How Lumet's 'The Wiz' became a black cult classic

OPINION - Does 'The Wiz' hold a candle to Lumet's most seminal work -- hardly. But it's still a fascinating part of an incredible career that has sadly come to an end...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Legendary director Sidney Lumet passed away from lymphoma late last week at the age of 86. His remarkable career spanned five decades, from the classic 1957 courtroom drama 12 Angry Men to the critically acclaimed 2007 thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. His most celebrated work will most likely be his string of New York-based 70s hits Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, but in the hearts of black audiences a special place is reserved for his much maligned 1978 foray into the world of movie musicals — The Wiz.

Once (and sometimes still) viewed as a prime example of late-70s excess and credited as the death knell of the once thriving blaxploitation film genre, The Wiz, in recent years, has found new life as a black cult classic. This is due in part to its fabulously eclectic cast of African-American heavyweights. Besides boasting Diana Ross, Lena Horne (then Lumet’s mother-in-law), Richard Pryor and Nipsey Russell, the film will forever be remembered for giving Michael Jackson his first and last starring role in a major motion picture.

Few outside the film industry know that following The Wiz’s release and during his height as a musician, Jackson strived to get back on the big screen and over the years numerous projects were developed as potential vehicles for the King of Pop and then were shelved as his career floundered and his endless plastic surgeries convinced producers his face would never play on the big screen.

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That leaves us with The Wiz as the one document of Jackson’s movie acting potential. And he is one of the film’s bright lights. To prepare for his role as the Scarecrow, Jackson doggedly studied footage of gazelles, cheetahs and panthers to incorporate their movements into his performance. And according to Lumet, Jackson was such a consummate performer he not only memorized all of his lines, but the entire cast’s as well. Despite negative reviews at the time of its release, Jackson’s sweet and sincere performance as the Scarecrow was widely praised and his interpretation of “Ease on Down the Road” holds up to this day and quite possibly the definitive version.

It was also on this film that arguably the most legendary collaboration in the history of modern pop music was born. This was where Quincy Jones discovered Michael Jackson. Jones has admitted that he had previously dismissed Jackson’s childhood work as amiable bubblegum, but on The Wiz, where Jones served as the music supervisor, he saw the potential in Jackson for a fresh, more adult sound. After working together on this film, Jackson hired Jones to craft his first mature solo album — Off the Wall. The rest is music history.

The film has also endured as one of the few Hollywood productions of any era to embrace an unabashedly black cast in a black musical. The Wiz, while a sensation on Broadway, may never have reached as a wide an audience if it wasn’t for the consistent repeats of The Wiz on cable television. And what was once considered campy has now taken on a more charming quality aided by time and nostalgia.

But for many black cinema fans The Wiz was and remains a big disappointment. While the late Lumet’s skill as a director has never been in question, there has been a perception that he was out of his comfort zone (gritty dramas) directing a musical and it shows. Others felt the new agey second act lost some of the urban flavor of the stage show.

But on the whole, the most vehement criticism of the film has been for the casting and performance of Diana Ross in the lead role of Dorothy. Despite her Oscar-nominated triumph six years earlier in Lady Sings the Blues, even some of her most ardent fans feel she was woefully miscast in a role that was originally conceived for a much younger woman. Ross was 35 when the film was made but she was playing a 24-year-old.

The esteemed late critic Pauline Kael wrote that fall in The New Yorker, “As far the performers are the concerned, the only problem is the insufferable Dorothy, who’s some sort of superstar neuter, smiling through tears, with her arms to the heavens.” Kael goes on to write, “Judy Garland [who played Dorothy in the original Wizard of Oz] with her fleshy vulnerability, provided a contrast to her companions, but Diana Ross is as much an artifact as they are.”

Lumet was actually not the first director hired for the picture. John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) departed early when he learned Ross was being cast, also citing her age as a concern. Badham reportedly told the film’s producer Rob Cohen, “She’s a terrific actress and a great dancer, but she’s not this character.”

Cohen later faulted Ross for much of the problems with the script and production. Cohen argued Ross and screenwriter Joel Schumacher were enamored with the popular late-70s Erhard Seminar Training (better known as ‘est’) fad and insisted on injecting some of the movement’s feel-good mantras into the script (like the somewhat maudlin “Believe in Yourself” ballad) at the expense of cohesion and character. Ross’ changes backfired and she never starred in another Hollywood film again.

Another one of the most unfortunate casualties of The Wiz’s initial failure was it essentially prematurely ended Motown’s experiment in the film business. In part to jumpstart a film career for Diana Ross but also simply to diversify his media empire, Berry Gordy got into film production in the early 70s. The goal, as Motown film star Billy Dee Williams explained on the Motown25 special in 1983, was not to “make black movies, but to make movies with black stars.” After Lady Sings the Blues became a hit, it was followed by Mahoghany (starring Williams and Ross) and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (starring Williams, Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones). The Wiz was by far the studio’s most ambitious project, costing a then-very high $24 million (and reportedly going several million more over budget) and shot on location in New York City.

Many in Hollywood believe that following The Wiz the studios were scared off from bankrolling major movie productions with predominately black casts. For the next two decades that appeared to be overwhelmingly the case — with A Soldier’s Story and The Color Purple being worthwhile exceptions to the rule. Perhaps this is why, despite its all-star cast, Dreamgirls was largely deemed as a pricey risk until it debuted to solid numbers and critical acclaim.

Now that time has passed and the sting of failure is long gone, The Wiz has finally begun to be viewed for what is is — an amusing trifle and a time capsule of a unique and colorful era. In this singular film one can see Michael Jackson right as he was beginning the most storied chapter of his career, delight in the comic prowess of Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man and Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion, and appreciate Lumet’s light touch as director.

Does The Wiz hold a candle to Lumet’s most seminal work — hardly. But it’s still a fascinating part of an incredible career that has sadly come to an end.