Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Biopics have featured amongst Oscar nominations for every year since 1932. Yet it would be another forty years before the biopic of an African American received any such recognition. Lady Sings the Blues scored five, including a well-deserved nomination for Diana Ross’ revelatory portrayal of Billie Holiday. Making her feature film debut, Ross may neither look nor sound like the legendary jazz singer, but her engaging performance more than makes up for the film’s occasional stumbles.
After a credit sequence depicting her being confined by a straitjacket while placed in a padded cell, the film flashes back to a teenaged Holiday working in a brothel to earn her keep. The lure of a nightclub across the road encourages her to audition as a dancer, which she fails at miserably, and then as a singer. Despite a reluctance to ‘pick up tips’, Holiday nevertheless wins over the crowd with her vocal stylizations. A chance to be lead singer with a jazz band sees her undertake a gruelling tour through the south, exposing her to lynching’s, the Klan and the temptation of drugs.
Produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Lady Sing the Blues serves as much as a showcase for its lead actress as it does for its subject. Ross shines on stage with her renditions of Holiday’s songbook, but it’s away from the microphone that she truly surprises. Refreshingly natural with her line delivery, Ross delights in her banter with band members, suitors and two-dollar johns, making her harrowing descent into drug addiction all the more heart-breaking. Billy Dee Williams’ impresses in an early role as Holiday’s love interest (who literally makes her go week at the knees), as does Richard Pryor as the wise-cracking Piano Man. James Callahan also provides solid support as the fictional band leader Reg Hanley.
More recently, biopics of African Americans have regularly appeared on the lists of Oscar nominations, including Green Book, Hidden Figures, 12 Years a Slave, The Pursuit of Happyness and Ray. One could almost be tempted to add Dreamgirls to the list, but then any resemblance to real persons in that film is purely coincidental.
Most characters in this biopic are either composites of real people or fictionalized characters. Louis McKay was actually Holiday's third husband, with no reference being made to her previous marriages. Reg Hanley is a fictional character created to overcome bandleader Artie Shaw’s refusal to allow his name to be used.
Though biopic spends some time in Los Angeles, where Piano Man refers to the singer making movies, Holiday’s limited film career is not canvassed.