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Billie Holliday fights drug addiction to make a name for herself as a jazz singer.
Arrested in New York City in 1936 for drug use, jazz singer Billie Holiday is suffering from heroin withdrawal when she is locked in a padded prison cell. In her delirium, Billie remembers her life in Baltimore as a fifteen-year-old named Eleanor Fagan: Living as an unwelcome guest with relatives, Eleanor is a brothel maid, who spends her free time alone singing along to blues records. Brutally raped one day by a disgruntled, drunken customer, a traumatized Eleanor seeks solace with her mother, who works as a housekeeper for a wealthy New York family. Although she cares greatly for Eleanor, Mama Holiday cannot offer her housing at the estate and sends her to church friend Ms. Edsen, unaware that the woman's "boarding house" is actually a brothel. The bitter Edsen trades Eleanor room and board for housework and belittles her with daily insults. One night, Eleanor goes to Jerry's club, where she is hypnotized by the romantic atmosphere and smitten by handsome, regular customer Louis McKay. Longing for a different life, Eleanor turns to prostitution, using the money for smart dresses and gifts for her mother, who is unaware of her real employment. One day, after learning that her mother will soon be taking a job in her neighborhood, Eleanor quits the brothel and, taking her one suitcase, walks into Jerry's to answer an advertisement for dancers. Eleanor auditions, but her awkward moves do not impress owner Jerry. Charmed by her ambition, the accompanist, the piano man, encourages Eleanor to sing "All of Me." The touching solo easily sways Jerry into hiring Eleanor, who quickly takes the stage name of "Billie Holiday." Under pressure to make fifteen dollars in tips her first night, Billie nervously sings her first number, but is unable perform the bawdy dance necessary to pick up tips left on the table. When the rowdy crowd boos the shy young woman during her second song, Louis, impressed with her strength of will, hands her a large bill, unleashing a flurry of tips that customers graciously hand to the lady-like Billie. Pleased with her success, Jerry's hires her and delivers a gardenia from Louis. Prompted by the piano man's warning that Louis is a rakish philanderer, Billie rebuffs his overtures that evening, but Louis finally convinces her to go to an exclusive supper club, where the prickly Billie is wooed by the big band music and Louis' lavish praise. After a night of lovemaking, Louis is so infatuated that he breaks his own rules and allows Billie to spend the night. In the ensuing months, the couple is inseparable as Billie rises to local fame with her nightly singing appearances at Jerry's. After a year at the club, Billie is approached by white band leaders Reg Hanley and Harry to join them on a tour. They assure that her that with success outside New York, she will achieve bookings at the wealthy Manhattan supper clubs, where Billie longs to sing. At first reluctant to join the all-white, male band, Billie finally agrees to a grueling cross-country tour. One day, when the bust stops near a field, Billie discovers the body of a lynched black man hanging from a tree. Dazed and melancholy over the incident, Billie succumbs to Harry's offer of heroin to boost her spirits. Months later, after Louis sees Billie perform at the Plantation Club, he demands that she stop using drugs and, desperate to keep her only love, Billie vows to quit. Soon after, when a torch-wielding Klu Klux Klan mob attacks the musicians' bus after seeing the black woman on board, a bruised Billie is unable to muster the will to continue performing without heroin. Days later, when the band plays a radio show for sponsor Sunray Soap, Billie is promised a spot on the show, but is purposefully overlooked as several white singers take the stage. Although Billie resists humiliation by mocking whites' bigoted beliefs that blacks do not use soap, the singer later begs Harry for heroin at the Manhattan Café to soothe the pain, but he refuses. Called to perform a song, Billie, numb from her addiction, sings tragically of the "heartache" haunting her and then rushes home to get high. Louis tries at first to outwit Billie to make her stop, but when she threatens him with a switchblade, he gives her the drugs. Minutes later though, when Louis sees Billie slouched on the toilet high on heroin, he asks her to move out. Returning to Jerry's for work, an addicted Billie can only perform listlessly and forgets to visit her ailing mother in the hospital. One night, when she interrupts her act to buy drugs from a dealer, Billie learns that her mother has died. Inconsolable, Billie finally decides she has to take responsibility for herself and checks into a drug rehabilitation institution. When Louis visits her there, he promises that if she marries him, he will never leave her. Touched, Billie accepts the offer, but after she sends Louis out to buy her an engagement ring, New York narcotics officers arrest her for illegal drug use. In jail, Louis' visit and her doctor's administration of some drugs stave of the horrific withdrawal symptoms, narrowly saving Billie's life. Months later, upon Billie's release, she is received by friends and family at a welcome home party, where Reg gives her a copy of the band's first album, "Don't Explain," which credits Billie as the song writer. Billie soon begins a domestic life as Louis' wife, but her unrelenting urge to perform prompts Louis to get her an agent so she can return to the stage. Because Billie's cabaret license has been revoked due to the arrests, the new agent suggests that a Carnegie Hall engagement, unheard of for a jazz singer, could easily help her win back her license and love of the New York City public. He then plans a grueling road tour, gathering publicity that will garner her a Carnegie Hall performance. Although Louis joins her for three months of the tour to ensure there is no drug relapse, he leaves her in the piano man's care for the last two months. Depressed in Los Angeles, Billie begs the piano man to get drugs for her, giving him her wedding ring to pawn for the money. Unable to pawn the sentimental piece of jewelry, the piano man gets the drugs without it. Soon after, Billie and the piano man are high when the drug dealers demand payment, then beat the piano man to death in front of Billie. Minutes later, Louis and the agent call excitedly to announce the Carnegie Hall date, but the terrorized Billie can only mumble deliriously on the phone. Learning of the piano man's murder, Louis quickly flies out to California to bring the dazed Billie home to New York. Although still in a state of shock, Billie delivers a triumphant performance to a overjoyed audience at Carnegie Hall.
Cast & Crew
|MPAA Ratings:||R||Premiere Info:||New York opening: 18 Oct 1972; Los Angeles opening: 25 Oct 1972|
|Release Date:||1972||Production Date:||
A Motown-Weston-Furie Production
|Color/B&W:||Color (Technicolor)||Distributions Co:||Paramount Pictures Corp.|
|Sound:||Mono||Production Co:||Motown Productions, Weston Associates, Inc., Furie Productions, Inc.|
|Duration(mins):||144, 147 or 150||Country:||United States|
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