When African-American baby boomers wax nostalgic about a time when “black movies were good,” they most likely have 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues in mind.
The heavily fictionalized Billie Holiday biopic introduced Diana Ross as a legitimate actress, turned Billy Dee Williams into an international sex symbol (he was dubbed the “black Clark Gable”) and showed that legendary comedian Richard Pryor had real dramatic range as an actor.
Forty years after its initial release, Lady Sings the Blues is fondly remembered as one of the bright lights from a brief golden age of black cinema but few fans may recall or recognize what an enormous risk the project was.
In the early 70s, with Motown at its peak of cultural influence, founder Berry Gordy decided he wanted to get into the movie business. This was an era where there was no real black power base in the industry and while Gordy was highly respected as a music mogul, he was risking his brand on a gamble — a vehicle to launch the film career of R&B diva Diana Ross.
Ross had just exited the iconic Supremes girl group and had begun her solo career in earnest. But her mentor (and on-and-off lover) Gordy had aspirations of making his label’s biggest act a movie star.
Paramount Pictures got behind the project, which was loosely based on Billie Holiday’s 1956 autobiography. But many critics and fans of the late jazz legend decried the casting of Ross — who didn’t resemble Holiday physically or vocally.
“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,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 1972 review of the film.
Conscious of the iconic shoes she was filling, Ross imbued the role with her own spirit and opted for a vocal homage to Holiday instead of outright mimicry.
“One of the things that I didn’t want to do is try to copy Billie Holiday. I didn’t want to try to copy her sound. I didn’t try to imitate it in any way,” said Ross in an interview for the collector’s DVD edition of the film. “I just lived with the music for almost a year before we actually recorded the music.”
The production went anything but smoothly. According to the principles involved, director Sidney J. Furie frequently clashed with the controlling Gordy, quitting the project more than once during filming.
“[Furie] was working with so many elements, he had a brand new actress there and he had Berry Gordy, who thought he knew the best way that Diana should do things,” said the film’s co-writer, Suzanne de Passe, in a DVD interview.
After a poor screen test in which he botched his lines, Billy Dee Williams nearly missed out on the role that made him a household name — Billie Holiday’s love interest Louis McKay. If Gordy hadn’t intervened, Williams never would have uttered his classic, “Do you want my arm to fall off?” line to Diana Ross.
When the project began to have cost overruns and there was a disastrous rough cut screening in New York, Paramount was going to pull the plug, so Gordy bought the film back from the distributor.
“Ultimately…he wrote a check for an amount of money that they had in the movie already and they got to keep distribution and other things and he got certain rights for that and then proceeded to put in the rest of the money to go finish the film,” said de Passe. “Certainly, had they put out the version that he took to New York that time, it would not have earned money.”
Once the film saw the light of day, there was some griping about its historical accuracy (which continues to this day), but Ross had put to bed any doubts about her ability as a dramatic actress.
“Diana Ross, a tall, skinny goblin of a girl, intensely likable, always in motion, seemed an irrational choice for the sultry, still Billie Holiday, yet she’s a beautiful bonfire,” wrote legendary film critic Pauline Kael in a largely positive review.