“In 1972, we fought everybody. No one had ever done a film like this before.” –Shelly Berger
March 27, 1973: The 45th Annual Academy Awards. Tensions are running high inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles as presenters Raquel Welch and Gene Hackman take the stage. “Hope they haven’t got a cause,” Welch remarks after reading the names of the five nominees for the Best Actress Academy Award, a reference to Marlon Brando’s earlier boycott of his own Best Actor award. Television cameras capture the tight expressions of the four present nominees; Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, and Liv Ullmann (Maggie Smith is not in attendance) look nervous and uncomfortable as the presenters tear open the envelope. It’s undoubtedly been a long road to this moment for all four women; for Diana Ross, it’s been more than three years of intense research, sometimes vicious criticism, and arduous filming. And, of course, eventually the kind of acclaim she never could have imagined. It seemed only one thing could truly bring the experience of making Lady Sings The Blues to a satisfying end, both for her and for the entire team behind the film: An Oscar.
December 17, 1970. “I am happy to read in JET that singer Diana Ross will not play the role of Billie Holiday in the forthcoming film of the late Lady Day,” writes reader Alvin Aubert in a letter to Jet magazine. “A movie of her playing Billie Holiday would be another Diana Ross attraction at the expense of the great artist, Lady Day.” Although his opinion seems unfair today, Mr. Aubert was no doubt in the majority in 1970; with rumors swirling of a forthcoming film biography of the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, Diana Ross was more than just an unlikely choice.
Less than a year earlier, Ross had finally made her long-expected break from Motown supergroup The Supremes, performing her final show with the group on January 14, 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. In the November, 1969 announcement of her departure, Jet quoted a “highly placed Motown Records Corp. source” with saying Ross had been repeatedly approached by film, Broadway, and television producers about starring in her own vehicles. Although Diana Ross was one of the most famous entertainers in the world at the time, and The Supremes the most successful American group of the decade, it was likely an exaggeration that Miss Ross and Motown were being flooded with motion picture offers; let’s face it, in 2017 it’s still rare that Hollywood gets behind a major project for an African-American actress. (Interestingly, Supreme Mary Wilson’s 1986 memoir Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme mentions an announcement that Diana’s film debut would come in a project titled Darker Than Amber. That film was made, but without Ross.)
That said, there was at least one motion picture producer interested in the idea of putting Diana Ross on the big screen. In his book Diana Ross: A Biography, J. Randy Taraborrelli writes that a man named Jay Weston (who’d produced For Love Of Ivy in 1968, starring Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln) attended a Supremes concert at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria in 1969, during the time he was developing a film about jazz singer Billie Holiday. According to Taraborrelli, Weston fell under Diana’s spell during the show (the engagement was reviewed by Billboard in the May 24, 1969 issue, see picture and note the interesting and perhaps telling reference to “venom” in the group’s singing) and set up a meeting with Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. Apparently, Gordy was tantalized enough by the idea to have Miss Ross discuss Billie Holiday in a September, 1969 Look magazine cover story, and start singing the standard “My Man,” associated with the jazz and blues legend, live during shows.
A few months later, Ross was officially a solo entertainer, and dove headfirst into her “second act” with the release of Diana Ross, which contained the top 20 hit “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and the #1 smash “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Motown quickly followed that album with Everything Is Everything, the singer’s moderately successful second solo album. Attention then turned to Diana’s first television special, entitled Diana!, which aired on American TV network ABC on Sunday, April 18, 1971. In a preview piece published April 8, Jet writer Reggie Goodwin gushed, “In her first TV opus, Diana Ross mirrors camera motion so innovative and transitions so smooth that one is drawn into the flow of magic. She is exciting as she romps through a star tour de force.” The special was a ratings hit, and the accompanying soundtrack album peaked at #3 on the Billboard R&B Albums chart.
Director Sidney J. Furie has repeatedly said that watching Diana! convinced him that Diana Ross was the only person who could play Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues, to which he was now also attached. It’s possible that Furie saw an advanced screening of the special, or perhaps was present at the taping, because Billboard had already reported the Ross would headline the Furie-directed Lady Sings The Blues on April 3, 1971 — two weeks before Diana! even aired on television. And by May 6, Jet was also reporting on the production, in an article quoting Holiday’s husband Louis McKay as saying, “I have personally signed a contact with no one other than the Motown-Weston-Furie Production firm, a contract dated Jan. 30, 1969, through (the late) Joe Glaser’s Associated Booking Corp.” This earlier timeline confirms Diana’s own memories of making the film; during a promotional appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1972, Ross mentioned over and over again that she’d been preparing for the film since 1969. “I started in ’69, the first time I heard anything about, you know, doing anything about Billie Holiday, and I did ‘My Man’ then,” she told the host.
Jet published an “official” announcement of Lady Sings The Blues on July 15, 1971, reporting that a deal had been struck with Robert Evans, executive vice president in charge worldwide production for Paramount Films, to make the movie with Motown and Diana Ross. Paramount offered the team financing to make the film, and agreed to distribute the finished product. The Jet article ends with an interesting piece of news: “Black director Ossie Davis, meanwhile, was going ahead with plans to film The Billie Holiday Story, starring superb actress Diana Sands.” Indeed, there had been some early controversy about the “dueling Dianas,” with reports that Sands would play Holiday in a film stretching all the way back to at least 1967 (an article in the December 28, 1967 issue of Jet states, “Diana Sands is slated to play the role of the tortured genius who was Billie in the $750,000 production”). Louis McKay publicly spoke out against the planned Davis film, which was never made.
Meanwhile, Diana Ross had already immersed herself in research for her first motion picture role; her previous acting experience was limited to a few television appearances, including an infamous 1968 episode of “Tarzan” in which she, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong had played nuns. The singer’s inexperience obviously led many to assume she was incapable of handling the heavy dramatic role of Billie Holiday; the week after the official announcement in Jet, a reader wrote to the magazine proclaiming, “The idea of Diana Ross playing the great Lady Day is ridiculous…I have seen some of Miss Ross’ acting. To have her play Lady Day is an insult” (July 29, 1971). For her part, the singer admitted she was a novice when it came to film acting. “I didn’t actually have any formal dramatic training. I had a lot of assistance from a lot of people that love Billie, the musicians. I got a chance to talk to [Harry “Sweets” Edison], that played behind Billie, and they gave me some assistance as far as the songs,” she told TV host Mike Douglas. Holiday’s music would become the key to Diana’s acting approach; she would later tell Jet, “[Holiday’s] music is what she’s all about…That’s how I did most of my research. I felt her emotions in her singing. I also read between the lines. She expresses her total being in her music. You can feel what she felt about life at that time, what she felt about death” (October 19, 1972).
Musical conductor Gil Askey was put in charge of recording the film’s music, a choice that made much more logical sense than that of the film’s leading lady. Askey had been a successful jazz trumpeter for many years, even playing with the real Billie Holiday, before being hired by Motown to prepare The Supremes for their landmark 1965 debut at New York’s Copacabana nightclub (read more here). He’d also helmed the group’s 1967 effort The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, a classy, elegant album which still stands as perhaps the single best disc ever released by The Supremes. Askey certainly knew Diana’s voice well, and chose a list of songs identified with Billie Holiday for Miss Ross to study; the singer would later say she listened to nothing else for nine months. In the liner notes to the 2006 CD release Blue, Askey recalled: “As I heard Diana singing, I saw immediately that she had been transformed. She was a different artist — the way she lagged behind the beat, the way she caressed the lyrics, the way she kicked back so completely. Billie Holiday had entered Diana’s soul and revolutionized her approach to singing.” According to those liner notes, Ross and Askey began recording the film’s soundtrack in late November, 1971. Gordy would later say Ross (who is a quite gifted mimic, as demonstrated throughout her career) replicated Billie Holiday’s unique tone and timbre so closely that he ordered her back into the studio to record the songs again, this time retaining a bit of the “Diana Ross” sound.
Condensing the troubled life of Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915-July 17, 1959) into a single motion picture certainly wasn’t an easy task. The jazz singer’s 1956 autobiography Lady Sings The Blues served as the initial source of inspiration for the film’s script, penned by writer Terence McCloy; eventually, Motown executive Suzanne de Passe and singer Chris Clark re-wrote the screenplay with Furie. The story certainly strays from reality, inventing certain characters and eliminating other real-life figures important in the life of Billie Holiday. But the team never pretended to be writing a wholly accurate biography of the singer; instead, they strove for an emotionally truthful film focusing on the story of a woman gifted with a unique talent but plagued with problems, both societal and personal. Interviewed for the film’s DVD release, de Passe would remember, “During the time that I was giving Mr. Gordy my notes and thoughts on the screenplay that existed and he was telling me to write it down, he then wanted me to convey this information to Sidney Furie, the director. So, I began to go to Sidney Furie’s office every day for three or four hours to work through the screenplay.” Clark, in a 2009 interview with music publication L.A.Record, remembered her involvement: “Berry had started working on it and I was taking a break up at Big Sur. He called me and said he was doing a movie about my girl—Billie Holiday. He let me read the script and I didn’t like it. I thought it might have embarrassed us out in the street and he said re-write it.”
In the end, the actors ended up improvising much of their dialogue, anyway; those actors included Billy Dee Williams, whose casting as love interest Louis McKay was announced in December, not long after the November airing of the popular television movie Brian’s Song. In the audio commentary track included on the 2005 Lady Sings The Blues DVD release, director Furie recalls in detail his initial resistance to casting Williams; according to those present at the time, Williams completely botched his initial audition, while actor Paul Winfield nailed it. Gordy, however, remembers sensing a “magic” between Ross and Williams, and wanting to cast an actor with the dashing good looks of a Clark Gable. “I wanted to put black people on the screen to reflect the beautiful black people that I saw, that I could not ever see in the movies,” Gordy says in the DVD commentary track. Comedian Richard Pryor was cast as a one-scene character known simply as “Piano Man,” but his role grew as filming progressed; eventually, Piano Man would become essential to the fabric of Lady Sings The Blues, with Pryor crafting a comical and sympathetic portrait of a man devoted to Billie. Although Furie wanted Ketty Lester for the role of Billie Holiday’s mother, the part eventually went to talented actress Virginia Capers, who would win a Tony Award soon after the film’s release for her turn in the Broadway musical Raisin. A few artists from the Motown roster even fill small roles in the film and its soundtrack; Michelle Aller sings “Had You Been Around” in the Cafe Manhattan scene, the Lewis Sisters pop up in the radio sequence, and the blues record a young Billie Holiday listens to early in the film is sung by Blinky. (Another Motown artist considered for the film was Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs; prior to the casting of Billy Dee Williams, Gordy considered Stubbs for the role of Louis McKay.)
According to Diana’s 1993 memoir Secrets of a Sparrow, principal photography for Lady Sings The Blues began on December 6, 1971. Sidney Furie remembers initially traveling to Albuquerque, New Mexico to scout filming locations, and a report in Jet had quoted Louis McKay as saying there would be some location work done in Europe; that said, the film was entirely shot at various studios and locations in California. Those included the Universal Studios lot, on which the streets of Harlem were recreated, and the Warner Bros. backlot, where the cast and crew filmed the intense Ku Klux Klan/bus scene. The company went on location to the Lake Piru area of Ventura County, California for the “Strange Fruit” sequence, and the film’s prison scenes were shot at Lincoln Heights Jail in Los Angeles. Even Berry Gordy, Jr.’s own home was used in filming; it’s the rehab clinic at which Billie Holiday is arrested. An October 19, 1972 cover story in Jet detailed some of the steps taken to faithfully recreate the story’s period setting, including “borrowing a bevy of Chevys, Marmons, Packards, DeSotos, Cadillac V8s, Essexes and Chandlers that were made in the 1930s.” Much credit for the film’s expensive look must also go to cinematographer John Alonzo, who also served as cinematographer on that year’s Sounder; he brilliantly managed to fulfill Gordy’s vision of Old Hollywood glamour while never veering too far from realism.
During her 2006 appearance on the Bravo television program “Inside The Actors Studio,” Miss Ross detailed her approach to acting: “I had to really learn to trust myself, and would do whatever they wanted me to do. And then Berry would say to me, ‘Now, what do you want to do?’ And that’s when I learned that in a scene, it doesn’t matter whether you laugh or cry, it’s what you feel.” As for her willingness to experience the emotions of each scene so intensely, director Furie would say of Ross (in his DVD commentary track): “I remember Diana saying to me one day, ‘You know, I’m no method actress.’ And I said to her, ‘Diana, you have no idea. You are the most method actress I have ever met in my entire life!'” For some of her toughest scenes, during which the actress had to appear to be under the influence of drugs, Ross apparently had some help from one of her fellow actors. “I didn’t know if I was doing it right. And I had eye contact with a person on the set, to let me know if I was doing it correctly or not. And that was Richard Pryor,” she would remember on “Inside The Actors Studio.” This intuitive approach to acting led Diana Ross to deliver a startling, emotionally honest performance; for a performer known as being larger-than-life, she proved a natural, understated actress.
Articles at the time noted that principal photography lasted 42 days (with Diana working 41 of them), and Tarborrelli writes in his book that the filmmakers ended up with a movie “nearly four hours long.” Indeed, footage does exist of entire scenes that were shot but not included in the final cut of Lady Sings The Blues. A fascinating 10-minute 1972 promotional featurette includes a beautifully-shot scene in which Diana (as Billie) is recording “Don’t Explain” while clad in 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. The featurette also features footage of Miss Ross singing along to her recording of “He’s Funny That Way.” That song never appeared in Lady Sings The Blues, nor was it included on the accompanying soundtrack. In fact, “He’s Funny That Way” would go unreleased until 2006, when it was included as a bonus track on the release of Diana’s “lost” jazz album Blue. Thus, between 1972 and 2006, this featurette inadvertently contained an otherwise unheard Diana Ross track!
This promotional featurette is also helpful in that it gives at least a small glimpse into the working relationship between Ross and director Furie. Both have always spoken highly of each other, but Ross in particular can be maddeningly vague when describing her career, including her time filming Lady Sings The Blues. In her 1993 memoir, she mentions Furie only once, calling him “a great source of strength for me.” So it’s interesting to watch brief exchanges between director and actress on this promotional short, 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. Although Furie clashed early on with Motown founder (and executive producer) Berry Gordy, Jr., both men say they came to an eventual understanding that they each wanted what was best for the film. Gordy helped push Diana Ross to give a performance about which Furie would say:
“So much in editing, you help make a performance. In this picture, she helped the editing. We never had to cut around her…you could pick anything she did.”
The June 17, 1972 issue of Billboard carried an interesting, one-line notice concerning Lady Sings The Blues: “Berry Gordy has reportedly bought out Paramount’s interest in…the Diana Ross starrer about Billie Holiday.” It’s a simple statement without further explanation, and it contrasts strongly with the emotional, complex reality of the situation.
Although reports referenced earlier indicated the film would have a budget of $5.5 million, that number dropped to $2 million when Paramount agreed to finance it. But the film’s price tag quickly exceeded that amount, thanks mainly to Gordy’s insistence that every element be perfect. What happened next is extremely revealing about Hollywood’s attitudes toward motion pictures involving African-American characters at that time. According to Gordy, speaking for the film’s DVD commentary, Paramount head Frank Yablans learned of the film’s soaring budget: “[Yablans said] ‘This is a black film. And the most we’ve ever given for a black film is $500,000. We’re giving you $2 million to do this film and now you come telling me you’re over budget. Is that clear to you, I mean, do you understand that?’ I said, ‘Okay, Frank, I think it’s very clear, I do understand it.’” What Gordy understood was that if Lady Sings The Blues was going to be the movie he believed it could be, he’d have to finance it himself. Gordy ended up writing a check for $2 million and paying off Paramount, essentially buying back the movie, something manager Shelly Berger (also on the DVD commentary) remembers deeply affecting Diana Ross. “She said, ‘I am very frightened now, that I am making you put up all this money for me.’ And [Gordy] said, ‘If I am guessing so wrong on this film, then I deserve to lose my money.’”
Buying back the film, of course, gave Gordy and Motown total control over the project, allowing them to film as much footage as they wanted. The film’s editor was Argyle Nelson, Jr., who had previous worked with Sidney J. Furie on the films The Lawyer and Little Fauss and Big Halsy (both 1970), and it must have been an arduous task whittling down the mammoth production to its ultimate runtime of 144 minutes, especially considering how much of the film was apparently improvised. But even after getting their money back, executives at Paramount Pictures (who retained distribution rights) still predicted disaster for the film. Furie and Gordy remember one man telling them they’d “wrecked the career of Diana Ross.”
Diana Ross gave birth to her second daughter, Tracee, on October 29, 1972. Likely because Diana was pregnant in the weeks leading up to the release of Lady Sings The Blues, she didn’t do many advance public appearances to promote the film. That said, there was clearly a huge amount of curiosity surrounding the film, and buzz built with the help of an ad campaign that boldly announced “Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday.”
Lady Sings The Blues premiered in New York in October at the Loews State Theatre in Times Square with a party that raised money for the NAACP; due to her pregnancy, Miss Ross was forced to miss the occasion and remain in Los Angeles. Immediate reviews for the film were mixed, but almost unanimous in praise for the central performance by Diana Ross. Film critic Roger Ebert, for example, opened his review by saying, “My first reaction when I learned that Diana Ross had been cast to play Billie Holiday was a quick and simple one: I didn’t think she could do it.” Ebert, however, continued with, “All of those thoughts were wiped out of my mind within the first three or four minutes of Lady Sings the Blues, and I was left with a feeling of complete confidence in a dramatic performance.” In the New York Times, Vincent Canby tore apart the film, but called Miss Ross “an actress of exceptional beauty and wit, who is very much involved in trying to make a bad movie work.” In the November 11 issue of Billboard, Jeff Bates wrote, “It is reported that Berry Gordy invested $4 million in Diana Ross’ ability to recreate the life of Billie Holiday. It’s an investment that will surely pay off because Diana Ross is superb as Billie Holiday.”
The film itself was criticized for being formulaic and full of clichés; many also focused on the factual inaccuracies of the film’s script. In an article headlined “Lady Didn’t Always Sing The Blues” (published in the January 1973 issue of Ebony), Charles L. Sanders called the film “well-acted but one-dimensional” and quotes a friend of Holiday’s as saying, “There are so many wrong things with the way they approached Lady’s life story.” In the same issue, there are several “Letters to the Editor” devoted to the film, both negative and positive; one goes so far as to call Lady Sings The Blues “shameful.”
But audiences weren’t coming to see a completely faithful account of Billie Holiday’s life, something the filmmakers knew all along; crowds were initially coming to see Diana Ross and hear her sing. To that end, the double-LP soundtrack album, also released in October, became the only #1 pop album of the singer’s career, climbing to the top for two weeks in April of 1973. In its review of the album, Billboard raved, “The brilliant reviews Diana Ross has been receiving for her film portrayal of Billie Holiday are equally well deserved for her capturing of the Holiday sound in this superb soundtrack package.” Although it inexplicably missed out on gaining any Grammy Award nominations, the album eventually won Favorite Pop/Rock Album at the very first American Music Awards ceremony. And it should be noted that the album charts also saw the return of the real Billie Holiday, as interest surrounding the film lifted several Holiday collections back into the pages of Billboard, too.
Meanwhile, in a year that produced film classics including The Godfather, Cabaret, Deliverance, and The Poseidon Adventure, Lady Sings The Blues became an undeniable hit, knocking Sounder from the top spot at the box office for the weekend of October 15 and remaining at the top for a full month. Then, in December, the film returned to #1 for a fifth week. Its surprise success was impossible to ignore, particularly when Diana Ross was placed on the cover of the December 8, 1972 issue of Life magazine; the article inside called her “as good an actress as she is a singer.” Talk of an Academy Award for Diana Ross surfaced quickly, and while she dominated the discussion surrounding Lady Sings The Blues, the film also made a matinée idol of Billy Dee Williams. A cover story in the March 1, 1973 issue of Jet summed up his appeal as such: “Billy Dee Williams is the real thing. Women in Boston have fainted from his touch. And many in Chicago, Atlanta, and ‘Anytown,’ U.S.A., erupted in orgasmic cries when he made his unforgettable entrance in Lady Sings The Blues.” Richard Pryor also received acclaim for his memorable supporting turn as Billie Holiday’s closest confidante; a few years later, a reader in Jet would write a letter to the magazine arguing that “Pryor is not just another comedian. He should have gotten an Oscar for his role in Lady Sings The Blues. He is outstanding” (September 9, 1976).
Eventually, the awards began pouring in for Lady Sings The Blues and its stars. At the 1972 NAACP Image Awards, the film won Motion Picture of the Year along with Best Actor and Actress for Williams and Ross. Diana also took home a New Star of the Year “Golden Apple” from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club, and won the Golden Globe for New Star of the Year (Actress). Interestingly, Lady Sings The Blues snapped up another honor when its famous poster art (a handcuffed arm reading for a microphone) won a Key Art Award from the Hollywood Reporter. And then, in February of 1973, nominations for the 45th Annual Academy Awards were announced. As predicted, Diana Ross was shortlisted for the Best Actress award.
In scoring her Best Actress nod, Diana Ross became only the second African-American woman ever nominated in that category; Cicely Tyson was also nominated for her performance in Sounder, technically making the actresses the second and third behind Dorothy Dandridge, nominated for Carmen Jones in 1954. To this day, Ross and Tyson remain the only pair of African-American women nominated for Best Actress in the same year. Although Tyson was likewise praised for her turn in Sounder (the film’s poster featured a quote from critic Judith Crist calling her “a righteous warrior of inner fire”), Diana Ross seemed to have a better shot at winning the award. There was, however, tough competition from Golden Globe winners Liza Minnelli (Cabaret) and Liv Ullmann (The Emigrants) and previous Oscar winner Maggie Smith (Travels With My Aunt).
Lady Sings The Blues wasn’t necessarily favored to win any other Academy Award, but it did score an additional four nominations, itself a huge victory for a film that many had predicted would be a disaster. Musical conductor Gil Askey was reported by Jet to be “cool” over the news of his nomination in the Best Score (Adaptation And Original Song) category. First time screenwriters Suzanne de Passe and Chris Clark shared a nomination with Terence McCloy for Best Original Screenplay; de Passe, by the way, remains the only African-American female ever nominated in that category. Diana’s dress designers Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan (both of whom would enjoy a long association with the singer) and costumer Norma Koch were nominated for Best Costume Design, and Carl Anderson and Reg Allen shared a nod for Best Art Direction. With five nominations, Lady Sings The Blues was one of the most nominated films of the year; only Cabaret and The Godfather (with 10 nominations each) and The Poseidon Adventure (with eight) fared better.
It’s impossible to overstate what the Academy Awards represented to those in the Lady Sings The Blues camp. Making the picture had been an uphill battle from the beginning; from the immediate backlash surrounding the leading lady’s casting, to the heated clashes between director and executive producer, to Paramount’s ultimate lack of interest and faith in the project, Lady Sings The Blues was truly a project sustained by the passion of those directly involved in its making. The original trio of Furie-Weston-Gordy literally willed the picture into being; their belief in the story and, especially, in Diana Ross as a dramatic actress was so great that they did the impossible. And although undoubtedly thrilled by all the nominations, that of Best Actress was clearly the most important to the Lady camp. The film didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination, but the entire thing was built around Diana Ross; a win for her would be a win for the film. March 26, 1973 — the day before the Academy Awards — Diana Ross celebrated her 29th birthday. At a party in her honor, spirits were running high and those in attendance remember feeling confident that Diana Ross was poised to make Oscar history.
March 27, 1973: The 45th Annual Academy Awards. One by one that evening, the nominees from Lady Sings The Blues watch the awards go to others; Jeremy Larner’s script for The Candidate wins Original Screenplay, Cabaret takes the awards for Score and Art Direction, and Another Powell’s costumes for Travels With My Aunt win that film’s only Academy Award. Miss Ross herself admits to being tense when she takes the stage with actor James Coburn to present the award for Best Supporting Actor (won by Cabaret‘s Joel Grey); she half-jokes, “Let’s not talk about nerves, okay?” Finally, Hackman and Welch take the stage for the second-to-last award (only Best Picture remains), Best Actress. As the presenters read off each name, none even cracks a smile, save for Cicely Tyson (reacting to something someone has said in her ear). This is one of the night’s most anticipated races, and the nominees look tired and worn. Hackman finally takes the cards from inside the envelope and announces the winner. It’s Liza Minnelli.
Diana Ross lost the Oscar that night, but she continued to experience the sweet afterglow of her success in Lady Sings The Blues for some time. The Oscar loss actually bounced the film’s soundtrack to #1 on the Billboard 200, and the movie closed that year’s Cannes Film Festival (held in May), at which the singer-actress was received enthusiastically. In October, the Venice Sound Festival in Italy named Diana Ross as the year’s Best Actress, and awarded Lady Sings The Blues Best International Film. In reporting this particular honor, Jet made an interesting observation: “So, for Diana Ross, it probably didn’t matter that the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and sciences chose Liza Minnelli over her as best actress last spring. After all, it is nothing new for Black entertainers to have to go abroad and be acclaimed first before receiving honor in their own land” (Oct. 11, 1973).
Indeed, the issue of race in the way Lady Sings The Blues was treated by the Hollywood establishment is one that’s complex to say the least. While mainstream critics had no problem blasting the film for its inaccuracies or seeing the biopic formula as cliché (aspects often ignored in other mainstream films), they also completely overlooked the importance of the strides it made in portraying strong relationships between African-American characters and the realities of racism, especially in the Deep South. By 1972, there is no doubt that minorities in general were beyond weary of the way they were being treated on film and television; look no further than the March 1, 1973 issue of Jet (with Billy Dee Williams on the cover), which chides Hollywood for its “latest gimmick to exploit the Black ‘market'” — a proposed all-black version of Hercules to be called Blacules!
As producers jumped on the “Blaxploitation” bandwagon to produce low-budget action films starring African-American actors, Lady Sings The Blues (and Sounder, it should be noted) represented a fresh change for many audience members, presenting characters with dignity and depth. This seems to have been especially true where the character of Louis McKay was concerned. An April 1974 article in Ebony praised the portrayal by Billy Dee Williams: “As an actor, he projected a new image for the black man. He wasn’t the typical buck or hustler. He was gentle, he was there whenever his woman needed him.” Williams is then quoted as saying, “That’s something an awful lot of people stayed away from in this industry…because it scared them to see a black man who could be strong in his mind and also be sexual.” The Letters to the Editor section of the February 1973 issue of Ebony is exclusively dedicated to films, many of them praising Lady Sings The Blues for being “a movie our black people can really be proud of” (see picture). That kind of sentiment was also evident in another reader’s letter, which ended, “We black people should be especially proud of Diana Ross.” Certainly a strong argument can be made that a primary reason for Diana’s Oscar loss was that Hollywood just wasn’t ready to award an African-American woman as Best Actress; after all, it would take another 30 years for Halle Berry to become the first to win, for Monster’s Ball in 2002…and she remains the only one to this day.
Of course, only time can determine a film’s real success; some movies win multiple Oscars and fade into obscurity, while others are box-office bombs upon initial release and then grow into fine critical reputations. Lady Sings The Blues has more than stood the test of time; although still arguably underestimated for its historical importance, it remains an audience favorite, and is recognized by some notable figures in the film business as a groundbreaking project. Take, for instance, the results of a “Reader’s Poll” published in Ebony in April 1988 (16 years after the film’s initial release); Lady Sings The Blues was voted “Favorite Movie of All-Time.” Then, 10 years later, it came in at #6 on the magazine’s list of “Top Black Movies of All Time,” voted on by a panel of actors, directors, and filmmakers. Among those who personally placed Lady Sings The Blues on their “best-of” lists were Whitney Houston, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, John Singleton, and Debbie Allen.
In 2008, TIME critic Richard Corliss demonstrated a refreshing understanding of Lady Sings The Blues when he included it in his list of the Top 25 Important Movies On Race. Corliss wrote, “Not every African-American producer of the 1970s wanted to make crazy-sexy-violent films for a specifically black audience. Berry Gordy, Jr., the Motown Records founder, wanted to make an old-fashioned Hollywood bio-pic about a famous doomed singer. Except the film would be about the black chanteuse Billie Holliday, and she would be played by the star thrush of the Supremes — Diana Ross. He believed that audiences of all races were ready for a female star in the old-fashioned mold — suffering like Bette Davis on screen, or Judy Garland off — and that the svelte, kittenish Ross could bring a burnished sexiness to the job. He got that right.”
The film also remains the gold standard for musicians taking the leap into the world of motion pictures. Many, many have tried to follow in the footsteps of Diana Ross (Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, etc.), but none have equaled the magic she created in her very first film. Lady Sings The Blues remains, 45 years later, a singular achievement for everyone involved in its creation; it was a passion project that brought its cast and crew to the very pinnacle of their talents. Some may lament the creative license taken with the life of Billie Holiday, but few can deny that the singer is treated with respect and reverence on-screen, and portrayed with dignity and grace by Diana Ross. Miss Ross still speaks about her film debut with great pride, always mentioning it when asked about career highlights. She’s been dodgy over the years when talking about the Oscar loss, generally claiming that it didn’t matter and that the experience of making the movie was honor enough. But when interviewed for the DVD release of Lady Sings The Blues decades later, Ross finally admitted, “I really wish I could have won the Academy Award, because I would have stood up there and thanked [Berry Gordy, Jr.] for just so much he’s done for me. He really has made it so that I’m here today. And maybe this is a good way for me to thank him for all that he’s done for me.”
Although Miss Ross didn’t get to deliver that Oscar speech, the experience of making Lady Sings The Blues gained a unique sense of closure, in a way, on the evening of January 8, 2017. That night, Diana’s daughter Tracee Ellis Ross — the baby that kept her from attending the Lady premiere 44 years earlier — strode onto the stage at The Beverly Hilton to accept a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Series (Musical or Comedy) for her show “Black-ish.” Onstage, Ross delivered a beautiful and inspiring speech, dedicated to “women, women of color, and colorful people.”
“It is an honor to be on this show, ‘Black-ish.’ To continue expanding the way we are seen and known. And to show the magic and the beauty and the sameness of a story and stories that are outside of where the industry usually looks.”
Those words perfectly describe what Lady Sings The Blues did in 1972, and what it still does today. There is undeniable magic and beauty in the story it tells, and certainly in the story behind its creation.