“Lady Sings the Blues” (1972) is the biopic of the troubled life and career of the legendary Jazz singer, Billie Holiday. Loosely based on her 1956 autobiography which, in turn, took its title from one of Holiday’s most popular songs. It was produced by Motown Productions for Paramount Pictures and directed by Sidney J. Furie.
When I first heard Diana Ross had been cast as Billie Holiday I thought, she can’t act and will never pull it off. I wasn’t a big Diana Ross fan but when I saw the movie I had to give her credit for her phenomenal, Oscar-nominated performance. She lost to Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret”, but I thought Ross deserved the award.
The opening sequence (which was shot in black and white in still pictures) made me sit up and go, whoa, she’s serious. Diana Ross, the glamorous diva wore no makeup and looked the part of a heroin addict. The movie overall was a triumph not only for Ross but the incredible cast including – Billy Dee Williams as Holiday’s boyfriend Louis McKay, and Richard Pryor as Piano Man.
(In 1936, New York City, Billie Holiday (Diana Ross) is arrested on a drugs charge.)
The story takes us from Billie’s tumultuous youth when in 1928 she is raped in the Baltimore brothel where she works as a housekeeper. She runs away to her mother who proceeds to get her a job in another brothel in the Harlem section of New York where she becomes a prostitute. Seeing that her life is going nowhere, she quits and heads to a local nightclub to become a showgirl. Billie has always had a love of music and has a remarkable voice. After “Piano Man” (Richard Pryor) accompanies Billie on the song”All of Me“, Jerry, the club owner, books her as a singer in the show.
Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), professionally known as Billie Holiday lived a life that was an American tragedy full of turmoil, racism, and drug abuse. Despite all this we are left with her incredible song catalog and heartfelt performances.
Holiday had a tremendous influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. “God Bless the Child” became Holiday’s most popular and covered record. It reached number 25 on the charts in 1941 and was third in Billboard’s songs of the year, selling over a million records. In 1976, the song was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Billie Holiday died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959 when she was 44. The biggest triumph of her career was her sold-out, standing ovation performance at Carnegie Hall.
Awards and Honors
“Lady Sings the Blues” was nominated for five Academy Awards. The nominations were for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Diana Ross), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Carl Anderson and Reg Allen), Best Costume Design (Norma Koch), Best Music, Original Song Score and Adaptation (Gil Askey & Michel Legrand) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced.The film was also screened at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival but was not entered into the main competition.
Motown released a hugely successful soundtrack double-album of Ross’ recordings of Billie Holiday songs from the film, also titled Lady Sings the Blues. The album went to number one on the Billboard Hot 200 Album Charts, for the week-ending dates of April 7 and 14, 1973.