Sidney J Furie (1972)
The penultimate song in Lady Sings the Blues is ‘My Man’, delivered by Billie Holiday (Diana Ross) from the stage of Carnegie Hall, where she achieves a triumphant comeback in 1948. The performance of her encore number, ‘God Bless the Child’, shares the screen with newspaper headlines, charting Holiday’s subsequent professional difficulties, drug addiction and death, in 1959, at the age of forty-four. ‘My Man’ is also the climax to Funny Girl (1968) and it’s hard not to compare the two versions of the song: Diana Ross, although she hardly eclipses Barbra Streisand, sings it very well. It’s hard too to avoid comparing the men to whom the number is addressed. Whereas Nick Arnstein, the love of Fanny Brice’s life, is conspicuous by his absence at the end of Funny Girl, Billie Holiday’s husband Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams) is watching his wife from the wings of the Carnegie Hall stage and aptly so: Louis has always been there for her, usually in the flesh and always in spirit. Lady Sings the Blues is often emotionally powerful and this moment is no exception. As Diana Ross sings, Billy Dee Williams’s face expresses a persuasive blend of anxious love and quiet excitement. But although you’re moved, you’re not convinced – and the differences between Fanny’s man and Billie’s man draw attention to the central question posed by the story Sidney J Furie tells: if Billie Holiday had a wealthy, handsome, loyal husband whom she adored and who was the only man she ever wanted, why didn’t this help make her life less unhappy?
Maybe Holiday was a self-destructive personality whom no amount of TLC could help but Lady Sings the Blues doesn’t suggest this. Instead, the film’s Billie is a waif, mistreated by men from a very young age. As a thirteen-year-old, working as a domestic in a Baltimore brothel, she’s raped by one of the clients (Harry Caesar). When her singing career takes off a few years later and she’s a soloist on tour with the Reg Hanley Band, she’s introduced by one of its members, Harry (Paul Hampton), to the narcotics on which she stays more or less hooked for the rest of her life. As the movie tells it, Billie, when Harry encourages her to try drugs, resists at first but eventually succumbs because of the traumatic experiences she’s gone through as a woman of colour travelling through the southern states with a group of white men. Billie is already at this stage in a relationship with Louis, who’s immediately apprehensive about the prospect of her going on tour. By the time he realises, through a long-distance phone call to her, that something’s wrong and hotfoots it to where the band is currently playing, it’s too late. Their future life together, before and after marriage, follows a repeated pattern: Louis tries to help Billie by showing her tough (but still romantic) love; she promises to change her ways and keeps failing.
The psychological puzzle of Lady Sings the Blues results from its refusal to engage with the thorny matter of who Billie Holiday really was. Although it’s based on her autobiography of the same name, written with William Dufty and published in 1956, the screenplay, by Suzanne de Passe, Chris Clark and Terence McCloy, takes considerable liberties with the facts of Holiday’s life. She wasn’t, for example, a one-man woman: she had three husbands, of whom Louis McKay was the last, as well as a good few lovers. While a singer’s songs aren’t necessarily a series of insights into their personality, there’s a natural expectation watching a Billie Holiday biopic that there will be a connection between the two: first, because it’s a convention of movie musicals that the performers, when they break into song, are giving expression to their feelings; second, because Holiday is an all-time-great suffering jazz diva. The dramatic action of Lady Sings the Blues presents Billie Holiday as a woebegone (‘Good Morning Heartache’) and mistreated (‘Mean To Me’) lonely heart (‘Lover Man’) rather than as a woman whose appetite for misery was close to masochistic (‘Don’t Explain’) or as a bloody-minded individualist (‘T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’). All those songs in parentheses feature on the soundtrack, however, and their variety serves as a reminder of what’s missing from the film’s portrait of Billie. So, in effect, does its idealisation of Louis McKay.
Lady Sings the Blues is still thoroughly involving and entertaining (its 144 minutes pass very quickly), and it has plenty of strong points. The illustrations of the racism that Billie Holiday had to contend with are often powerful: when she waits by the tour bus as Reg Hanley (James Callahan) and his bandsmen go into a whites-only roadside eatery; when, on the occasion of her planned debut on radio, she’s overlooked in favour of a mediocre white singer, at the insistence of the radio show’s sponsors, a soap company. A sequence in which the tour bus gets caught up in a Ku Klux Klan march is eventually overdone – Billie scrabbles furiously at the bus window, the Klansmen try to break it to get at her – but the prelude to this garish climax, when her travelling companions first see the marchers and hide Billie from view, is more telling. As written, the characters are one-dimensional and it’s hardly surprising that some of the cast give performances to match. This is especially true of Paul Hampton as the ash-blonde shark Harry: he shows his teeth pearly white ad nauseam. But the stronger actors often overcome the limitations of what they’re given to work with. Having introduced Louis McKay as a man who’s got rich as some kind of streetwise wheeler-dealer, the script neglects to substantiate this in any way and turns him into a pure Prince Charming: Billy Dee Williams plays him intelligently, though, and there’s chemistry between him and Diana Ross. Richard Pryor’s individuality animates the role of Billie’s piano-player and Pryor helps Ross in the evidently improvised scenes between them. Although there’s some awkward editing, Sidney Furie makes occasional, effective use of montages of sepia-tinted still photographs to summarise key moments in the story. He also goes well beyond biopic norms in describing drug dependency. The vicious circle of addiction is strikingly expressed at the very start, as Billie, convicted of drug offences, is admitted to a New York City prison, struggles with the wardresses and then, straitjacketed, throws herself around her cell.
At this point, the camera moves in on Billie’s staring eyes; her face relaxes into a childlike expression as ‘T’ain’t Nobody’s Business’ (sung by Blinky Williams) drifts onto the soundtrack and the action moves from New York in 1936 back to Baltimore in 1928. (Billie’s life story in the intervening eight years is told through this one, long flashback, which accounts for at least half the film’s total running time. The remaining narrative is linear, culminating in the Carnegie Hall concert, although the chronology is increasingly vague.) I saw Lady Sings the Blues on its original release but it’s hard, even now, to overstate the impact Diana Ross makes in her early scenes. After the prison prologue, in which she’s a combination of caged animal and voodoo doll, she’s transformed into the tall, skinny adolescent skivvying in a brothel. Ross is conspicuously acting in both these incarnations but they introduce what is a stunning physical performance. When Billie leaves Baltimore and first arrives in Harlem, she starts off in another menial job in a brothel; tired of scrubbing floors and the entrance steps there, she becomes a prostitute. Diana Ross’s gauche movement beside that of the experienced sex workers and her graduation to practised strutting are beautifully realised. As the film goes on, you doubt that her fragile quality is an adequate expression of Billie Holiday’s complex vulnerability yet Ross is often terrific. She sometimes transcends the clichéd conception of a scene: gazing, numb and bewildered, at her reflection in a dressing-room mirror before wildly smearing lipstick over the glass; threatening Louis with a razor, as she fights to make him hand over her fix. She touchingly understates Billie’s emotions at a surprise welcome-home party after her release from prison, staring blankly, then almost with hostility, at her friends. She puts her hands to her mouth, glances at her husband, and fearfully lowers her eyes before she finally speaks.
Ross’s loose, fast delivery of lines isn’t at all what you expect of a pop star suddenly turned actress. (At the time she had just a couple of TV credits to her name, one of these in a 1968 episode of Tarzan, in which she and the other Supremes were a trio of nuns.) Her lack of drama training was probably helpful in one respect. Whereas a more experienced actress would likely have pointed her lines in a way that fully exposed them as hackneyed, Ross’s throwaway style gives her words a semblance of reality. (Throwaway was certainly the right approach to take to much of the dialogue.) There’s the odd moment when, in spite of her fluidity, you see Ross anticipating a response but this is to nitpick. A few scenes, especially ones involving her and Richard Pryor, are unusually extended for such a commercially driven movie. There are pluses and minuses to this. Sidney Furie occasionally asks too much of Ross, who can’t keep finding enough to sustain interest in what we’re seeing; but these exchanges sometimes have a real insistency because they’re protracted. It’s Diana Ross’s physical abandon, however, that’s the most remarkable aspect of her playing.
Although she was a rookie screen actress, Ross was already a major performer and a famous voice. This dual celebrity has important consequences for Lady Sings the Blues. Because the viewer naturally accepts Diana Ross as a singing superstar, Billie Holiday’s breakthrough into the big time feels pre-ordained and lacks dramatic excitement (especially since the script oversimplifies her progress). Ross’s presence also tends to obscure how remarkably young Holiday still was when she made it to the big time: while we marvel at twenty-eight-year-old Ross’s skill in playing a thirteen-year-old, we may overlook the fact that the peak of Holiday’s commercial success as a recording artist came when she was barely out of her teens. Ross’s singing is a much bigger issue – at least for serious Billie Holiday aficionados. It would have been crazy for so gifted a vocalist to have mimed to the Holiday classics but the result is a curious hybrid. Ross doesn’t imitate Holiday exactly but nor is she quite herself. It’s no problem for someone like me, who much prefers 1960s Tamla Motown to blues music of any vintage, if the Billie Holiday of this film seems more a pop singer than a jazz singer. (I’m happy even with Michel Legrand’s corny but heartstring-pulling love theme for the movie.) The snag is that her conscientious interpretation of the songs has the effect of subduing what you might think of as the real Diana Ross. You still admire her singing, though – both of jive numbers like ‘Them There Eyes’ and of more difficult pieces like ‘Strange Fruit’. (Her rendering of the latter is increasingly impressive.) She also does an excellent job of tracing Billie Holiday’s increasingly idiosyncratic phrasing.
The headline on the original theatrical poster for Lady Sings the Blues announced that ‘DIANA ROSS IS BILLIE HOLIDAY’. Although this is wide of the mark, Ross is extraordinarily good. Yet it’s not just the quality of her work that makes her performance still seem fresh: it’s also the fact that she never became familiar as a screen actress. It’s a real pity that she appeared in only two subsequent cinema films – Mahogany (1975) and The Wiz (1978) – and a couple of made-for-TV movies in the 1990s; but the seeds of her short screen life may lie in the boastful upper case and underlining of the words on the poster. Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany were both Motown Productions (distributed by Paramount) and produced by Berry Gordy, who had done so much to promote Ross’s career in the music industry, with the Supremes, then as a solo artist. (Gordy also took over as director of Mahogany after Tony Richardson left the project.) The Wiz was a hugely expensive movie musical in terms of both production costs and box-office failure: Ross’s determination to play Dorothy was famously described by Pauline Kael as ‘possibly the chief example in all movie history of a whim of iron’. Diana Ross was used to being the star of the show – she seems to have felt this status had to be reflected in her playing not just the leading role but an iconic leading role. She probably apotheosised herself out of the market.
18 December 2016