“Jet Letter” About Diana Ross/Billie Holiday Film (12/17/70)

Thought you’d all get a kick out of this letter printed in Jet magazine 46 years ago this month, on December 17, 1970.  Two years before the release of Lady Sings The Blues, the writer (a reader from New York) is praising the fact Diana Ross “will not play the role of Billie Holiday in the forthcoming film of the late Lady Day.”

It’s a good reminder that there was considerable criticism leveled at the idea of Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday, even before the official announcement that she would play the role.  It all seems funny in hindsight, of course, because not only did Diana Ross get the part, she turned it into a career-defining performance, gaining a historic Oscar nomination in the process and taking her recordings of the Billie Holiday songbook to #1 on the Billboard 200.

The writer of this letter hopes for an actress with the “greatness of soul” to play Billie Holiday; little did he (or many others, for that matter) realize that the former leader of The Supremes would be exactly the right person for the job.

jet-dec-17-1970

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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9 Responses to “Jet Letter” About Diana Ross/Billie Holiday Film (12/17/70)

  1. Jimi LaLumia says:

    what a jackass the writer was/is?

    • michael says:

      You took the words right out of my mouth.

    • Paul says:

      Well, he definitely underestimated Miss Ross and what she was capable of as an actress! But he wasn’t alone — it’s amazing how many small articles and mentions I’ve found in recent research of people who really didn’t want Diana Ross to do this movie. What a triumphant moment it must have been for her when it finally premiered to rave reviews.

  2. Alexis Bryce says:

    Using Billie Holiday’s voice while an actress “lip synched” the words would have been laughable because everyone would know that a dead person’s voice was being “mouthed” by an imposter. This would have only worked with an unknown’s voice. Diana studied and channeled Billie and did a superb job of delivering a song with Billie’s style and emotion without compromising her own sound. Billie’s voice was a bit rough and too raw to have the mass appeal that Diana’s interpretation gave to the biopic. It was a big risk, but it paid off immensely!

    • Paul says:

      Lip-synching works occasionally — I think having Angela Bassett do it in her film about Tina Turner was a smart move, for example, and Jessica Lange lipping to Patsy Cline’s voice in SWEET DREAMS — but having the actor/actress do the singing does tend to result in a more interesting and authentic performance. Diana in LADY, Sissy Spacek in COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, and Joaquin Phoenix in WALK THE LINE all nailed it.

  3. peter says:

    who stole her acadamy award?

    • Paul says:

      I really do believe Diana deserved the award. I’m trying to be as impartial about it as I can — Liza Minelli is great in CABARET, and it’s certainly her top career achievement — but I think Diana’s performance emerges as a more intimate, powerful portrait of a human being. I also think her performance has aged very well — it still feels contemporary today — the same performance could probably gain a nomination today.

  4. Jaap Kooijman says:

    I love what James Baldwin wrote about Lady Sings the Blues–he was critical of the film, but did praise the performance by Ross: “I had never been a Diana Ross fan, and received the news that she was to play Billie with a weary shrug of the shoulders. I could not possibly have been more wrong, and I pray the lady to accept from me my humble apologies. … Diana Ross, clearly, respected Billie too much to try to imitate her. She picks up on Billie’s beat, and, for the rest, uses herself, with a moving humility and candor, to create a portrait of a woman overwhelmed by the circumstances in her life. This is not exactly Billie Holiday, but it is the role as written, and she does much more with it than the script deserves.” (from The Devil Finds Work).

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