Just in case you're wondering where I stand in the first great debate of 2007, let me get one thing out of the way right up front: Jennifer Hudson can out-sing Beyoncé any day of the week and twice on Sunday. But that information still only gets you to third place on American Idol and the part of Effie White in the screen adaptation of Dreamgirls. Hudson is the critics' darling of the moment, and may yet win Best Supporting Actress on the strength of her much talked-about, Jennifer Holliday-rivaling rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." Pipes-wise, she's got the goods.
But in the long run, Hudson will remain overshadowed by Beyoncé, whose career is still comfortably keeping pace with the career of none other than Deena Jones, er -- Diana Ross. Beyoncé won't get, and doesn't need an Oscar, but she plays the romantic lead opposite Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx in his turn as Berry Gordy, er -- Curtis Taylor, Jr., and at the nearest available opportunity, she'll surely be cast as the next Deena-Carmen-Foxxy-Funny Girl who Sings the Blues -- and with good reason. After skipping a generation due to the demise of Whitney Houston, the upside down career of Vanessa Williams and the utterly lame movie résumé of Mariah Carey, she's once again filled the honorary first chair of singing screen queen.
If you're not sold yet on the indefatigability of the Beyoncé empire, it may be useful to survey the landscape of personalities that have surrounded her 10-year rise. In Dreamgirls she plays Deena, who is Diana, who is Beyoncé. On Broadway, Deena was originally played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, who later played the role of TV mom to Moesha, played by Brandi Norwood, who, a decade ago, was the heir apparent to the throne that Beyoncé now sits upon. Beyoncé's co-star is Jennifer Hudson, who plays the more talented, but less marketable Effie, and Hudson got that part by way of her more talented, but less marketable third place finish on American Idol behind North Cack's own Fantasia Barrino, who was subsequently turned down for the Effie role in Dreamgirls. The only original Dreamgirls star to appear in the film is Loretta Devine, last seen on Boston Public, on which Tamyra Gray, the more talented, but less marketable runner-up on the original Idol, got her only break in a multi-episode run as the protégé of a music teacher portrayed by Sharon Leal, who is currently featured in Dreamgirls as Michelle Morris, Effie's replacement in The Dreams. Gray placed third on Idol behind Kelly Clarkson, who, like Beyoncé, expanded her repertoire to the movies with From Justin to Kelly, co-starring Anika Noni Rose as Kelly's sidekick -- a role that would prepare Rose for her current turn as Lorrell, Deena's sidekick in Dreamgirls.
As much as Dreamgirls follows the rise and fall of The Supremes, it also tracks the history of Beyoncé and Destiny's Child, including the surgical removal of LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett from the group, solidifying Beyoncé as the crown jewel in the remaining trio and ensuring that she would ascend to her place in the royal line that extends from Lena Horne to Barbara Streisand. It all went down at a time that the group went from being primarily a phenomenon of black radio to collecting props from a mainstream top-40 audience.
However premeditated her ascendancy has been, it has definitely worked. Maybe it's because unlike Diana, her image Svengali is her dad, not her lover. Maybe it's because JLo can't sing, Jessica Simpson can't act, and Mary J. Blige is too black. Sure, Beyoncé has the gift of her looks and talent, but even that can't fully account for her star power. She has managed to stay above the tabloid fray and revealed just enough of herself (and held back just enough) to become a spokesmodel for a 21st century hip-hop fantasy. She's now "The Prototype." And that is something that Hudson, with the Aretha-esque voice and the Latifah-esque stare just can't match.
In the digital media world, a singer's voice might bring tears to your eyes, but she probably won't get a record contract unless she can sell a pair of $200 jeans. Skin color and dress size politics aside, it's almost pointless to make the comparisons between Beyoncé and Hudson, or proclamations about who did or didn't steal the show. Since both women were portraying reasonable facsimiles of themselves in Dreamgirls, the only question to ask is if they did themselves justice. Hudson showed that a hungry newcomer could fearlessly play the signature role that may (or may not) make her a star. And Beyoncé simply showed that she's the only one who could have played Deena. Because if you're looking to cast someone as the once and future Diana Ross, who else are you gonna call? In a word, she's your Dreamgirl ...