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Lady Sings the Blues

Lady Sings the Blues(1972)

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teaser Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

The Motion Picture Academy® has a tradition of recognizing new talent in their midst during Oscar® season. In the organization's long history, it has often gone out of its way to honor Hollywood newcomers, from Marlene Dietrich -- nominated for her first U.S. film, Morocco (1930) -- to Marlee Matlin, who won for her big screen debut in Children of a Lesser God (1986). Rarely has the anticipation of a screen debut or the excitement over its success run as high as when Diana Ross stepped into the role of a lifetime as tortured jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). An Oscar® nomination for her seemed almost inevitable.

Hollywood was eager to adapt Holiday's memoirs as soon as they appeared in 1959. With her legendary status as one of the most influential singers of the 20th century as well as her personal tragedies of childhood rape, poverty, prostitution and the drug addiction that eventually took her life, the story was a natural for the big screen. Originally director Anthony Mann hoped to film the story starring Dorothy Dandridge, who remained the first choice for several other proposed productions and even a stage musical that never made it to the boards. In the mid-'60s, actor-director-writer Ossie Davis announced plans to film the story with either Abbey Lincoln or Diana Sands in the lead. Producer Jay Weston picked up the rights in 1969 and set up a deal with Cinema Center Films to produce the film. Among the actresses he considered were Diahann Carroll, Lola Falana and Cicely Tyson. Then Berry Gordy, the pioneering head of Motown Music, joined the production, and Diana Ross was announced as the star.

The choice was not without controversy. Ross' acting experience to that time was confined to some sketches on TV variety shows and a guest spot with her original group, The Supremes, as a trio of nuns on the series Tarzan. Moreover, her position as Gordy's protge led to cries of "nepotism" (Ross would later acknowledge that they had had an affair and that her daughter Rhonda Ross Kendrick was actually Berry's child). Jazz lovers feared she would impose her pop singing style on the songs Holiday had made famous.

Nor did it help that the screenwriters of Lady Sings the Blues were instructed to combine and invent characters so as to capture the spirit of Holiday's career rather than exact details. Her three husbands were combined into one character, who was named after the third, Louis McKay. Most of her musical associates -- giants like Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Ted Wilson -- were never mentioned (Basie's name appears on a theatre marquee).

Still, Ross worked tirelessly with the script, Holiday's memoirs and any information she could find to give her insight into the character. Production delays coincided with her pregnancy with her first child, so she used the time to do further research. She also met with an acting coach, who gave her what she considered the best possible advice: "You'll do fine. Just don't be afraid to make mistakes and trust yourself. There's no wrong way to act. Be real and honest and above all, don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself."

For Holiday's singing, Ross realized that her own vocal style would not work, but she also thought it would be a mistake to imitate the original. Instead, she developed an approach that modified her personal sound but used Holiday's phrasing to create an interpretation of the jazz diva's work. The soundtrack recording preceded the actual shooting, so she kept a copy of the script with her so she could match the performance to Holiday's emotional and physical condition at the point each song occurred.

To play her composite romantic lead, the producers tested Paul Winfield, who would win an Oscar® nomination for Sounder (1972) the same year, and Billy Dee Williams, at the time a New York-based actor; he was best known as the first black actor to play a romantic lead on a daytime drama (The Guiding Light). Although the former's test was the more successful overall, Williams worked so well with Ross he won the role.

Comedian Richard Pryor signed to play Piano Man, a character based on the pianist who, when Holiday blew her dancing audition for a Harlem nightclub, encouraged her to try out as a singer instead. He registered so well during filming, his part was expanded. He also taught Ross how people behaved under the influence of narcotics.

By this time, Paramount had signed on to help finance Lady Sings the Blues. Director Sidney J. Furie had planned to shoot the film in Albuquerque, NM, but then decided to move the production back to Los Angeles, where they did studio work on the Paramount lot. Other local locations included a burlesque house, Union Station, the Lincoln Heights jail and the Rancho Sierra Vista in Thousand Oaks, CA. The latter stood in for the Southern roadside where Ross witnesses a lynching, though critics complained the region looked nothing like the South. Re-creating the '30s and '40s eventually drove production costs so high that Paramount decided to pull out. Gordy quickly raised the money to buy Motown a larger part of the picture and re-negotiated a distribution deal with the studio.

Any doubts about Ross' ability to pull off the demanding role were dispelled when Lady Sings the Blues opened. Even those complaining about the film's clichd and historically inaccurate script, were won over by her spirited, heartfelt performance. Vincent Canby put it most succinctly in the New York Times: "How is it possible for a movie that is otherwise so dreadful to contain such a singularly attractive performance in the title role." Many, in fact, suggested that her performance (and those of Pryor and Williams) made the effort worthwhile. Critics were also impressed with Ross' interpretations of the songs, with Roger Ebert noting, "She doesn't sing in her own style, and she never tries to imitate Holiday, but she sings somehow in the manner of Holiday. There is an uncanny echo." The soundtrack album was the fastest selling in Motown's history to that time, and purists could content themselves that the film's success led to increased sales of Holiday's original recordings and albums.

An Oscar® nomination for Ross was almost a fait accompli, and Lady Sings the Blues scored four other nominations -- a surprise nod for the screenplay plus more expected nods for the score and the meticulous period art direction and costume design. Ross was in a tight race with Hollywood golden child Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and the two actresses who had split most of the critics' awards, Liv Ullmann in The Emigrants and Cicely Tyson in Sounder. On Oscar® night, it was Minnelli who emerged as the Best Actress winner, with Cabaret besting Lady Sings the Blues in the music and design categories. But though Ross continued to triumph as a recording and concert artist, she would never score a comparable success on film. To date Lady Sings the Blues remains her only Oscar® nomination.

Producer: Jay Weston, James S. White, Berry Gordy
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Screenplay: Terence McCloy, Chris Clark, Suzanne De Passe
Based on the book by Billie Holiday and William Dufty
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Music: Michel Legrand
Principal Cast: Diana Ross (Billie Holiday), Billy Dee Williams (Louis McKay), Richard Pryor (Piano Man), Paul Hampton (Harry), Sid Melton (Jerry), Virginia Capers (Mama Holiday), Isabel Sanford (The Madame), Ned Glass (The Agent), Milton Selzer (The Doctor), Scatman Crothers (Big Ben), Jayne Kennedy (Louis' Date).
C-144m.

by Frank Miller

SOURCES:
Secrets of a Sparrow by Diana Ross

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