Beyonce, schmeyonce: Even when “Dreamgirls” was in production, all advance word seemed to indicate that it was Jennifer Hudson — the untried actress and “American Idol” discard cast as the irrepressible Effie White — who was about to make a screen debut for the ages.
As evidenced by the surprising omission of “Dreamgirls” from the best picture race, it’s never a good idea to overhype a movie too far in advance. Actors, however, may be another story. Even viewers who felt the musical did not deliver the goods had to admit that Hudson did, showing off tremendous singing and acting chops in what was essentially a leading role. It helps that Hudson’s “Idol” backstory dovetails so deliciously with Effie’s own arc of rejection and redemption, giving Academy voters an underdog story difficult to resist.
Hudson isn’t the only newcomer in what is easily the most diverse Oscar lineup in a year noted for its diversity. The other first-timers are 10-year-old Abigail Breslin for “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Babel” co-stars Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi, who portrayed a Mexican nanny and a deaf Japanese schoolgirl, respectively, in the multilingual epic.
Rounding out the category is Cate Blanchett for her turn as a perfidious schoolteacher in “Notes on a Scandal.” It’s the third Oscar nomination for the Australian actress, who was passed over for her lead turn in 1998’s “Elizabeth” but won a supporting statuette for channeling Katharine Hepburn in 2004’s “The Aviator.” Clearly, Blanchett is loved by the Academy, but given her recent victory, voters might choose to spread the wealth and honor a newbie.
Barraza and Kikuchi should at least consider themselves lucky that Blanchett is up for “Scandal” rather than “Babel.” While there are exceptions to the rule (Catherine Zeta-Jones beat her “Chicago” co-star Queen Latifah in this category four years ago), having multiple nominees from the same film typically doesn’t bode well for their chances.
Still, the recognition of two little-known minority actresses shows the Academy was willing to look past the film’s higher-profile names — Blanchett, Brad Pitt and Gael Garcia Bernal — and single out what many agree are “Babel’s” two most memorable performances.
If there’s an upset in the making, look out for Breslin. As Olive, the moppet at the center of “Little Miss Sunshine,” the tyke thesp is adorable but uncloying, the glue that holds both family and film together. No less than Hudson, Breslin is an ingenue with serious underdog appeal; some won’t want to see her lose a beauty pageant twice.
AND THE NOMINEES ARE…
Oscar pedigree: None
Current kudos: San Francisco Film Critics (win); Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Chicago Film Critics (nom), Online Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), SAG (nom); Gotham (cast win)
Why she’ll win: Barraza’s heartbreaking nanny is perhaps the most readily sympathetic character in a divisive film.
Why she won’t: She’s bound to split votes with co-star Rinko Kikuchi.
Critical quote: “Barraza in particular is a marvel, so harrowing as she navigates the sizzling desert sands that you may feel beads of sweat forming on your forehead as you watch her,” wrote Scott Foundas, L.A. Weekly.
‘Notes on a Scandal’
Oscar pedigree: Won for supporting role in “The Aviator” (2004); nominated for lead role in “Elizabeth” (1998)
Current kudos: Dallas-Fort Worth Critics (win), Florida Film Critics (win), Phoenix Film Critics (win), Toronto Film Critics (win); Chicago Film Critics (nom), Online Film Critics (nom), Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), SAG (nom), Satellite (nom)
Why she’ll win: She went toe-to-toe with Judi Dench and not only survived, but thrived.
Why she won’t: Voters won’t be in a rush to give her an award she won just two years prior.
Critical quote: “Blanchett breathes life and sympathy into an ordinary woman with a secretly messy interior,” wrote Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly.
‘Little Miss Sunshine’
Oscar pedigree: None
Current kudos: Online Film Critics (win); Broadcast Film Critics (young actress win); BAFTA (nom), Chicago Film Critics (nom), Gotham (nom), SAG (nom), Satellite (nom); SAG (cast win); Gotham (cast nom)
Why she’ll win: Oscar loves to honor kids in this category, and Breslin offers substance to go with the sweet.
Why she won’t: Hudson has all the heat, and Breslin was by no means a shoo-in for a nom.
Critical quote: “Breslin … is an acting career waiting to happen. She’s cute the way real kids are: unpredictable, vulnerable, resilient and tender,” wrote Dana Stevens, Slate.com.
Oscar pedigree: None
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics (win), Golden Globes (win), Las Vegas Film Critics (win), New York Film Critics (win), SAG (win), Satellite (win), Southeastern Film Critics (win), Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics (win); National Board of Review (breakthrough win), Palm Springs Film Festival (breakthrough win), Phoenix Film Critics (breakthrough win), Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics (breakthrough win); BAFTA (nom), Chicago Film Critics (nom), Image (nom), Online Film Critics (nom); Online Film Critics (breakthrough nom)
Why she’ll win: Hudson’s smokin’ rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is a showstopper to stop all showstoppers. Critical support and domination of the precursor awards make her the clear front-runner.
Why she won’t: The “Dreamgirls” no-show for best picture may indicate weaker overall support than expected.
Critical quote: “The movie belongs to Hudson as the proud, self-destructive Effie. When she’s center stage, ‘Dreamgirls’ transports you to movie musical heaven,” wrote David Ansen, Newsweek.
Oscar pedigree: None
Current kudos: Chicago Film Critics (win); National Board of Review (breakthrough win), Gotham (ensemble, breakthrough wins); Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), Online Film Critics (nom), SAG (nom), Satellite (nom); Online Film Critics (breakthrough nom)
Why she’ll win: The little-known Kikuchi was singled out most passionately by critics. Emotionally and physically naked perf helps her chances.
Why she won’t: She’s bound to split votes with co-star Barraza.
Critical quote: “Kikuchi’s performance is an unnerving blend of sexual provocation, timidity and sheer rage,” wrote A.O. Scott, New York Times.