Before 'Dreamgirls,' There Was Mary Wilson

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2007

Forgive Mary Wilson if she wasn't on the edge of her seat during the movie "Dreamgirls."

"I pretty much knew the story of what it was all about," she says by phone during sound check for a concert in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

To put it mildly. The film, which is up for eight Oscars on Sunday, is loosely based on the Supremes, the girl group she co-founded in the late '50s with her best friends from her Detroit neighborhood.

Wilson, who plays a four-night engagement at Georgetown's Blues Alley starting tonight, doesn't want to compare Beyonce to Diana Ross or Jamie Foxx to Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown records. She says it's "nitpicky." Besides, comparing the film and its Broadway musical predecessor to her real life story is comparing apples to oranges. (Beehives to bouffants?)

"Here's my take on the whole thing: They want to do a musical, what better group to use than the Supremes, the biggest female group of the '60s?" she says. "So they say, 'Oh, that's great! Let's base it on the Supremes!' Then they started writing and they just wrote a story."

Wilson, 62, says she plans to perform a mix of ballads, jazz standards and Broadway show tunes at her shows here. The set list doesn't include any Supremes hits, but she does still like the "ones that really rock out" such as 1966's "You Keep Me Hangin' On." Least favorites? "Baby Love" and "Stop! In the Name of Love" because they don't fit her alto voice, she says.

Wilson says "Dreamgirls" is not a Supremes film, but despite her disclaimers, the parallels are obvious. So obvious that the film hit a nerve for Wilson.

"That someone can do your life story and you don't get paid, they don't ask you for any input? It's kind of a bittersweet thing. It's wonderful, but it's sad," she says. "If you've made history, people should give you 100 percent credit."

Paramount Pictures did not return calls for comment.

The pre-Supremes group called the Primettes did win a talent contest that brought them some fame. But the real talent show didn't lead right to Motown records and an immediate whirlwind of stardom, Wilson says. The contest took place in Canada, so they walked across the bridge from Detroit, sans passports. When they won, it made the group believe in its talent. They didn't sign with an agent until later.

Jennifer Hudson's character, Effie White, an interpretation of Florence Ballard, was most true-to-life, Wilson says. Though Ballard did have the standout voice and left the group, she never got a triumphant return to the spotlight. Wilson says the film glossed over the true tragedies of her life: Ballard was raped when she was a teenage member of the Primettes, dismissed from the Supremes in 1967 and died at age 32.

Wilson's own film double, character Lorrell Robinson played by Anika Noni Rose, is nothing like her, she says. Also, Beyonce's Deena Jones is not Diana Ross and Jamie Foxx is not playing Berry Gordy Jr. ("Berry is a lot more fun," she says.)

About Ross, Wilson doesn't remember the last time she spoke to her but says "the love is not gone."

"People like to dwell on the negative, but we are closer than most people realize," Wilson says. "People think Florence and I were closest, but actually Diane [Wilson refers to Ross by her birth name] and I were closer. . . . Sometimes life or business throws you things, but the feeling is still there. That has never really changed."

Wilson's life now is busier than it was when the Supremes were together, she says. She has traveled to countries such as Botswana, Pakistan and Bangladesh as a U.S. cultural ambassador, performing concerts and educating people about HIV and AIDS.

She performs three to five nights per week, a pace that worries her 31-year-old daughter, Turkessa Ferrer-Babich, who lives in the Las Vegas area. Wilson had a heart attack last summer. Ferrer-Babich says that despite her mother's "workaholic" tendencies that made her miss many of her children's birthdays, family comes first.

"She couldn't be there for my son's birth, but she asked me if it was okay if she went out and performed," she says. "She was on the phone the whole time, so it was like having her there."

Ferrer-Babich stays at home with her three young children and hasn't seen "Dreamgirls." She's waiting for it to come out on DVD.

So is Wilson peeved about the Academy snubbing "Dreamgirls" for best picture?

"A win's not always the best thing," she says. "Look at Jennifer Hudson. She didn't win on 'American Idol' and she's got this great role. There's different ways of winning."

Mary Wilson performs at 8 and 10 p.m. tonight at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. $43. Through Sunday. 202-337-4141.

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