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And I am telling you ...

Jennifer Hudson's `Dreamgirls' role is a girl's dream role. Take that, `American Idol.'

December 04, 2006|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

AS a child, Jennifer Hudson dreamed of becoming a famous singer.

She grew up singing in churches around her Chicago home. Then, "American Idol" came along, and it seemed the show might be her ticket to stardom. It wasn't -- she was kicked off long before the final rounds.

But now, two years later, Hudson is living the dream. Tonight, she'll walk the red carpet at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York for the premiere of "Dreamgirls," the much-anticipated film version of the Broadway musical that features the 25-year-old singer alongside high-octane cast mates Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy.

And judging from the early industry buzz, "Dreamgirls" -- a fictionalized story about Diana Ross & the Supremes -- will catapult Hudson from fallen "Idol" to overnight sensation -- and possibly an Oscar.

Relaxing in a Manhattan hotel suite a few days before the premiere and speaking by phone, Hudson paused as she attempted to describe the growing hoopla.

"I don't know -- I feel a little bit of everything," she finally managed. "But I'm loving it. I'm handling it pretty well, though I didn't expect all of this. It gets a little overwhelming."

The film doesn't open nationwide until Christmas (a special road show engagement starts Dec. 15 at the ArcLight Hollywood), but Hudson is already neck-deep in the relentless star-making machinery that has pinballed her from "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to press junkets in London and several American cities. Pop-music powerhouse Clive Davis, comparing her to "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige, has signed her to a recording contract, and he is soliciting A-list writers to work on her first album.

Her two high-powered William Morris agents -- one on each coast -- have been mulling inquiries for other film projects, and they have already turned down a few.

Although Hudson may find it a bit hard at times to crystallize her thoughts, those who worked with her on "Dreamgirls" or have seen her performance as Effie Melody White, the lead singer of a 1960s black female trio who is unceremoniously dumped when the group starts to achieve crossover success -- are not at a loss for words about Hudson, what she brings to the film and her future.

"I love the entire cast, but we could have gotten everything else right, and if Jennifer wasn't there and coming through with those feelings, everything else wouldn't have mattered," said "Dreamgirls" director Bill Condon.

"When Effie says, 'But I have the voice,' it's the crux of the story. There are a lot of great singers who don't transfer to film, but her acting comes from such a deep part of who she is."

The fact that Hudson had the chops to handle the vocally demanding role was not in doubt. But what has surprised those who have seen the film is Hudson's presence and charisma. At times, she overshadowed her more seasoned costars. She moves easily from sassy songstress to anguished reject to triumphant survivor.

Said Condon, "Jennifer has never done a film before, and two weeks into filming, she's going toe to toe with Jamie Foxx, and holding her own. It's astonishing."

And although Foxx, Knowles and Murphy all have their admirers when it comes to Oscar predictions, it's Hudson who is mentioned most often. Although her role is both prominent and pivotal in the film, she is being pushed as a contender in the supporting actress category, while Knowles is being backed for best actress.

"I can't even believe that people are talking about Oscars," Hudson said. "It's the greatest honor, the icing on the cake. But we'll cross that bridge when we get there. I just say, 'Are they serious? Thank you!' "

Much of the raves center on Hudson's interpretation of the show's best-known song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," Effie's heartbroken declaration of defiance after she is shoved aside by Curtis (Foxx), her lover and the group's manager. A devastating rendition by Tony Award-winner Jennifer Holliday, who originated the Effie role on Broadway, was the highlight of the stage version.

For Hudson, "Dreamgirls" is all part of a real-life fairy tale.

"This is something I've always dreamed of since I was 7," she said. "I wanted to be a singer, and I wanted to be famous. My grandmother was a singer, and I fell in love with singing at an early age."

Singing in church was her main outlet ("I love gospel") until she decided to try out for "American Idol" in its third season. Hudson, LaToya London and Fantasia Barrino, who eventually won, soon became known as the Three Divas.

Recalled "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson: "Those girls were like the cast of 'Dreamgirls.' It was so crazy and weird. But Jennifer had a gift, and that's what our show is about -- bringing out the natural gift in people. You can't learn to sing like she can sing."

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