The past year has given us several impressive performances by actors playing well-known women. Though two thesps have garnered a disproportionate amount of awards buzz thanks to Film Twitter, Jennifer Hudson deserves heavy Oscar attention for her knockout work as Aretha Franklin in MGM/UA’s “Respect.”
It’s an act of daring to sing Franklin songs including “Respect,” “Think,” “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” and “Amazing Grace,” but Hudson pulls it off, managing to sound both like herself and as Franklin.
Just as important, she has the speech patterns, the manner and the emotional range to cover 20 years in a remarkable life.
“I did a lot of research to find her speaking voice and her singing voice,” Hudson tells Variety.
She also tapped into her personal contact with Franklin, who hand-picked the actor to play her.
“Ms. Franklin didn’t speak a lot; you often didn’t know what she was thinking,” says Hudson. “She was a very quiet person, but she had such a strong, regal presence.”
In early conversation, potential biographers weighed various options: Should Franklin’s story be told in a play, a TV series or a film? Hudson says Franklin was adamant about it being a film.
After agreeing to the role, did Hudson ever have second thoughts?
“Every day! As an actor, you read a script; but when you start seriously working on it, you think, ‘What did I get myself into?’ You’re discovering all that’s required. It’s Aretha Franklin! You can’t duplicate that. So I became like a medium, trying to capture her approach, her vocal nuances.”
Hudson performed the songs live for the cameras.
“If you pre-record a song, you can manipulate, but we wanted to be as authentic as possible. Singing live, it’s a lot, because you need the emotion to come through,” since the film’s songs punctuate many of Franklin’s troubling emotional moments.
Aside from reflecting Franklin’s roller-coaster emotional life, Hudson felt a responsibility: “All the music made me nervous. I’m a fan of hers so I know what she means to the music industry and the effect she’s had on people worldwide. That adds pressure.
“At first I thought, ‘I get to sing “Respect”! But I always remembered that songs like that represent something important to people.”
The film, directed by Liesl Tommy and scripted by Tracey Scott Wilson (with a story by Callie Khouri), roughly covers 1952 through 1972.
Franklin underwent major changes and so did the world. The film reflects that, which gave weight and context to the scenes.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a longtime friend of the family, and Franklin was asked to sing at his memorial.
Says Hudson: “To think she called Dr. King uncle. … And she had to be the light in the midst of all this, to hold up everyone else while she was in mourning. That’s a lot for a person to go through.”
Hudson adds, “It took a lot to understand the times: Women were not able to have a voice, not able to take up space, compared to the times I was raised in.
“When we started the film, I realized I can’t use my experience, I needed to understand how women felt and were treated. And then a Black woman in a time like that — what are the conditions and circumstances, what did that mean?
“This is most personal project I’ve ever done.”
Hopefully Oscar voters will remember Hudson’s work when they cast their ballots.