When African-American baby boomers wax nostalgic about a time when “black movies were good,” they most likely have 1972′s Lady Sings the Blues in mind.
The heavily fictionalized Billie Holiday biopic introduced Diana Ross as a legitimate actress, turned Billy Dee Williams into an international sex symbol (he was dubbed the “black Clark Gable”) and showed that legendary comedian Richard Pryor had real dramatic range as an actor.
Forty years after its initial release, Lady Sings the Blues is fondly remembered as one of the bright lights from a brief golden age of black cinema but few fans may recall or recognize what an enormous risk the project was.
In the early 70s, with Motown at its peak of cultural influence, founder Berry Gordy decided he wanted to get into the movie business. This was an era where there was no real black power base in the industry and while Gordy was highly respected as a music mogul, he was risking his brand on a gamble — a vehicle to launch the film career of R&B diva Diana Ross.
Ross had just exited the iconic Supremes girl group and had begun her solo career in earnest. But her mentor (and on-and-off lover) Gordy had aspirations of making his label’s biggest act a movie star.
Paramount Pictures got behind the project, which was loosely based on Billie Holiday’s 1956 autobiography. But many critics and fans of the late jazz legend decried the casting of Ross — who didn’t resemble Holiday physically or vocally.
“My first reaction when I learned that Diana Ross had been cast to play Billie Holiday was a quick and simple one: I didn’t think she could do it,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 1972 review of the film.
Conscious of the iconic shoes she was filling, Ross imbued the role with her own spirit and opted for a vocal homage to Holiday instead of outright mimicry.
“One of the things that I didn’t want to do is try to copy Billie Holiday. I didn’t want to try to copy her sound. I didn’t try to imitate it in any way,” said Ross in an interview for the collector’s DVD edition of the film. “I just lived with the music for almost a year before we actually recorded the music.”
The production went anything but smoothly. According to the principles involved, director Sidney J. Furie frequently clashed with the controlling Gordy, quitting the project more than once during filming.
“[Furie] was working with so many elements, he had a brand new actress there and he had Berry Gordy, who thought he knew the best way that Diana should do things,” said the film’s co-writer, Suzanne de Passe, in a DVD interview.
After a poor screen test in which he botched his lines, Billy Dee Williams nearly missed out on the role that made him a household name — Billie Holiday’s love interest Louis McKay. If Gordy hadn’t intervened, Williams never would have uttered his classic, “Do you want my arm to fall off?” line to Diana Ross.
When the project began to have cost overruns and there was a disastrous rough cut screening in New York, Paramount was going to pull the plug, so Gordy bought the film back from the distributor.
“Ultimately…he wrote a check for an amount of money that they had in the movie already and they got to keep distribution and other things and he got certain rights for that and then proceeded to put in the rest of the money to go finish the film,” said de Passe. “Certainly, had they put out the version that he took to New York that time, it would not have earned money.”
Once the film saw the light of day, there was some griping about its historical accuracy (which continues to this day), but Ross had put to bed any doubts about her ability as a dramatic actress.
“Diana Ross, a tall, skinny goblin of a girl, intensely likable, always in motion, seemed an irrational choice for the sultry, still Billie Holiday, yet she’s a beautiful bonfire,” wrote legendary film critic Pauline Kael in a largely positive review.
Though less generous towards the film as a whole, the New York Times‘ Vincent Camby raved about Ross. “She’s an actress of exceptional beauty and wit, who is very much involved in trying to make a bad movie work,” he wrote.
Black audiences flocked to the movie and music fans couldn’t get enough of the highly-acclaimed soundtrack — which topped the Billboard charts and eventually sold 2 million copies.
Williams and Ross arguably became Hollywood’s first truly bankable black romantic big screen duo, on par with the likes of Bogie and Bacall and Tracy and Hepburn.
“The chemistry that the two of you had on screen was like something we had never seen before. Was that real for you?” Oprah Winfrey asked Williams during a special edition of her talk show that commemorated the 35th anniversary of the film’s release.
“Oh, absolutely,” Williams said, adding that his most cherished memory of working with Ross was “her mouth.”
Williams was accessible as a sex symbol in a way that his predecessors, like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, could never be. He and Ross would be paired again in the campy romantic film Mahogany, which was another hit at the box office.
For Richard Pryor fans, the film was something of a revelation. Already a breakout star in the world of stand up comedy, he had yet to make a major splash in films. Pryor would become a box office juggernaut in a few years with his smash pairings alongside Gene Wilder (Silver Streak and Stir Crazy), but his heartbreaking performance as the drug addled “Piano Man” in Lady Sings the Blues conveyed a depth that unfortunately went unexploited in later films — with the notable exception of Paul Schrader’s criminally underrated 1978 film Blue Collar.
The specially designed Bob Mackie costumes created a sensation of their own. Stylish black women started sporting Ross’s signature gardenia in their hair and the movie reaffirmed the pop star’s place in the fashion world as a trendsetting idol.
The costumes, music, set decoration, screenplay and, most importantly, Diana Ross, were all nominated for Academy Awards.
The Oscars that year were historic for African-Americans. For the first time ever (and the last time until 2004) multiple black actors were nominated for lead roles. Diana Ross was up against Cicely Tyson for best actress in another triumphant black-themed 1972 film Sounder. And the late Paul Winfield competed against the likes of Marlon Brando for his lead role in that same picture.
Although Tyson, Winfield and Ross all went home empty-handed that night, there was every reason to believe black movies were on an upswing. Yet, for the most part, blaxploitation films largely dominated the marketplace for the rest of the decade.
Sadly, Motown’s investment in the movies was short lived. Their brief Hollywood run provided cult classics like Mahogany, The Wiz and The Last Dragon — but none of these films matched the commercial and critical success of Lady Sings the Blues. After receiving scathing reviews for her performance in The Wiz, Ross dropped out of the film business altogether.
“The work of it—the acting part, using your imagination—that was good,” Ross later said about making movies. “But the waiting and the sitting? I found that, really, I wanted to be with my kids and not sitting in a trailer somewhere.”
As for Lady Sings the Blues, its legacy remains mixed in some audiences’ eyes. More modern reviews of the film have not been kind.
“Lady Sings The Blues incongruously transforms Holiday’s messy, bisexual, masochistic romantic history into a glossy romance about a troubled, needy woman-child and the endlessly patient dreamboat who could slow but never entirely halt her march toward self-destruction,” wrote Nathan Rabin of The Onion AV Club.
Meanwhile, the current controversy surrounding the purported casting of the fair-skinned Zoe Saldana as the late dark-skinned songstress Nina Simone has drawn comparisons to initial outcry over Ross’s casting as Holiday.
Still, after forty years, while the movie is somewhat dated, it does provide us with a glamorous time capsule.
Lady Sings the Blues captures Motown at its pinnacle and showcases a caliber of stars rarely seen in black film. The music and story still have the power to make audiences swoon and cry.