“To me, acting is about truth, and it can’t be a lie.”
Diana Ross — for as much as she’s given her fans over the past fifty years — can be maddeningly vague when discussing her career. Perhaps this is more the fault of interviewers than of the artist herself, but Miss Ross tends to talk about her projects in big, broad strokes, glossing over specific songs and albums in favor of generalizations about her work. Over and over we’ve heard her talk about “moving mountains” and the importance of believing in the lyrics she’s singing; these things are great, but they don’t shed much light on Diana’s artistic process. Thus, when “behind-the-scenes” footage of Diana Ross at work surfaces, it’s a rare treat for those who’ve followed her body of work.
American cable television network Turner Classic Movies recently aired an amazing 10-minute promotional featurette filmed on the set of Diana’s film debut, Lady Sings The Blues. This was probably originally released to theatres in advance of the film’s 1972 premiere, an “extended trailer” of sorts to generate excitement for the project. What makes this featurette truly remarkable is that not only does it contain clips of Diana and director Sidney J. Furie working on the film — it also features shots from scenes ultimately cut from the film! And back to the original point, there are also some audio snippets of Diana discussing the movie, something that offers further insight into her ability to “become” Billie Holiday — a transformation which earned her an Academy Award nomination.
The featurette opens with footage of Diana Ross being photographed in character as Billie Holiday, a photoshoot that would produce the famous shot used for the VHS and DVD covers. Diana, by the way, is singing along to her own recording of “My Man” — and doing it with such intensity that sweat can be seen running down her arms. Next comes footage of the camera crew filming on the set which represents the Harlem city block where Billie Holiday lives and works in a brothel. It’s hard to really tell in the finished movie, but it’s obvious here just how massive and detailed this set is, an indication of how much everyone involved (especially Berry Gordy, Jr.) invested in this film.
In the finished film, the familiar song “Don’t Explain” is heard during a scene in which Billie Holiday sings along to her own record late one night, having pledged to end both her career and her drug addiction. This featurette, however, includes a beautifully-shot scene in which Diana (as Billie) is recording the song — a scene that didn’t make it into the final cut. Miss Ross wears an eye-popping red outfit with draped headpiece; behind her, the shadow of a man playing the piano is visible. The camera slowly closes is on her, before she removes her sunglasses and the lights around her fade to black. It’s a visually stunning scene, likely cut for time — but what a shame. (That costume, it should be noted, is undoubtedly more glamorous and expensive than anything the real Billie Holiday ever wore. But just look at the pictures – has Diana Ross ever looked like more of a movie star?)
After the “Don’t Explain” scene, there’s more behind-the-scenes footage, including a revealing moment in which director Furie says to Miss Ross, “It would be ridiculous, obviously, for me to discuss this scene with you, right? You know what I mean?” He’s talking about the lynching scene, during which Billie Holiday sees the horrifying image of an African-American man hanging from a tree. And what he’s saying, of course, is that he thoroughly trusts her instincts as an actress. Although Billie Holiday and Diana Ross lived in different times and led very different lives, they shared something very deep — the experience of being an African-American woman. This is something her director clearly understood. Diana, meanwhile, appears to be totally “in the zone” as Furie talks to her; she is quiet and serious, and is then heard discussing her approach to the scene:
“I had never seen a man hanging on a tree with a rope around their neck. In all the research that I did of Billie Holiday and the South at that time, I happened to find one picture of a tree with about ten men hanging on it, and I reacted, and then I thought about how I reacted to the picture. I had never understood the song ‘Strange Fruit,’ and from the picture I got more of an understanding what the song was about.”
Of course, anyone who has seen her performance in this particular part of the film knows that she managed to convey a stark realism in her reaction to the lynching, and her performance of the song remains one of the great recordings of her career. She goes on to make an interesting comment, which I believe is about the scene in which Holiday’s tour bus is attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan:
“I’ve never disliked or hated anyone, I mean, I don’t know the emotion hate that well. I’m angry for a minute or something but I haven’t really hated anyone. In this particular scene I found that I do have a lot of that emotion inside of me.”
Of her approach to acting, Miss Ross continues:
“I read somewhere that acting is believing, and that’s exactly what it is. So it’s not acting, because you always think of acting, ‘Oh, she’s just acting silly,’ but that’s wrong. She’s acting, she’s really being believable, she’s really being real. To me, acting is about truth, and it can’t be a lie.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise for viewers of this promotional short is footage of Miss Ross (clad in all white, with the classic gardenias in her hair) singing along to her recording of the song “He’s Funny That Way.” That song never appeared in Lady Sings The Blues, nor was it included on the accompanying #1 soundtrack album. In fact, “He’s Funny That Way” would go unreleased until 2006, when it was included as a bonus track on the release of Blue, Diana’s “lost” jazz album. Thus, between 1972 and 2006, this featurette inadvertently contained an otherwise unheard Diana Ross track! It’s too bad this couldn’t have been lifted from the vaults and used to help promote the release of Blue, as something of a “music video” to accompany one of the newly-released songs.
More than anything else, this vintage promotional featurette serves as a reminder of what a remarkable achievement Lady Sings The Blues remains. This is a film full of intimate, dramatic scenes for its leading lady, and the footage of Diana engaged in these scenes while surrounded by crew members and giant cameras demonstrates the incredible focus possessed by this novice actress. More than forty years later, this remains one of the great debut performances in film history, and there is no doubt that Miss Ross richly deserved her Oscar nomination. What Diana Ross also deserves is far more credit for what resulted from her work. She was only the second (along with Cicely Tyson, nominated the same year) African-American woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar; it would be nearly thirty years before one actually took home the award (Halle Berry in 2001).
Diana Ross and Lady Sings The Blues helped make that possible.
(And one final note for fans, of course — wouldn’t it be great for more of these deleted scenes to surface somewhere? The DVD release of the film did include several deleted and extended scenes, but it’s long been reported that the original cut of the film ran something like four hours. Here’s hoping there’s more surviving footage out there somewhere.)