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The film opens with black-and-white sequences and photographs of Diana Ross as "Billie Holiday" being fingerprinted, photographed and put into a jail cell. Additionally, black-and-white photographs of 1930s Harlem and marquees and advertisements featuring Holiday are used throughout the film to establish her surroundings and her performance history. Also featured in the film is a montage of black-and-white photographs of Ross and Billy Dee Williams as businessman "Louis McKay," establishing their relationship. These photographs are presented in a style similar to 1930s photographs. Lady Sings the Blues ends with a scene of Ross as Holiday performing at Carnegie Hall. This scene is intercut with shots of actual newspaper headlines detailing the end of Holiday's life, including an arrest on drug charges, the New York commission's refusal of her cabaret license application and her death at age 44 in 1959.
Lady Sings the Blues was based on Holiday's autobiography of the same title that she wrote with William Dufty. Holiday, who was born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore in 1915, grew up living alternately with her mother and other relatives and rarely saw her father, Clarence Holiday, a touring musician. In her autobiography, Holiday stated that she was raped more than once while very young and had worked as a maid, like her mother, and sometimes as a prostitute, finally becoming a singer in the early 1930s.
Film and music historians, as well as biographers, dispute many details of Holiday's life, as well as her autobiography's account. There were also many differences between the autobiography and the film. Screenwriter Suzanne De Passe's interview included as added content on the film's DVD release noted that the screenplay was an edited version of Holiday's life meant to convey the mood surrounding several, but not all, of her milestones and hardships.
Most characters in the film were either composites of real people in Holiday's life or fictionalized characters. McKay was Holiday's third and last husband, from whom she had separated before her death. She met him early in her life, but not in the same circumstances portrayed in the film. She had also been married to Jimmy Monroe in the early 1940s and had had a common-law marriage with musician Joseph Luke Guy in the early 1950s, neither of whom were mentioned in the film. As portrayed in the movie and recounted in her autobiography, Holiday's performing break came when a Harlem nightclub piano player convinced her to do a singing audition after she had failed a dancing audition. In the film, shortly after Holiday sees the body of man hanging from a tree after a lynching, she sings a heart-wrenching rendition of "Strange Fruit," implying that Holiday wrote the song. The song was actually written in the 1930s by Lewis Allan after he viewed a photograph of a lynching.
Holiday appeared in only one feature film, the 1947 musical New Orleans (see below). At the time of Holiday's death from liver disease in 1959, she had had a long and highly publicized jazz recording and performing career both in the United States and Europe, most of which was not detailed in the film. In 1987, Holiday received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy Awards for her music.
Soon after the autobiography's publication in 1956, several producers attempted to create film versions. Among them was Lester Cowan, who, according to a October 20, 1956 Los Angeles Times article, planned, with Anthony Mann, a version starring Dorothy Dandridge. A August 15, 1957 Hollywood Reporter article added that United Artists was to release Cowan's version, but that picture was not made. In 1959, producer Philip A. Waxman had secured a verbal agreement from Dandridge to portray the singer, according to a September 21, 1959 Hollywood Reporter. Albert Zugsmith was to make the film starring Dandridge, according to a November 1, 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item. He planned first to produce a Broadway musical of the story also starring Dandridge, but this version, too, failed to come to fruition. An October 8, 1968 Hollywood Reporter article noted that Joseph Glaser, Holiday's long-time agent, had obtained the rights to Holiday's life story based on the book and planned to make a film. Producer David Susskind also announced his plans to make a film version, as well as Charles Martin, according to Filmfacts. A July 7, 1971 Variety article noted that actor-director Ossie Davis also planned a version of Holiday's life, with a script by Millard Lampell that was be directed by John Berry and to star Diana Sands, but this version was never made.
By 1969, producer Jay Weston had secured rights from McKay and Glaser for Holiday's story. Weston proceeded with plans to produce the film for Cinema Center Films, according to a March 24, 1969 Daily Variety news item. A March 22, 1970 New York Times article noted that Weston then signed Terence McCloy to write the screenplay and that Columbia had agreed to make Holiday's music recordings available to the filmmakers. On March 25, 1971, Hollywood Reporter announced that singer and former member of The Supremes Diana Ross was to star in the picture and that Sidney J. Furie was signed as director. Detroit-based music production company Motown, which represented Ross and The Supremes, and its founder and president Berry Gordy, joined the production.
Although a May 13, 1971 Hollywood Reporter "Rambling Reporter" article in Hollywood Reporter stated that Dufty claimed to be sole owner of the book's rights and informed Weston and Motown that their claim was ineffective, by June 16, 1971, Daily Variety reported that Paramount had joined the production of the Weston/Motown film. Furie then made plans to shoot the picture in Albuquerque, NM in Oct, according to a September 3, 1971 Hollywood Reporter news item; however, the location was then changed to Los Angeles. As mentioned in the film's production notes, various scenes were shot in a downtown Los Angeles burlesque house, at Union Station, in the neighborhood of Echo Park and in the surrounding cities of Alhambra and Pasadena, CA. Period Manhattan nightclubs and supper clubs were recreated on the Paramount Studios lot. Southern roadside scenes were shot at Rancho Sierra Vista in Thousand Oaks, CA, while the prison scenes were shot at the Lincoln Heights jail.
Production began on December 6, 1971. According to a December 7, 1971 Daily Variety article, several last-minute changes were made to the production crew including the following: James S. White was added as a producer; Carl Anderson replaced Harry Horner as the production designer, apparently before principal photography began; Cheryal Kearney replaced Reg Allen as set decorator; Argyle Nelson was named as the film editor and Oliver Nelson was removed from the credits as musical director.
Furie was credited in Hollywood Reporter production charts with writing the screenplay with McCloy; however, his name did not appear onscreen as a screenwriter. Daily Variety news items added the following persons to the cast whose appearance in the released film has not been confirmed: Cail Oren, Tom Cowan, Charles Drubin, Bob Whitney, Byron Fromme, Charles Murray, Gary Bohn, John Eloff, Earl Spainard, Gary Wright, Jim Mohlmann, Sharon Baily, Sharron Carter, Beverly Thomas, Toni Vaz, Chester Jones, Bene Greene, Alex Brown, Leoma Duckett, Agnes Lloyd and Frances Nealy.
According to an October 18, 1972 Variety news item, Gordy had bought out Paramount's share of the film, limiting its participation to distribution. In Gordy's commentary on the DVD release of the film, he explained that Lady Sings the Blues was over budget by several million dollars when Paramount decided to back out of the production after seeing a screen test. Gordy stated that he then raised the remaining budget and renegotiated his deal with Paramount.
Although Lady Sings the Blues was the feature film acting debut for Ross, she had had numerous television appearances as herself and a few dramatic roles for television. Ross did not physically resemble Holiday; however, she did wear Holiday's signature gardenia in her hair for most of the film's stage performances. According to the production notes on Lady Sings the Blues found in the AMPAS Library, comedian Richard Pryor's role was originally very brief, but was later extended after the filmmakers realized his acting abilities. In the DVD commentary, Furie and Gordy both noted that while Broadway actor Billie Dee Williams had had a bad screen test compared with actor Paul Winfield, whom they were also considering, Williams' flirtatious chemistry with Ross secured the role for him.
As stated in the production notes, Ross prerecorded the songs for the film's Motown Records' soundtrack, using a mixture of her own style with some nuances of Holiday's distinctive style. Among the many musicians who were recorded for the soundtrack, several had played with Holiday, including trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, bassist Red Holloway and guitarist John Collins.
The soundtrack was Motowns' fastest seller to that date, according to a December 5, 1972 Daily Variety news item. The album reached number one on the U.S. pop album charts. According to a June 20, 1973 Daily Variety article, Furie filed suit against Gordy, Motown Productions and others for failure to pay the publishers' share of the music sold from the film, particularly the soundtrack. The outcome of this suit is unknown.
Although most reviews of the film lauded Ross for her sympathetic and powerful portrayal of Holiday, several criticized the filmmakers for leaving out many details about Holiday's life, including her hundreds of popular recordings and the many famous jazz musicians with whom she wrote, performed, toured and recorded, including Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie, Benny Goodman, Arthur Herzog and Artie Shaw.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, Best Art Direction and Best Music (Scoring), but lost in all three categories to the musical Cabaret. Additionally, Lady Sings the Blues received Academy Award nominations for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) and Best Costume Design.