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THE OSCAR NOMINATIONS | ANALYSIS

Dream machine stalls

`Dreamgirls' was a sure thing for the best picture category. What went wrong?

January 24, 2007|Greg Braxton and Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writers

THE biggest winner in the Oscar nomination derby was also the biggest loser. And that left Hollywood buzzing about what derailed the "Dreamgirls" machine.

The flashy Motown-inspired musical scored the most nominations (eight), but was shut out of the marquee races, notably best picture. The snub signaled a stunning blow for a $100-million film that was positioned by its producers, DreamWorks SKG and Paramount Pictures, as a major Oscar contender even while it was still in production. (It capped a disappointing day for DreamWorks, which won only two other nominations Tuesday.)

Was the Oscar campaign too heavy-handed? Did the musical not appeal to enough men? Or did simply not enough academy voters think it was best picture-worthy? Once they got over their shock, everyone in town seemed to have a theory about "Dreamgirls" -- except the people who made it.

For the first time in almost a year, the creative forces behind the film were not talking about it, declining comment about the Oscars. The silence stood in marked contrast to the aggressive promotional campaign that included gala events with live performances of production numbers, a sneak preview at the Cannes Film Festival, several premieres and relentless courting of the media.

The lack of comment left it open to industry insiders to speculate about what could have gone wrong. Some say it's possible that many academy voters opted to lend their support to smaller, well-liked films such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Queen," taking "Dreamgirls' " chances for top honors for granted. Others felt that the all-out Oscar push may have alienated some Oscar voters, or that "Dreamgirls," with its appeal mainly to women, did not connect as much to the largely male academy.

To be sure, the film scored some major nominations, including best supporting nods to Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy. But "Dreamgirls" had been anointed -- some would say self-anointed -- as a best picture nominee since it was released, and that may not have played well to the academy.

"Oftentimes, the front-runner does not win -- I think Oscar voters are funny that way," said Jim Piazza, co-author of "The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History." "There is so much hype that they get a little bit squeamish and a certain resentment builds up."

In recent years, other films that had seemed like a sure bet for best picture ended up not winning, including last year's "Brokeback Mountain" (which lost to "Crash" ) and 1998's "Saving Private Ryan" (which lost to "Shakespeare in Love").

One academy member, who asked not to be identified, said that though "Dreamgirls" seemed like a perfect best picture candidate -- an uplifting, old-fashioned musical -- the relentless Oscar campaign may have turned off many voters.

"People don't like to be told what to think," the member said.

An Oscar strategist not affiliated with the film wondered if no one felt that passionately about "Dreamgirls."

Like "American Idol," passion counts in the academy because of its voting process. Oscar nominations are tabulated using a preferential system, rather than a weighted system. Votes are counted in multiple rounds, narrowing down the potential nominees based on the rankings given to them by voters.

What it comes down to is that a small core of dedicated voters can push through a nominee -- it's more important for a film to be passionately loved by a few than generally liked by the larger group.

In the broader spectrum of academy voters, "Dreamgirls" may have been a film that was more liked than loved. By contrast, not everyone liked "Babel," but those who did felt strongly that it was the best film of the year.

Moreover, gender preference may have further dampened "Dreamgirls' " chances. The academy is roughly two-thirds male, and according to one "Dreamgirls" insider, the audience for the musical skewed female, with about 58% of the audience consisting of women. Another recent musical, "Chicago," was thought to have a broader appeal -- and it won for best picture.

DreamWorks certainly launched a massive campaign on behalf of co-founder David Geffen's pet project. While the movie was still in production last year, the studio staged an expensive media event at the downtown Orpheum Theatre, featuring buffets, open bars, costumes from the movie and a live performance of "Steppin' to the Bad Side," one of the musical's production numbers. Beyonce Knowles, who stars in the film as a character fashioned after Supremes lead singer Diana Ross, spoke of her Oscar aspirations months before the film opened.

Jennifer Hudson, who drew most of the film's accolades as the displaced singer Effie White, was pushed into the supporting actress category -- where strategically she had a better chance of winning a nomination -- even though she arguably has the leading female role. Before the movie was widely released on Christmas Day, a special "roadshow" engagement of "Dreamgirls" was launched, where patrons were charged $25.

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