Welcome to Retro Rewind, the TGJ original feature carved out to celebrate TV and Film’s glorious past.
Today, we revisit 1972 to celebrate ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, the Billie Holiday biographical drama loosely based on her 1956 autobiography.
Starring Diana Ross, the movie told Holiday’s painful tale following her passing in 1952 and saw Ross portray the performer with support from her co-stars Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams, Virginia Capers and Paulene Myers.
The movie stood as one of many film projects launched to propel Ross into Hollywood and was nominated for five Academy Awards after picking up $19,726,490 at the Box Office with support from a $14 million budget.
Sidney J. Furie, the director and the three people credited with the screenplay, cannot use the basic truth of their facts as a defense of the film, although the facts have been generalized to protect the innocent (and the people who wouldn’t give releases to the producers). They’ve made trite and meaningless such things as the child rape, indentured servitude in a Harlem whorehouse and an addiction to drugs that eventually contributed to Lady Day’s death at age 44. It all becomes ridiculous.
Witness the way they introduce one of Miss Holiday’s most successful songs. Time: late 1930’s. Place: somewhere in the South, though the terrain looks like Lake Tahoe. Miss Holiday is on a big-band bus tour when she suddenly finds herself witnessing a lynching. She staggers back in terror. On the soundtrack we hear—can it be?—it sounds familiar, but yet—yes, it is! The opening bars of “Strange Fruit!” This Billie Holiday has what might be called a prescient ear.
Under such imbecilic circumstances, it’s not yet possible to tell whether Miss Ross is a good actress, but she’s an actress of exceptional beauty and wit, who is very much involved in trying to make a bad movie work.