'Da Vinci' Exceeds Expectations

'Da Vinci' | Dreamgirls | Penelope Cruz

Oscars 2007? ‘Dreamgirls’

It’s a little early to be predicting the next Academy Awards, but since yesterday a couple of things are crystal clear: The faces we’re going to be seeing on many red carpets early in 2007 will include the coolly sexy Beyonce Knowles, “American Idol” runner up Jennifer Hudson, and the comic star of the 1980s, Eddie Murphy.

Eddie Murphy? Huh?

Last night at the Cannes Film Festival, Dreamworks-Paramount did something that more studios should try: They put on a wildly successful reception and sneak preview screening of a potential Christmas blockbuster, the film version of the musical “Dreamgirls.” Director-writer Bill Condon, who wrote the Oscar winner “Chicago,” showed a star-studded, heavy A-list power player crowd about 30 minutes of what he and his crew have done so far. All the applause and cheering missing from the premiere of “The Da Vinci Code” filled the Hotel Martinez ballroom.

“Dreamgirls,” from the look of things last night, will be a monster of a movie when it opens in December. Simply gorgeous to watch, and sumptuous to hear, the 1980 Broadway musical has been totally reinvented by Condon, who rightly so invoked the name of legendary musical filmmaker Stanley Donen before the footage unreeled. Everyone should have such a success, but Condon did it with most of his cast — Jamie Foxx, Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose — and special guest stars like Hugh Jackman and Sir Ian McKellen.

Not only that: Paramount’s Brad Grey finally had something to smile wildly about, and he brought along Viacom chief Tom Freston. Condon also pulled off this minor miracle in front of his potentially greatest critic of all: David Geffen, the man who produced “Dreamgirls” on Broadway and then held back the film rights for 25 years until he found the right people to do it. Geffen, a billionaire who should have no fears at this point, told me right before the show started: “You can’t imagine how I hate these things. I never come to them.”

He may change his tune after last night.

Just before the lights went down, Beyonce — dressed in a peacock-colored gown designed by her mother Tina and looking a like a million bucks — seemed stunned and wide-eyed. She sat behind me in a makeshift room full of rows of those hardback metal chairs with little cushioning, by the way. This was not a regular theater, and there was no special area for the cast. Jennifer Hudson, who lost “American Idol” to Fantasia two seasons ago, sat across the aisle from Beyonce with her mother. Jamie Foxx sat a few seats into the middle of her row; Anika Noni Rose was behind her.

“I am so scared, you have no idea,” said Beyonce, who looked like she was about to get a shot in the doctor’s office. Someone should have told these people that in 30 minutes their lives would change. Jamie Foxx knew: If you remember he said so in this column about 10 days ago.

And then Condon let us see the footage. Eddie Murphy, wearing a Little Richard-like pressed pomaded pompadour is the first revelation. It’s as if he’s awakened from a 20-year stupor and regained the sly genius we saw on “Saturday Night Live.” Then comes Beyonce, playing the Diana Ross role, shining like Lena Horne, very glamorously gliding into the spotlight as a true screen siren. Each of them was shown singing and acting in scenes Condon had edited together, and you could feel the heat rising in the room. The gifted Jamie Foxx was featured singing an R&B ballad, but we already know how good he is at this stuff.

And then Jennifer Hudson — playing Effie, the part that Jennifer Holliday made famous — opens her mouth. Fantasia is a great singer, but Hudson is startling here. In the same way that Queen Latifah broke through in “Chicago,” Jennifer Hudson is about to conquer the world in “Dreamgirls.” She and her mother didn’t even understand what was happening afterwards, when every single person in that room crowded around them brandishing cameras, tape recorders, and business cards.

If Clive Davis is smart, he will get Hudson into a recording studio this summer and have an album out in time for the Oscars next February. Because Jennifer Hudson is going to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress without a doubt.

And Beyonce: when the lights went up, she was crying. “I can’t believe it,” she told me, shaking her head. She will be a movie star. She told me that working on the movie spurred her to finish a new album. “We did it in two weeks,” she said, “Wait ‘til you hear it. It comes out on my birthday, Sept. 4, and it’s called ‘B Day.’ Making this movie really inspired me.” Rodney Jerkins produced much of it and wrote a lot of the material, a real R&B album. Maybe “Dreamgirls” has already had a good effect on the culture.

It definitely had a good effect on Paramount. Earlier in the evening the once stodgy studio hosted a swinging beachside party to relaunch its Classics division as Paramount Vantage. Former VP Al Gore and wife Tipper were the surprise guests and maybe the new division, PV, was an inverted tip of the hat to them. In any case, with Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” debuting tonight, and “Babel” — from the director of “21 Grams” and “Amores Perros” — coming in a couple of days, the studio mostly known for bloated blockbusters and commercial catastrophes has disarmingly swamped the snootiest of international film festivals.

Penelope Cruz: Movie Star, At Last

There was never a question that Penelope Cruz was beautiful beyond belief. And in Spanish movies, she was sensational. But when she opened her mouth to say lines in English, the party was over. Then there was that whole business with Tom Cruise, which didn’t help her. Penelope — who her friend, Salma Hayek, touted as a superstar — dimmed.

Last night, though, we got to see her in Pedro Almodovar’s sensational new film, “Volver.” See how life changes? Shot by Pedro as if she were Sophia Loren circa 1955, Cruz is sexy, sensual, dramatic and comic. She so commands this wonderful fable that there is no doubt she will win Best Actress here. But even better, she’s a cinch for an Academy Award nomination and may even win — in Spanish.

Just as Eddie Murphy is revived in “Dreamgirls,” Cruz is put right back on her fast track by “Volver.” As Tom Cruise drained all the life out of her during her “Vanilla Sky” period, Almodovar lets her regain her mojo. Penelope gives the most bravada performance since Monica Bellucci in “Malena,” nearly carrying the entire film. Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, and Blanca Portillo make a spectacular supporting cast. Almodovar loves his female characters, that’s for sure. This group is so memorable, it’s a shame he doesn’t try to make a Spanish version of “The Women.”

“Volver” is going to be a big, big hit this fall, marking about 20 years of Almodovar working with Michael Barker and Tom Bernard from Sony Pictures Classics through great movies like “Bad Education,” “Talk to Her,” and “All About My Mother.” There was a story on the wires yesterday that Sony is thinking of starting another division for “quality” films but I don’t know why — they’ve already got one, thanks.