In this day and age, it can be difficult for some to understand the importance of Lady Sings the Blues. But that film, coming during one of the most significant transitional periods in American film, and on the heels of the most important political movement of the 20th century, deserves to be remembered not only as a great film, but as a significant and revolutionary work of cinema.
Packaged and sold as a bio-pic recounting the life and career of the late jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues can be examined and criticized on several levels. As a biographical account of Holiday's life, the film suffers from historical inaccuracies and creative liberties. Anyone looking for a definitive, truthful chronicle of Holiday's life should not turn to this film. In fact, in many ways Lady Sings the Blues may have been more of a success if it were simply a thinly veiled fictional account of a troubled jazz singer, much like Great White Hope was inspired by heavy weight champ Jack Johnson, or Brothers was inspired by ill-fated romance of Angela Davis and George Jackson. Instead, by trying to pass itself off as the truth, Lady Sings the Blues sets itself up for negative criticism from people who noticed the glaring discrepancies.
On the other hand, while Lady Sings the Blues may have fallen short of historical accuracy, on its own, as a film, it is an incredible achievement. Frequently overlooked or forgotten when people talk about the great films of the 1970s, it deserves to be mentioned right along with all the other great works of that era.
Making her acting debut, Motown superstar Diana Ross astonished the world with her powerful performance as Billie Holiday. At the time, Ross had recently split from The Supremes, her career was in a state of flux, and many critics scuffed at the notion of her in a film based on Holiday's life. There was simply no indication that Ross had what it took to be a movie actress. So it came as a surprise to many when Ross delivered not only an amazing performance, but when she was nominated for an Oscar. The only bigger surprise was when she didn't win.
From the opening scene, a crazed, drug-addicted Holiday going through withdrawal, Ross commands the screen, and dispels all preconceived notions of who she is and what she's capable of. The film quickly moves back in time, as a young Holiday, living in Baltimore, slaves away as the cleaning girl in a brothel. After a brutal attack, she escapes to New York, where she finds similar work, while dreaming of being a singer at local uptown nightclub. Holiday's dream comes true, and she begins to reinvent herself, gradually transforming herself from an awkward girl, to a sophisticated lady. Holiday soon meets Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), a charming playboy who will become her lover, friend, enemy, and savior as her career takes off, and her eventual drug addiction grows.
While Lady Sings the Blues was a chronicle of Billie Holiday's career, at the heart and soul of the film – and what made it such a hit – was the love story between Holiday and McKay. Having scored his first real hit with the made-for-television movie Brian's Song, Billy Dee Williams had proven that he had the looks and charisma to be a leading man. But in the early 1970s when Lady Sings the Blues came out, the only real leading man black actor was Sidney Poitier. The growing blaxploitation genre had given rise to stars like Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, but up until that time, no one came close to Poitier's shining star. But where Poitier was a dignified, cultured sophisticate, he was also the byproduct of the film industry's attempt to be integrated and socially responsible. He was a throwback to an earlier era of Hollywood. By contrast, Williams was of the new, post-Civil Rights generation that saw a tidal wave of films catered to a black audience – most of them action films like Cotton Comes to Harlem and Shaft. What Williams brought to the screen was a leading black man, the likes of which had never been seen in film – intelligent, cultured, compassionate and, most important of all, undeniably sexual.
Just as Williams portrayal of Louis McKay was something never before portrayed on screen, so to was the relationship with McKay and Holiday. Yes, there had been plenty of romance films during the era of black cast and race films that spanned the 1920s to 1950s, and while movies like Porgy & Bess and Carmen Jones dealt with romance and sexuality, there was never the same level of complexity, honesty or humanity in those films. The classic Carmen Jones, at its very best (and it is great) never had a moment like the one where Louis attempts to stop Billie from shooting dope in the bathroom, and she attacks him with a straight razor. The power and magnitude of that scene – never before portrayed with African American actors – was just one of many that comprised Lady Sings the Blues. And each one of those scenes was a bold new step for American cinema.
The three decades since Lady Sings the Blues have seen bio-pics like Ray, What's Love Got to Do with It, and Ali. Issues of sex, love, and romance among blacks have been explored in such films as She's Gotta Have It?, Love Jones, and Waiting to Exhale. And a handful of actors have not only been nominated for leading performance Oscars, but have gone on to win. But all of it started with Lady Sings the Blues.
Executive produced by Motown impresario Berry Gordy, Lady Sings the Blues defied an industry that said that a film of its nature would never find an audience, especially a white audience. Many of the same people who felt the film had no chance also felt Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams couldn't carry the film. But five Academy Award nominations later, Gordy proved them wrong. Working closely with director Sidney J. Furie, Gordy oversaw every aspect of the film's production, understanding every step of the way what such film would potentially represent in both the artistic and cultural landscape. Gordy's instincts were correct.
For a seasoned director like Furie, whose work before Lady Sings the Blues – not to mention after – included very few films of exceptional note, the Billie Holiday bio-pic stands as his best work. Furie gets career defining performances from his entire cast, several captured in long, single takes. The protracted takes go a long way to convey the powerful acting of Ross, Williams, and of special note, Richard Pryor, who interact with each other naturally, creating a chemistry that is evident in single shots, and not constructed solely through editing.
Over thirty years since its initial release, Lady Sings the Blues remains a powerful, entertaining piece of cinema – as good today as it was in 1972.