There was a very brief time in the 1970’s when Diana Ross was going to be a big movie star. She scored an Oscar nomination and loads of critical praise, for her jaw-dropping performance as Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues. By all accounts, this film shouldn’t be recommended — it’s pedestrian script, which hijacks Holliday’s life story, mines all the cliches of a classic Hollywood melodrama. Sidney J. Furie directed the biopic, that has now slipped into cult-classic status. It will be chiefly remembered as a vehicle for its star.
The film opens with Billie Holliday, withdrawing from heroin and thrashing in agony in a jail cell. This is a smart move on the part of the film makers, because their agenda of presenting Diana Ross as a “serious actress,” and it succeeds. The carefully constructed image of glamour that Ross had cultivated up to that point was credibly smashed. Actually, the writers took an almost gleeful approach in fracturing the public image of Ross by exploiting the filmable aspects of Billie Holliday’s life that would challenge the elegance of the younger pop star: more than once we are treated to Billie Holliday being strung out and high, or even worse, shooting up. In its strive to be “gritty” the team of screenwriters also exploited much of the haunted experiences of Holliday’s life — including the moment when she sees lynch victims swinging on trees.
Despite the desperate attempt at creating an epic, the film is still fitfully enjoyable. Richard Pryor steals his scenes as the Piano Man, an ivory tikler who works at the club Holliday debuts at. He offers her sage advice on how to set herself apart form the other, flashier showgirls. Ross, in an interview also revealed that Pryor was her inspiration when she had to perform the drug scenes. Billy Dee Williams is solid as Louis McKay, a handsome gambler that falls in love with Holliday.
The relationship between Holliday and McKay is presented as fabulously tragic and melodramatic. Actually, the problem with the film is that the same approach is taken with Holliday’s life. It’s as if the film makers revel in the victim myth that plagues Holliday’s legacy (the same sort of problem Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean), so with an almost-pornographic zeal, they pile on Holliday’s tragedies in an episodic fashion. In the end, the whole point of watching the film is to see Diana Ross in a lightning-struck-once performance of amazing sensitivity.