Lady Sings the Blues (1972): Biopic of Billie Holiday Starring Diana Ross in Oscar Nominated Role

Loosely based on Billie Holiday’s memoirs, “Lady Sings the Blues” is a fictionalized biopic of the noted singer, her rise and fall, and all her battles with racism, sexism, drug addiction, and self-destructiveness.

Despite major thematic and characterization flaws, the movie is enjoyable, largely due to Diana Ross’ commanding performance, melodramatic yarn, music, and production values, especially cinematography and costumes.

The tale begins in the early 1930s in Baltimore, where the teenager Billie is raped and then sent to New York to stay with a friend of her mother’s.  In Harlem, she works as a maid, and later as a whore in a brothel.

With the encouragement of the brothel’s “piano man” (Richard Pryor), she begins singing professionally.  In the process, she becomes the lover of gambler Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), who was Holiday’s third husband but the only romantic interest in the film.

After making an impression on the club circuit, Holiday is invited to tour the South with a white band. While on tour she’s subjected to racism and sexism and turns to the bottle and drugs, soon becoming an addict.

Holiday’s drug addiction threatens her professional and personal success. After the traumatic effects of her mother’s death, she tries to clean up her act.

But her triumph is short-lived, and the film ends with a chronicle of her last, troubled days until her death at age 44.

For no apparent reason, the filmmakers have deviated from known facts about Holiday. The film was charged by critics for its inclusions and omissions; there’s no mention of Lester Young, Jimmy Monroe (to whom Holiday was married), John Hammond, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson, all influential figures in Holiday’s life.

Though she doesn’t sing like Holiday, Diana Ross, in her splashy feature debut, gives a dramatically intense performance, for which she earned her first (and only) Best Actress Oscar nomination.

End Note:

Diana Ross’ next film, “Mahagony,” in 1975 was a failure, and she made only a few features.

Oscar Nominations:

Actress: Diana Ross

Story and Screenplay (Adapted): Terence McCloy, Chris Clark, Suzanne de Passe

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Carl Anderson; Reg Allen

Scoring: Gil Askey

Costume design: Bob Mackie, Ray Aghayan, Norma Koch

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of Best Actress Oscar was Liza Minnelli for Bob Fosse’s musical “Cabaret,” which also won Art Direction and Scoring.

Jeremy Larner won the Screenplay Award for “The Candidate,” and Anthony Powell the Costume Design Oscar for “Travels With My Aunt.”

 

Cast:

Billie Holiday (Diana Ross)

Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams)

Piano Man (Richard Pryor)

Reg Hanley (James Callahan)

Harry (Paul Hampton)

Jerry (Sid Melton)

Mama Holiday (Virginia Capers)

Yvonne (Yvonne Fair)

Big Ben (Scatman Crothers)

Hawk (Robert L. Gordy)

Credits:

Produced by Jay Weston and James S. White

Directed by Sidney J. Furie

Screenplay: Terence McCloy, Chris Clark, Suzanne De Passe, based on the book by Billie Holliday and William Duffy

Camera: John Alonso

Editing: Argyle Nelson

Music: Michel Legrand

Production design: Carl Anderson

Costume Design: Bob Mackie, Ray Aghayan, Norma Koch

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