Cast & Crew
Sidney J. Furie
Billy Dee Williams
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.
Sidney J. Furie
Billy Dee Williams
Robert L. Gordy
Fred E. Ahlert
Suzanne De Passe
Harry "sweets" Edison
Carey Harris Jr.
Arthur Herzog Jr.
Fred R. Simpson Jr.
Judy St. Gerard
Edna M. Taylor
James S. White
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design
Best Writing, Screenplay
Lady Sings the Blues
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 protégée 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 clichéd 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).
by Frank Miller
Secrets of a Sparrow by Diana Ross
Lady Sings the Blues
Richard Pryor (1940-2005)
He was born Richard Thomas Pryor III on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois. By all accounts, his childhood was a difficult one. His mother was a prostitute and his grandmother ran a brothel. His father was rarely around and when he was, he would physically abuse him. From a young age, Pryor knew that humor was his weapon of choice to cut through all the swath he came across and would confront in his life.
After high school, he enlisted in the Army for a two-year stint (1958-60). When he was discharged (honorably!) he concentrated on stand-up comedy and worked in a series of nightclubs before relocating to New York City in 1963. In 1964, he made his television debut when he was given a slot on the variety program On Broadway Tonight. His routine, though hardly the groundbreaking material we would witness in later years, was very well received, and in the late '60s Pryor found more television work: Toast of the Town, The Wild Wild West, The Mod Squad ; and was cast in a two movies: The Busy Body (1967) with Sid Caesar; and Wild in the Streets (1968) a cartoonish political fantasy about the internment of all American citizens over 30.
Pryor's career really didn't ignite until the '70s. His stand up act became raunchier and more politically motivated as he touched on issued of race, failed relationships, drug addiction, and street crimes. His movie roles became far more captivating in the process: the piano man in Lady Sings the Blues (1972); as a wise-talking hustler in a pair of slick urban thrillers: The Mack (1973) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974); the gregarious Daddy Rich in Car Wash; his first pairing with Gene Wilder as Grover, the car thief who helps stops a runaway train in his first real box office smash Silver Streak (both 1976); and for many critics, his finest dramatic performance as a factory worker on the edge of depression in Paul Schrader's excellent working class drama Blue Collar (1978).
On a personal level, his drug dependency problem worsened, and on June 9, 1980, near tragedy struck when he caught fire while free-basing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that the incident, was, in fact, a suicide attempt, and that his management company created the lie for the press in hopes of protecting him. Fortunately, Pryor had three films in the can that all achieved some level of financial success soon after his setback: another pairing with Gene Wilder in the prison comedy Stir Crazy (1980); a blisteringly funny cameo as God who flips off Andy Kaufman in the warped religious satire In God We Tru$t (1980); an a ex-con helping a social worker (Cicely Tyson) with her foster charges in Bustin' Loose (1981). He capped his recovery with Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), a first-rate documentation of the comic's genius performed in front of a raucous live audience.
In 1983, Pryor signed a $40 million, five-year contract with Columbia Pictures. For many fans and critics, this was the beginning of his downslide. His next few films: The Toy, Superman III (both 1983), and Brewster's Millions (1985) were just tiresome, mediocre comedies. Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986), was his only attempt at producing, directing, and acting, and the film, which was an ambitious autobiographical account of a his life and career, was a box-office disappointment. He spent the remainder of the '80s in middling fare: Condition Critical (1987), Moving; a third pairing with Gene Wilder in See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and his only teaming with Eddie Murphy in Harlem Nights (1989).
In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system that curtailed both his personal appearances and his gift for physical comedy in his latter films. By the '90s, little was seen of Pryor, but in 1995, he made a courageous comeback on television when he guest starred on Chicago Hope as an embittered multiple sclerosis patient. His performance earned him an Emmy nomination and he was cast in a few more films: Mad Dog Time (1996), Lost Highway (1997), but his physical ailments prohibited him from performing on a regular basis. In 1998, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington gave Pryor the first Mark Twain Prize for humor. It was fitting tribute for a man who had given so much honesty and innovation in the field of comedy. Pryor is survived by his wife, Jennifer Lee; his sons Richard and Steven; and daughters Elizabeth, Rain and Renee.
by Michael T. Toole
Richard Pryor (1940-2005)
Berry Gordy originally considered Four Tops' lead singer Levi Stubbs for the role of Louis McKay, but the group was touring Europe at the time.
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.
Released in United States Fall October 18, 1972
Based on Billie Holiday's autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues" by Billie Holiday and William Dufty (New York, 1956).
Released in United States Fall October 18, 1972