Lady Sings The Blues

LADY SINGS THE BLUES—“Sure I’ve taken a few shots, but only when I needed it, but I’m not hooked, Louis. I’m not.”  So says needle-nursing song stylist Billie Holiday to her distressed lover Louis McKay when he makes a gallant go at getting her to get it together. Even if you’re  unfamiliar with the jazz legend’s rocky road to ruin, or aren’t clued in by the title of the 1972 biopic, just reflect on how many dramas about singers or musicians ever get happy endings: hit men have better odds on enjoying retirement.

Billie Holiday’s life was tumultuous and brief, 44 years (1915-1959): the 144 minute screenplay focuses on 1928-36, leaving childhood out and the second half of her life to a cursory epitaph. Diana Ross stars, covering Holiday from gawky teenager to just into her 20s, evolving from housekeeper to prostitute, singer, star and casualty of addiction and the law.

Ross’s performance doesn’t try to do an impression but instead an interpretation, and though jazz purists knocked the way she handled the songs, all agreed that otherwise her fearless and dynamic acting was a revelation. At 27, the only thesping credit she’d had was four years earlier when she and her sister Supremes played nuns in an episode of—of all things—TV’s Tarzan. With her impassioned, anguished Billie, she zeroed in an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Though Liza Minnelli’s career topper in Cabaret took the trophy, Ross’s life-scarred Holiday is at least as gripping (it helped Minnelli that Cabaret was a much better movie). Seconding the luminous star, Billy Dee Williams gives his career-best work as player/boyfriend/husband Louis McKay (in fact McKay was her third husband, the others aren’t mentioned) and won over a legion of swooning fans with his charismatic confidence.

While the simpatico leads are rock solid, the framework of their script (heavily fictionalized), direction and editing are wobbly. Three fledgling screenwriters were attached: Suzanne De Passe (a very effective producer at any rate), Chris Clark and Terence McCloy, all veterans of the music industry. Despite having Holiday’s autobio (albeit likewise free with facts) as source material, their screenplay hashes facts and authenticity into cliché and repetitive numbness, worsened by editing done with an axe and in having Sidney J. Furie enlisted as director. Furie helmed one good movie (The Ipcress File) and one that was okay (The Boys In Company C) among an otherwise uninterrupted string of duds, impressive in their lousiness. Apart from honoring the adored Ross with her well-deserved nom, the Oscar crowd accorded nominations for the Script (yeesh), Art Direction, Scoring and Costume Design (some neat dresses for the star, courtesy of Bob Mackie). Done up for $14,000,000, the results at the box office came to $29,300,000, 10th place for the year.

With Richard Pryor (maybe a bit too improv’y jokey), James T. Callahan, Paul Hampton (as slick ‘Harry Hanley, a veiled pass at bandleader Artie Shaw, who didn’t lend his name to the project), Sid Melton, Virginia Capers, Ned Glass (more lively than ever, ready to burst a blood vessel), Milton Selzer, Isabel Sanford, Scatman Crothers, Harry Caesar, and the great Jester Hairston (The Alamo), demoted once again to a walk-on as a butler.

* Diva Diana only hit the big screen twice more: Mahogany, again with Williams, a critical and money loser (at least producing a hit theme song), then The Wiz, a misguided debacle.

The 2021 feature The United States vs. Billie Holiday mimicked Lady‘s virtues and flaws in that novice actress Andra Day drew praise and like Ross an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. But the film was criticized as sloppy and quite inaccurate. As in life, Billie on film can’t escape a terminal case of the blues.

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