Is Alicia Keys ready for her film debut?
There's buzz here in Hollywood on the eve of the Grammy Awards, and it's getting loud.
Keys, I'm told, is being pursued for a major role in the movie version of the Broadway hit "Dreamgirls." She may be meeting this very day with writer/director Bill Condon to see what's what.
Get ready, because this girl can do anything. She may wind up joining Beyoncé Knowles — who's rumored to have a role already — and another superstar as "The Dreams," a trio based on The Supremes.
When on Broadway, the show-stopper "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" featured the singing of the then-heavyset Jennifer Holliday.
You can bet girls will be climbing all over each other to get this part. But Queen Latifah — with whom Condon worked on "Chicago" — would seem the likely candidate.
But back to Alicia: I caught up with her last night at the rehearsals for Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy party at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
This year the party will feature a number of artists, including solo performances by Alicia and her collaborations with Carlos Santana and Usher. Maroon 5 will also perform their big hits.
In the audience will be at least two other J Records hit acts: Gavin DeGraw and Mario. Whitney Houston will not be attending, but there's no scandal here. According to my sources, "Next year will be her big comeback. It's too soon."
Aretha Franklin apparently toyed with the idea of getting in her bus and making the trip from Detroit, but decided to stay put.
We had a rare glimpse of Keys working out her two duets with Santana — his "Black Magic Woman" and the Doors' "Light My Fire."
Keys also gave us a delicious version of "If I Ain't Got You," her Best Song nominee, even though she had some complaints about the keyboards.
Meanwhile, Santana played blistering guitar solos in the Beverly Hills Hotel ballroom for a select few. I was honored to be the only writer in the room. He also rocked out on "Oye Como Va," which he will perform on Saturday night.
Davis was beaming the whole time. He has a new Santana album shipping on April 8, with lots of guest stars including Michelle Branch and the lead singer from Puddle of Mudd, Wesley Scantlin.
Maroon 5, by the way, may look a little different on the Grammy show. They're using a temporary replacement drummer, Matt Flynn, in place of regular member Ryan Dusick.
Dusick (who happens to be "Knots Landing" star Michele Lee's nephew), injured his shoulder several weeks ago and is only now getting it back into shape. Don't worry though: If Maroon 5 wins any awards, Dusick will be ready to accept.
And then there's Fantasia Barrino. As I told you a few weeks ago after seeing her perform at the Rainbow Room, this girl can "sang!"
Three times in one hour last night, she knocked out scarily good versions of the Gershwins' "Summertime," which is her signature song.
Davis presented her with a plaque for a platinum album, meaning she's shipped 1 million copies of her debut record. She's the biggest thing turned out by "American Idol" so far and is definitely a keeper.
She's also a doll. After rehearsal, I asked her what she was doing for the night.
"Staring at that plaque," she replied.
There's no doubt that Fantasia is living her own fantasy right now.
At one point last night, Keys, Usher and Santana were all working together on the smallish stage of the ballroom, while photographers, camera crews and J Records staff buzzed around and did their respective jobs. It was so low-key that you might have forgotten that three superstars were in the room.
Arnold Stiefel, Rod Stewart's longtime manager, breezed in to pay respects to Davis and see what was happening. (Rod is off in Australia playing to sold-out venues every night, and won't be at the awards on Saturday.)
"It's so nice to see my J Records family," Stiefel said, and he meant it.
Rod has had three hit albums with Davis, and another "Songbook" CD is due this fall.
"I never had this experience at Rod's other labels," Stiefel said. "You feel like these people are a family."
He's right. When Davis started J Records four years ago, there was a real "let's put on a show" attitude. The result? A company that has a lot of people who seem to really care about what they're doing.
Compare it to some other record companies that shall go unnamed, where bail is mostly what's on the staff's minds. J is a unique company, and one to savor.
Yes, you've heard so much about Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby" and Annette Bening in "Being Julia."
Wasn't this column the first to point out that their Celebrity Death Rematch at the Oscars (they battled for Best Actress in 1999) would be the great drama of this year's Academy Awards?
But hey now: What if these two wind up canceling each other out? Odder things have happened.
Two years ago, after Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson alternated winning just about every other Best Actor award, Adrien Brody swept in and picked up the Oscar for "The Pianist."
But maybe Imelda Staunton, star of "Vera Drake" (one of the best-reviewed but least-seen films of 2004), is the dark horse this time around. I think so.
Staunton's portrayal of this benign abortionist/housewife is startling for so many reasons. Among them is that you would never guess this cute-as-a-button actress could transform herself into such a wreck of a 1950's housewife. Her sheer dowdiness is astonishing.
She is not named for Imelda Marcos, the most famous other woman to bear the name. Her mother, she told me recently, named her for a family friend. (Her full name is Imelda Mary Philomena Bernadette Staunton.)
Since she became a working actress, Staunton has made her own name. You will recognize her from "Sense and Sensibility" and also from "Shakespeare in Love." She is memorable in both.
Director Mike Leigh evidently thought so, too. He cast her without hesitation in "Vera Drake." But they had not worked together before, and Staunton was nervous — with good reason.
Leigh does not write scripts. His movies are entirely improvised.
Even though he was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, he only wrote out the "Vera Drake" script recently — after watching the movie.
In fact, "Vera Drake" was improvised for six months leading up to its filming. For those months, the cast would meet five days a week in separate parts of an abandoned hospital.
But cast members only met with those whom they had direct contact in the film. In Staunton's case, that meant the actors who played her husband, son, daughter and daughter's boyfriend.
If you haven't seen the film, stop reading here. Because I have to give away some of what happens.
As those who've seen it know, "Vera Drake" is a housewife whose home life is very much taken up with making dinner, giving little parties and other mundane chores. But she has another life altogether: She performs abortions for young girls "in trouble."
The fascinating thing about this secret is that you never know whether her family is aware of her alter ego. Indeed, they aren't.
And in the clever way that Leigh made the movie, the actors who played the family never knew it either until it was time to film.
"The actors playing the police rehearsed in another part of the hospital," Staunton told me. "When they came in to arrest me, no one else in the scene knew what they were arresting me for. They found out essentially at the time as the audience."
Staunton's best scene, out of many good ones, occurs at that moment.
Leigh focuses on her face (no dialogue) as Vera realizes what's about to happen. She will be arrested and pulled from her own dining-room table, and her family will discover her secret.
Swank and Bening are also both very good, but it's hard to imagine not giving an award and a standing ovation to Staunton for her work.
Wasn't she terrified making a movie this way?
"I was," she says, smiling, "but I'd do it again in a minute."
So what's next for Staunton? It turns out she has a musical-comedy history as well as a dramatic one.
She'd like to play Mrs. Lovett in the film version of "Sweeney Todd." She'd be perfect.
Hopefully director Sam Mendes, who's making the film version of the Stephen Sondheim musical, will agree.
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