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Reflections on 'Dreamgirls'

"782" is the answer.

The question: how many claimants to the role of Effie did director Bill Condon have to consider before finally deciding on "American Idol" loser Jennifer Hudson, whose four-minute explosion in the middle of "Dreamgirls" is the electric jolt which will animate this entire movie season (and will, no doubt, power Hudson through award season quite nicely?)

The process took five months, says Condon on the other end of the phone from California. It was his idea to look at tapes and/or auditions of everybody who even thought she had a right to play the role. Otherwise, who knows what they'd have missed?

What we now know is that they missed nothing.

Whether Hudson is ever able to repeat -- or approach -- her astounding onscreen success in "Dreamgirls," Hudson is, as everyone knows now, making film history. It's a four-minute sequence that belongs in the film anthologies.

Hudson, unfortunately, also made some news when a comment of hers in an interview was misconstrued and she was characterized as considering homosexuality a sin. That's an immense irony because Condon's previous film "Kinsey" is, without question, the most sophisticated -- and funniest -- film ever made about the variety of sexuality in America. And, too, his open gay identity has been manifest in the subject matter of his movies since "Gods and Monsters." (The film is about James Whale, the not-so-closeted gay director of "Frankenstein." Condon's movie won an Oscar nomination for Sir Ian McKellen, the most public Trans-Atlantic gay activist in his profession.)

She was inexperienced, explains Condon. It was at a film junket during a round table interview with a handful of other journalists. The quote, as it appeared, was a conflation of two separate things she said and he admitted that he does think she may have been set up a bit.

As for the rest of his cast, a kind of roll-call of major African-American actors and performers, beginning with Beyonce Knowles -- he said it was surprisingly easy to cast.

The only one who came close to being a holdout was previous Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx. And his problem, from the beginning, was strictly money. All things being equal, he said, he didn't think he was being offered enough. Musicals, says Condon, are not exactly "tried and true" at the box office.

But as soon as Foxx found out that Eddie Murphy was eager to come aboard to play James "Thunder" Early, Foxx was in, no questions asked.

And despite what anyone might think, given the hard-charging careers involved, ego was seldom a fact in the making of "Dreamgirls." That, says Condon, is because everyone involved was a little scared, doing things onscreen they'd never really done before -- Beyonce Knowles having to act, Eddie Murphy having to sing and dance like a Broadway star.

Background, of course, mattered in how Condon got it all to work. Murphy's background in stand-up meant he always wanted to get it done in one or two takes. Because of Anika Noni Rose's background in theater, she always wanted a lot of rehearsal.

And Condon himself -- directing his first musical -- always painstakingly and laboriously studied tapes of the choreography, to take it apart piece by piece, see how it worked and integrate it as smoothly as possible into what the camera is doing. Watching Rob Marshall direct "Chicago" (for which Condon got an Oscar nomination as its writer) is, he admits, where he went to school in the making of "Dreamgirls."

But, he says, you have to understand that this is a movie he has wanted to make for a very long time.

He is proud, in fact, to have been in the opening night audience on Broadway when Jennifer Holliday as Effie first erupted into American theatrical history with "I'm Telling You I'm Not Going."

And, to no one's surprise, he took a legendary moment of theater, added to it and turned it into an already legendary moment of film.

-- Jeff Simon

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