Old Movies: Billie Holiday to Diana Ross. Lady Sings the Blues movie. Review by Dewey Edward Chester.
The biography of Billie Holiday captures the tart voice and unflinching eye of one of the most mythicized artists of the 20th century. The singer tells the story of her life, without self-pity.
She died in a hospital at 44; Police Officers were stationed at the door to her room. She was busted for drug possession as she lay dying; a ghostly end for a woman whose Art, with its rhythmic freedom and bare emotion, changed the sound of music.
She spent a year in prison for using drugs, was barred from nightclubs where liquor was sold; still, her voice remained real as rain.
Rarely had anticipation of a Hollywood screen debut been as high, when pop singer, Diana Ross, stepped into the role of Billie, in 1972.
Ms. Ross worked tirelessly with Holiday’s memoirs to gain insight into her character. She met with an acting coach who gave her advice —- “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Be honest in your portrayal:
Ms. Ross is locked in prison, destitute, friendless, and needing medical treatment. A high, lonely shriek escapes from her—a call from the Soul.
This is acting!
As a gangly girl set to work as a maid in a whorehouse, Diva Ross actually looks gangly and adolescent. “You got a long way to go,” the Madam tells her, accurately, “before any man gonna pay $2 for your time.”
But later in the film, that same little girl transforms into a great beauty and becomes absolutely stunning!
Diana Ross realized it would be a mistake to imitate Holiday. Instead, she modified her phrasings to create interpretation. Critics were impressed. Roger Ebert noted —- “Diana doesn’t sing her own style, and she never tries to imitate Holiday, but she sings in the same manner. There’s an uncanny echo.”
Americans flocked to the theatres to see “Lady Sings the Blues,” and music fans couldn’t get enough of the sound track which topped the Billboard Charts, selling 2 million copies.
Diana’s romantic lead was Billy Dee Williams, best known as a romantic lead on daytime television drama.
Oprah Winfrey asked him —- “Was what we saw on screen, real chemistry?”
Any doubts about chemistry were quickly dispelled when Mr. Williams appeared on screen. He and Ross became Hollywood’s bankable big screen duo, on a par with Bogie and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn.
Billy Dee Williams became accessible as a sex symbol in a way his predecessors, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte never could be.
The costumes, music, set decoration, screenplay and most important, Diana Ross, were all nominated for Academy Awards.
There was every reason to believe Hollywood movies were on an upswing. Yet, exploitation films dominated the market-place for the rest of the decade.
While this movie is dated, it provides a glamorous time capsule. “Lady Sings the Blues” captured Hollywood at its pinnacle, and shows a caliber of stars rarely seen.
The music and story of Billie Holiday have the power to make you swoon, then cry out in joy, at the end.