reporter could write about how Jay Leno made fun of BB night after night, and how many older voters were late night tv watchers, etc! Or that the image of John Wayne was invoked by certain actors, who forgot that John Wayne worked with many, many gay actors and actresses. They could even mention that Wayne's favorite director, John Ford, was reported to be gay. They could further state that those actors who protested the movie, would have not had much of a career without gays contributing to their films. That would even make a great movie!

But had those two "Brokeback Mountain" cowboys been all girlish ("Girl, where did you get that nifty leather belt?"), I'd think that them testosterone-driven critics would have felt much more comfortable in their movie seats than while watching two macho guys -- like themselves (or like they like to think of themselves) -- drooling into each other's mouths and having (off-screen) anal sex.

And do film critics really check into an actor's sexual orientation before handing out awards for movies or for performers playing gay characters? If so, Ian McKellen must have fooled them somehow. Many U.S. critics' groups chose McKellen as the Best Actor of 1998 for his performance as director James Whale in "Gods and Monsters."

By the way, I also know quite a few Academy members. Stories about widespread anti-gay bigotry seem grossly exaggerated. "Brokeback Mountain" also lost Italy's David di Donatello, Norway's Amanda, and the European Film Award for best foreign film. So, the Italian, Norwegian, and European academies are also bigoted? Or did those voters simply prefer, respectively, "Crash," "walk the Line," and "Good Night, and Good Luck."? The same principle, I'd say, applies to "The Color Purple" losing out to "Out of Africa" back in 1985, and to "Dreamgirls" losing -- or winning -- in 2006. (People may talk ad nauseam about quality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, cute dance numbers or what have you, but ultimately it's all in the selling.)

And finally...

Ahem... calling "Dreamgirls" a "gay man's dream" because it boasts "pretty gals in pretty dresses" sounds like the kind of thing that testosterone-driven, crotch-grabbing, tobacco-spitting, nose-picking critics would say. (And if I may ask, are them so-called gay guys driven by estrogen or what??)

Contrary to the stereotype, there is nothing inherently gay about musicals, and there is nothing specifically gay about Dreamgirls (which is, by the way, a film with NO GAY CHARACTERS) -- except perhaps those Amazing! Fabulous! Costumes! Brokeback Mountain garnered a very respectable 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and 87% on Metacritic (which is, by the way, 10% higher than Dreamgirls), so there was no critical backlash against Brokeback Mountain. Conversely, criticisms of Dreamgirls are usually and accurately aimed at its subpar acting, editing, screenplay, and direction. Moreover, after Brokeback Mountain, gay men no longer have to settle for the winking references formerly conveyed in Hollywood films through hidden gay subtexts -- there is no need to hunt for or invent gay subtexts in Dreamgirls.

I think that Dreamgirls probably is heading for a fall, but not necessarily due to any of the "identity politics" reasons that Tom gave. The problem I see is that, right now at least, the hype on the movie is exceeding the genuine buzz. That's (arguably) the same problem that befell Brokeback Mountain last year and The Aviator the year before. They were in such media spotlights as "Oscar frontrunners" that, in the relatively long span of time before Oscar voting ends, a backlash started building and a significant percentage of voters turned to films they felt were "theirs", that they had "discovered" on their own outside of the media-hype-bubble (like Crash and Million Dollar Baby). I'm not saying it always works like that (and I'm not sure which of the other four main contenders would fill that underdog slot: The Departed? Iwo Jima? Little Miss Sunshine? The Queen?) but this factor might really hurt Dreamgirls in the long run, even if it receives a massive number of nominations.

I'm gay and I really hated "Dreamgirls". I got so bored with the whole thing. Lots of screaming horrible songs that would never be listened to if not in this musical. I truly wanted to leave half way through. And why did all of those 'testorone fueled' straight guys vote BBM best pic last year? Hmmm... I am actually quite embarrassed by what you've written here. Sorry...

I saw Dreamgirls on Christmas and I liked it a lot but I don't think it was the best picture of the year. It would be nice to finally have a film with an all black cast take the top prize and this would be just as deserving as some other films. I don't think you can cite one particular reason a film wins or loses because there are too many people and too many factors involved. I think that Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy don't have much competition in the supporting categories other than Babel cast members (Rinko Kikuchi & Brad Pitt)so they could both win and Beyonce as co-writer of 'Listen' is probably a lock for Best Song. As for best pic, I haven't seen Iwo Jima but I'm not always a fan of Clint Eastwood. As for a typical Best Pic winner that was excellent on every level I'd have to go with The Departed.

"As of this year, the Oscars are a joke. Twice the bigotry with only half the ethics and integrity."

Actually, they hit that last year. This year it's thrice the bigotry and only a quarter of the ethics and integrity. Which, given that AMPAS has seen its credibility diminish by increments virtually since its inception, quantitatively since "The Greatest Show on Earth," acutely since "Braveheart," it's not surprising that "Dreamgirls" is in this position.

 

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