2.14.2007

Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls (2006) - Supporting Actress Sundays - Special Wednesday Edition

Few showbiz tropes thrill as reliably as the "star is born" narrative, with set-pieces so beyond cliché that it's a wonder they still fly at all. But, boy howdy, do they ever... From the national casting search for the perfect girl...to the "overnight" success of a trouper from the trenches...to the big second shot for the sweet kid who seemed to have missed out on her first chance at stardom...to the novice performer finding it within themselves to offer the showstopping, starmaking performance of a lifetime. Any one of these bits is usually enough to sucker StinkyLulu all on its own, but rarely do all these narrative threads weave so powerfully through a single performance as they do for...

approximately 59 minutes and 51 seconds on-screen
30 scenes
roughly 46% of film's total screen time

Jennifer Hudson's casting in the pivotal role of Effie seemed to StinkyLulu at once totally right and incredibly risky. The curvy cast-aside American Idol belter with pipes of steel who survived cruel Cowell cracks about her weight? Who better for the part of Effie, whose big voice, big body and bigger personality must be cast aside to allow the starry Dreams of others to rise? Hadn't Jennifer Hudson in some ways already lived the part? And hadn't Jennifer Hudson actually been singing Effie's anthem since the girl was like 10 years old? The choice seemed almost too perfect.

Almost. It's a surprisingly tricky acting task to make such a declamatory character as Effie work on screen. Effie is — to a fault — impetuous and direct. In her music and her dialogue, she's brash and sassy, unburdened with much in the way of humility or subtlety until it’s almost too late. Effie's songs are roof-raising epics, tent-poles for the emotional narrative of the entire piece, while the bulk of her character development (from naïve arrogance to abject humiliation to soulful redemption) happens mostly at the edges of scenes or off-stage entirely. But, while the songs are some of the best showcases for singer-actors written in the last few decades, the task of stringing those gems together comprises the work of characterization for Effie, and StinkyLulu wondered at the outset whether an inexperienced actor (like Hudson) could maneuver Effie's "in betweens" with the same clarity and passion as her "center stages." Would Hudson — in her acting debut — be able to craft the necessary emotional architecture to bridge Effie's big moments?

Upon first screening Dreamgirls, all of StinkyLulu's greatest hopes and biggest fears were realized in Jennifer Hudson's Effie. When at center stage, Hudson's Effie brings down the house again and again and again (the late afternoon ABQ audience of StinkyLulu's first screening burst into spontaneous applause for Hudson's Effie no fewer than three times) and yet...in the in-betweens? Hudson's Effie becomes a distressingly incomplete performance. Within the focal moments of the narrative and score, Hudson's Effie is captivating and often thrilling. In the in-betweens, it's mostly Hudson just standing there or awkwardly shoopadooping while wearing Effie's costume. It's a strangely discordant thing: Hudson's performance contributes some of the year's best screen moments while punctuating most of them with some of the most shockingly flat-footed acting StinkyLulu's seen in some time.

And for Lulu, the gaps in Hudson's Effie underscore one of the essential elements of actressing at the edges: working your character-ass off whether the camera's "on" you or not. Such actressing at the edges — little throwaway bits that sculpt the character's contours even (or especially) when such details are not the focus of the scene — are sadly absent in Hudson's performance. Such gaps become most evident when Hudson's Effie sings back-up and, here, the difference between stealing focus and being legibly "in character" becomes painfully clear. Hudson's Effie knows how to grab attention, but Hudson fails to convey Effie's discomfort, compromise and fury at being "put in back," especially when she's actually performing back-up.

As a quick example, consider Hudson's clarity in the recording studio scene for "Heavy" and compare it to her muddiness moments later when walking off the set during filming of the same song for tv. When she's got her own vocal line, Hudson shakes the foundation; when she must convey character in the midst or at the edges of other action, Hudson hits her marks but the character of Effie is less than legible. Compare this, then, to the luminous Sharon Leal, in a moment of a similar sort right after Jimmy (Eddie Murphy) has burned all his bridges and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) has finally broken their relationship. As Lorell rushes to her position on stage, Leal's Michelle gives her friend a simple look of reassurance and strength as she also strikes a pose wearing her best glamor-back-up-girl smile — neither distracting nor disrupting the scene, but definitely illuminating Leal's characterization of the thankless role of Michelle. Hudson's performance hits Effie's heights with palpable power, but it's in these — the essential in-betweens of actressing at the edges — that Hudson's Effie stumbles and, not infrequently, falls.

But please, lovely reader, do not misunderstand: Jennifer Hudson's nomination is certainly worthy and, if Miss Hudson takes home the trophy as she's perhaps likely to, StinkyLulu will not be blogging and moaning about the injustice of it all. Indeed, StinkyLulu is of two minds about whether Jennifer Hudson's performance warrants this year's Supporting Actress prize. On the one hand, Hudson's Effie provided a handful of the year's most thrilling actressexual pleasures. On the other, it does pain Lu (and not a little bit) to have such a singularly starmaking performance just skip over the actressing at the edges that brings Lulu to this category with such single-minded devotion. Because, after all, Lulu does love it when the girls "put in back" seize their chance to shine without the benefit of a spotlight...

11 comments:

J.J. said...

I think Hudson is least deserving of the five. If we must pit her against the other lead performance in this supporting category, Blanchett mops the floor with her. I'd argue that each of Blanchett's scenes in NOAS are 10 times as invigorating as "And I Am Telling You..." -- a number which would've been fine for primetime but withers on screen (much of the fault for this, though, lies with Condon's limp, aimless direction).

Vertigo's Psycho said...
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Vertigo's Psycho said...

Definitely take the opposing view on Hudson. I read your original piece before I saw Dreamgirls, and therefore I was looking for times when Jennifer wasn't really pulling her weight in the background. The only time I saw Effie come across as bored or not giving 100% was when, fed up with being forced out of the spotlight, the character appears disenchanted with her situation, and therefore looks less-than-enthused doing backup after Deena takes her place as lead (and I do think Condon intended Hudson's character to come across this way during some of the shots of Effie doing backup).

I do think most of Effie's major character development takes place when she is front and center, singing (and Hudson fully understands how to act in song, just as Barbra Streisand did as Fanny Brice Funny Girl or Liza Minnelli did as Sally Bowles in Cabaret). That said, I honestly didn't see Hudson doing anything out of character (or less than necessary) for Effie when she wasn't the main focus of a scene.
I thought Hudson's was a full, complete performance, and I will have no problem with an Oscar win (of course my personal favorite, Catherine O'Hara, isn't in the running, though).

However, regarding your previous comments on Beyonce, I'm in total agreement. I thought she was perfectly cast, and handled the role with considerable aplomb (she certainly had no problem showcasing Deena-as-Diva, but she managed to keep the character warm and likable, whether Deena was a novice or a superstar). If she'd been an unknown in the part (ala Sharon Leal), I think there would be a lot more positive critical attention surrounding her work.

StinkyLulu said...

VP: I've taken such opposing views seriously as I've revisited the film (rescreening it, timing it, etc). And I'm left wondering what you (as well as ModFab, Craig, etc) see that I don't. Because I just don't see it. And usually I can see what others praise, even when I don't concur. But this one's hitting a blind spot of mine. I see Jennifer Hudson doing a competent job of following direction at all times, but I rarely see into Effie.

(Interestingly, I found that my revisit/s confirmed my initial feelings about Beyonce's work but diminished my appreciation of Rose's.)

But as I'm sure I'll watch this movie again and again and again in the years to come ("chick flick" + musical + cable = my doom), it'll be interesting to discover if I ever catch the JHud wave...

Craig Hickman said...

You will, stinky, because it's there. You just don't see it yet.

But you will.

And even if you don't, what you do see is definitely there and is all that you say it is and more.

NATHANIEL R said...

I liked this performance much more the second time but still... I think part of my reservations about embracing it is what people compare it to. And it feels like sacrilege to me. There is NO WAY that this is comparable to, say, what Barbra Streisand did in her Oscar winning screen debut. She had been an actress for years already (on stage) and it was an incredibly full rounded lived-in performance.

Jhud brings the house down with the centerpiece number but that's not the same as giving an Oscar worthy all time great performance where the character feels like she existed both before her first scene and afterwards.


just sayin... I'm realizing I would probably like this performance more if there weren't so goddamn much hyperbole.

Aside: I agree that Leal is excellent in her thankless role. I love actors like that.

Vertigo's Psycho said...
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Vertigo's Psycho said...

Agree that Streisand was phenomenal, Nathaniel (it's one of the richest performances ever, and proves stage-to-screen portrayals don't have to lose their spontaneity, when a dedicated performer grows with the role). However, I believe Hudson brilliantly gets the fundamentals of acting in song (even if the character of Effie doesn't have as many facets as a Fanny Brice or a Sally Bowles) and it's not hyperbole to give her credit for bringing off a dynamic role in dynamic fashion by comparing her work to that of standout performers who also vividly portrayed much of their character's development in song. Hudson puts her stamp on Effie just as surely as some other greats have done in their signature roles (whatever Hudson does in the future, Effie will certainly remain one of the, or the, signature role(s) in her career, just as Fanny Brice and Sally Bowles remain signature roles for Streisand and Minnelli).

The single Effie moment that stays with me the most was her quietly sung "What about me?" queries after losing her lead status with the Dreamgirls. I was impressed by her big numbers, but found her incredibly moving as she reacts to her demotion.

adam k. said...

I actually agree with the "what about me?" moment. That was one of her most impressive quiet moments.

I'm with Stinky and Nathaniel on this one. It's actually quite frustrating that some scenes she just "BOOM" hits it, and others you see what a neophyte she is at acting, cause it looks so painfully paint-by-numbers. But that's not surprising, considering that she is, in fact, a novice.

I don't think it's even a talent issue, necessarily. It's just a fact that NO ONE can be that great in their very first role ever. She had NEVER acted before, not amateur acting, not college acting, nothing. And that's gonna show. This is not just her screen debut, it's her ACTING debut, period. This is a hump that most professional actors got over as children, or at least in high school or college theater.

It didn't help, of course, that Condon didn't seem to care much about subtleties from anyone or anything in his film. I'm sure he could've gotten a more consistent performance out of her if he'd tried.

daveylow said...

After my second viewing of Dreamgirls, I felt strongly that I did not need to see this film again for a while. And that's not how I feel about films I think are really wonderful. And much as I was wowed by Hudson's singing I feel no need right now to watch her again. I think the problem with Dreamgirls is it may be too long and has quite a few bland elements, mostly in the scenes with Beyonce and Foxx.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Hudson had certainly sung before Dreamgirls, bringing us back to the "is singing acting?" debate, as the majority of Effie's character development does take place during her songs. I think it's clear Hudson knows how to do both (sing and act) in song and that factor, combined with her perfect casting and the careful direction of Condon, did indeed add up to a sensational performance Hudson's first time at bat.

As for her non-musical scenes, I thought Hudson's instinctive style of acting was right on and emotionally true, as Hudson kept Effie's strength, humor, and heartache 'real' in excellent fashion during these passages.