Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

R | 144, 147 or 150 mins | Biography, Drama | October 1972

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HISTORY

The film opens with black-and-white sequences and photographs of Diana Ross as “Billie Holiday” being fingerprinted, photographed and put into a jail cell. Additionally, black-and-white photographs of 1930s Harlem and marquees and advertisements featuring Holiday are used throughout the film to establish her surroundings and her performance history. Also featured in the film is a montage of black-and-white photographs of Ross and Billy Dee Williams as businessman “Louis McKay,” establishing their relationship. These photographs are presented in a style similar to 1930s photographs. Lady Sings the Blues ends with a scene of Ross as Holiday performing at Carnegie Hall. This scene is intercut with shots of actual newspaper headlines detailing the end of Holiday’s life, including an arrest on drug charges, the New York commission’s refusal of her cabaret license application and her death at age 44 in 1959.
       Lady Sings the Blues was based on Holiday’s autobiography of the same title that she wrote with William Dufty. Holiday, who was born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore in 1915, grew up living alternately with her mother and other relatives and rarely saw her father, Clarence Holiday, a touring musician. In her autobiography, Holiday stated that she was raped more than once while very young and had worked as a maid, like her mother, and sometimes as a prostitute, finally becoming a singer in the early 1930s.
       Film and music historians, as well as biographers, dispute many details of Holiday’s life, as well as her autobiography’s account. There were also many differences between the autobiography and the film. Screenwriter Suzanne De Passe’s interview included as added content on the film’s DVD release noted that the screenplay ... More Less

The film opens with black-and-white sequences and photographs of Diana Ross as “Billie Holiday” being fingerprinted, photographed and put into a jail cell. Additionally, black-and-white photographs of 1930s Harlem and marquees and advertisements featuring Holiday are used throughout the film to establish her surroundings and her performance history. Also featured in the film is a montage of black-and-white photographs of Ross and Billy Dee Williams as businessman “Louis McKay,” establishing their relationship. These photographs are presented in a style similar to 1930s photographs. Lady Sings the Blues ends with a scene of Ross as Holiday performing at Carnegie Hall. This scene is intercut with shots of actual newspaper headlines detailing the end of Holiday’s life, including an arrest on drug charges, the New York commission’s refusal of her cabaret license application and her death at age 44 in 1959.
       Lady Sings the Blues was based on Holiday’s autobiography of the same title that she wrote with William Dufty. Holiday, who was born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore in 1915, grew up living alternately with her mother and other relatives and rarely saw her father, Clarence Holiday, a touring musician. In her autobiography, Holiday stated that she was raped more than once while very young and had worked as a maid, like her mother, and sometimes as a prostitute, finally becoming a singer in the early 1930s.
       Film and music historians, as well as biographers, dispute many details of Holiday’s life, as well as her autobiography’s account. There were also many differences between the autobiography and the film. Screenwriter Suzanne De Passe’s interview included as added content on the film’s DVD release noted that the screenplay was an edited version of Holiday’s life meant to convey the mood surrounding several, but not all, of her milestones and hardships.
       Most characters in the film were either composites of real people in Holiday’s life or fictionalized characters. McKay was Holiday’s third and last husband, from whom she had separated before her death. She met him early in her life, but not in the same circumstances portrayed in the film. She had also been married to Jimmy Monroe in the early 1940s and had had a common-law marriage with musician Joseph Luke Guy in the early 1950s, neither of whom were mentioned in the film. As portrayed in the movie and recounted in her autobiography, Holiday’s performing break came when a Harlem nightclub piano player convinced her to do a singing audition after she had failed a dancing audition. In the film, shortly after Holiday sees the body of man hanging from a tree after a lynching, she sings a heart-wrenching rendition of "Strange Fruit," implying that Holiday wrote the song. The song was actually written in the 1930s by Lewis Allan after he viewed a photograph of a lynching.
       Holiday appeared in only one feature film, the 1947 musical New Orleans (see below). At the time of Holiday’s death from liver disease in 1959, she had had a long and highly publicized jazz recording and performing career both in the United States and Europe, most of which was not detailed in the film. In 1987, Holiday received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy Awards for her music.
       Soon after the autobiography’s publication in 1956, several producers attempted to create film versions. Among them was Lester Cowan, who, according to a 20 Oct 1956 LAT article, planned, with Anthony Mann, a version starring Dorothy Dandridge. A 15 Aug 1957 HR article added that United Artists was to release Cowan’s version, but that picture was not made. In 1959, producer Philip A. Waxman had secured a verbal agreement from Dandridge to portray the singer, according to a 21 Sep 1959 HR . Albert Zugsmith was to make the film starring Dandridge, according to a 1 Nov 1960 HR news item. He planned first to produce a Broadway musical of the story also starring Dandridge, but this version, too, failed to come to fruition. An 8 Oct 1968 HR article noted that Joseph Glaser, Holiday’s long-time agent, had obtained the rights to Holiday’s life story based on the book and planned to make a film. Producer David Susskind also announced his plans to make a film version, as well as Charles Martin, according to Filmfacts . A 7 Jul 1971 Var article noted that actor-director Ossie Davis also planned a version of Holiday’s life, with a script by Millard Lampell that was be directed by John Berry and to star Diana Sands, but this version was never made.
       By 1969, producer Jay Weston had secured rights from McKay and Glaser for Holiday’s story. Weston proceeded with plans to produce the film for Cinema Center Films, according to a 24 Mar 1969 DV news item. A 22 Mar 1970 NYT article noted that Weston then signed Terence McCloy to write the screenplay and that Columbia had agreed to make Holiday’s music recordings available to the filmmakers. On 25 Mar 1971, HR announced that singer and former member of The Supremes Diana Ross was to star in the picture and that Sidney J. Furie was signed as director. Detroit-based music production company Motown, which represented Ross and The Supremes, and its founder and president Berry Gordy, joined the production.
       Although a 13 May 1971 HR “Rambling Reporter” article in HR stated that Dufty claimed to be sole owner of the book’s rights and informed Weston and Motown that their claim was ineffective, by 16 Jun 1971, DV reported that Paramount had joined the production of the Weston/Motown film. Furie then made plans to shoot the picture in Albuquerque, NM in Oct, according to a 3 Sep 1971 HR news item; however, the location was then changed to Los Angeles. As mentioned in the film’s production notes, various scenes were shot in a downtown Los Angeles burlesque house, at Union Station, in the neighborhood of Echo Park and in the surrounding cities of Alhambra and Pasadena, CA. Period Manhattan nightclubs and supper clubs were recreated on the Paramount Studios lot. Southern roadside scenes were shot at Rancho Sierra Vista in Thousand Oaks, CA, while the prison scenes were shot at the Lincoln Heights jail.
       Production began on 6 Dec 1971. According to a 7 Dec 1971 DV article, several last-minute changes were made to the production crew including the following: James S. White was added as a producer; Carl Anderson replaced Harry Horner as the production designer, apparently before principal photography began; Cheryal Kearney replaced Reg Allen as set decorator; Argyle Nelson was named as the film editor and Oliver Nelson was removed from the credits as musical director.
       Furie was credited in HR production charts with writing the screenplay with McCloy; however, his name did not appear onscreen as a screenwriter. DV news items added the following persons to the cast whose appearance in the released film has not been confirmed: Cail Oren, Tom Cowan, Charles Drubin, Bob Whitney, Byron Fromme, Charles Murray , Gary Bohn, John Eloff, Earl Spainard, Gary Wright, Jim Mohlmann, Sharon Baily, Sharron Carter, Beverly Thomas, Toni Vaz, Chester Jones, Bene Greene, Alex Brown, Leoma Duckett, Agnes Lloyd and Frances Nealy.
       According to an 18 Oct 1972 Var news item, Gordy had bought out Paramount’s share of the film, limiting its participation to distribution. In Gordy’s commentary on the DVD release of the film, he explained that Lady Sings the Blues was over budget by several million dollars when Paramount decided to back out of the production after seeing a screen test. Gordy stated that he then raised the remaining budget and renegotiated his deal with Paramount.
       Although Lady Sings the Blues was the feature film acting debut for Ross, she had had numerous television appearances as herself and a few dramatic roles for television. Ross did not physically resemble Holiday; however, she did wear Holiday’s signature gardenia in her hair for most of the film’s stage performances. According to the production notes on Lady Sings the Blues found in the AMPAS Library, comedian Richard Pryor's role was originally very brief, but was later extended after the filmmakers realized his acting abilities. In the DVD commentary, Furie and Gordy both noted that while Broadway actor Billie Dee Williams had had a bad screen test compared with actor Paul Winfield, whom they were also considering, Williams’ flirtatious chemistry with Ross secured the role for him.
       As stated in the production notes, Ross prerecorded the songs for the film’s Motown Records’ soundtrack, using a mixture of her own style with some nuances of Holiday's distinctive style. Among the many musicians who were recorded for the soundtrack, several had played with Holiday, including trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, bassist Red Holloway and guitarist John Collins.
       The soundtrack was Motowns’ fastest seller to that date, according to a 5 Dec 1972 DV news item. The album reached number one on the U.S. pop album charts. According to a 20 Jun 1973 DV article, Furie filed suit against Gordy, Motown Productions and others for failure to pay the publishers' share of the music sold from the film, particularly the soundtrack. The outcome of this suit is unknown.
       Although most reviews of the film lauded Ross for her sympathetic and powerful portrayal of Holiday, several criticized the filmmakers for leaving out many details about Holiday’s life, including her hundreds of popular recordings and the many famous jazz musicians with whom she wrote, performed, toured and recorded, including Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie, Benny Goodman, Arthur Herzog and Artie Shaw.
       The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, Best Art Direction and Best Music (Scoring), but lost in all three categories to the musical Cabaret . Additionally, Lady Sings the Blues received Academy Award nominations for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) and Best Costume Design. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
30 Oct 1972
p. 4536.
Daily Variety
24 Mar 1969.
---
Daily Variety
16 Jun 1971.
---
Daily Variety
7 Dec 1971.
---
Daily Variety
16 Dec 1971.
---
Daily Variety
24 Jan 1972.
---
Daily Variety
25 Jan 1972.
---
Daily Variety
17 Oct 1972
p. 6, 8.
Daily Variety
5 Dec 1972.
---
Daily Variety
20 Jun 1973.
---
Ebony
Feb 1973.
---
Filmfacts
1972
pp. 389-94.
Hollywood Reporter
15 Aug 1957.
---
Hollywood Reporter
21 Sep 1959.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 Nov 1960.
---
Hollywood Reporter
8 Oct 1968.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Mar 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
13 May 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
3 Sep 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
3 Dec 1971
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Jan 1972
p. 19.
Hollywood Reporter
18 Oct 1972
p. 4, 13.
Los Angeles Times
20 Oct 1956.
---
Los Angeles Times
25 Oct 1972
Section IV, p. 1, 13.
New York Times
22 Mar 1970.
---
New York Times
19 Oct 1972.
p. 56.
New Yorker
4 Oct 1972.
---
Newsweek
6 Nov 1972.
---
Saturday Review
11 Nov 1972.
---
Time
6 Nov 1972.
---
Variety
7 Jul 1971.
---
Variety
18 Oct 1972
p. 18.
WSJ
27 Oct 1972.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Motown-Weston-Furie Production
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Prod
Assoc prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Stills
Gaffer
Best boy
Grip
Dolly
ART DIRECTOR
Prod des
FILM EDITORS
Assoc ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
Swing gang
Greensman
Const supv
Pusher
Painter
COSTUMES
Miss Ross' cost des by
Miss Ross' cost des by
Miss Ross' cost executed by
Cost
Furs by
Cost
MUSIC
Mus supv
Mus score
Mus contractor
Mus ed
Bassist
Guitarist
VISUAL EFFECTS
Titles and montages conceived and executed by
Spec eff
MAKEUP
Hair styles
Makeup supv
PRODUCTION MISC
Tech adv
Creative consultant
Research
Post prod supv
Unit pub
Dial coach
Casting
Extras casting
Craft serviceman
Auditor
Auditor
Asst auditor
Transportation capt
Asst transportation
Dispatcher
Mechanic
Driver
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the biography Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday and William Dufty (New York, 1956).
SONGS
“All of Me,” music and lyrics by Seymour Simons and Gerald Marks
“Don’t Explain” and “God Bless the Child,” music and lyrics by Arthur Herzog, Jr. and Billie Holiday
“Fine and Mellow,” music and lyrics by Billie Holiday
+
SONGS
“All of Me,” music and lyrics by Seymour Simons and Gerald Marks
“Don’t Explain” and “God Bless the Child,” music and lyrics by Arthur Herzog, Jr. and Billie Holiday
“Fine and Mellow,” music and lyrics by Billie Holiday
“Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” music and lyrics by Wesley Wilson
“Good Morning Heartache,” music and lyrics by Irene Higginbotham, Ervin Drake and Dan Fisher
“I Cried for You,” music by Gus Arnheim and Abe Lyman, lyrics by Arthur Freed
“Lady Sings the Blues," music and lyrics by Billie Holiday and Herbie Nicholas
“Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?),” music and lyrics by Jimmy Davis, Roger Ramirez and Jimmy Sherman
“Mean to Me,” music by Fred E. Ahlert, lyrics by Roy Turk
“My Man,” music by Maurice Yvain, lyrics by Channing Pollack
“Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “The Man I Love,” music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin
“Strange Fruit,” music and lyrics by Lewis Allen
“Tain't Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” music and lyrics by Porter Grainger, Graham Prince and Clarence Williams
“Them There Eyes,” music and lyrics by William Tracey, Doris Tauber and Maceo Pinkard
“What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” music and lyrics by Harry M. Woods
“You’ve Changed,” music by Carl Fischer, lyrics by Bill Carey.
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
October 1972
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 18 October 1972
Los Angeles opening: 25 October 1972
Production Date:
6 December 1971--late January 1972
Copyright Claimants:
Jobete Music Co., Inc.; Motown Productions Weston Associates, Inc.; Furie Productions, Inc.
Copyright Dates:
6 October 1972 6 October 1972
Copyright Numbers:
LP41419 LP41419
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Eastman Color
Widescreen/ratio
Panavision
Duration(in mins):
144, 147 or 150
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Arrested in New York City in 1936 for drug use, jazz singer Billie Holiday is suffering from heroin withdrawal when she is locked in a padded prison cell. In her delirium, Billie remembers her life in Baltimore as a fifteen-year-old named Eleanor Fagan: Living as an unwelcome guest with relatives, Eleanor is a brothel maid, who spends her free time alone singing along to blues records. Brutally raped one day by a disgruntled, drunken customer, a traumatized Eleanor seeks solace with her mother, who works as a housekeeper for a wealthy New York family. Although she cares greatly for Eleanor, Mama Holiday cannot offer her housing at the estate and sends her to church friend Ms. Edsen, unaware that the woman’s “boarding house” is actually a brothel. The bitter Edsen trades Eleanor room and board for housework and belittles her with daily insults. One night, Eleanor goes to Jerry’s club, where she is hypnotized by the romantic atmosphere and smitten by handsome, regular customer Louis McKay. Longing for a different life, Eleanor turns to prostitution, using the money for smart dresses and gifts for her mother, who is unaware of her real employment. One day, after learning that her mother will soon be taking a job in her neighborhood, Eleanor quits the brothel and, taking her one suitcase, walks into Jerry’s to answer an advertisement for dancers. Eleanor auditions, but her awkward moves do not impress owner Jerry. Charmed by her ambition, the accompanist, the piano man, encourages Eleanor to sing “All of Me.” The touching solo easily sways Jerry into hiring Eleanor, who quickly takes the stage name of “Billie Holiday.” Under pressure to make fifteen dollars in ... +


Arrested in New York City in 1936 for drug use, jazz singer Billie Holiday is suffering from heroin withdrawal when she is locked in a padded prison cell. In her delirium, Billie remembers her life in Baltimore as a fifteen-year-old named Eleanor Fagan: Living as an unwelcome guest with relatives, Eleanor is a brothel maid, who spends her free time alone singing along to blues records. Brutally raped one day by a disgruntled, drunken customer, a traumatized Eleanor seeks solace with her mother, who works as a housekeeper for a wealthy New York family. Although she cares greatly for Eleanor, Mama Holiday cannot offer her housing at the estate and sends her to church friend Ms. Edsen, unaware that the woman’s “boarding house” is actually a brothel. The bitter Edsen trades Eleanor room and board for housework and belittles her with daily insults. One night, Eleanor goes to Jerry’s club, where she is hypnotized by the romantic atmosphere and smitten by handsome, regular customer Louis McKay. Longing for a different life, Eleanor turns to prostitution, using the money for smart dresses and gifts for her mother, who is unaware of her real employment. One day, after learning that her mother will soon be taking a job in her neighborhood, Eleanor quits the brothel and, taking her one suitcase, walks into Jerry’s to answer an advertisement for dancers. Eleanor auditions, but her awkward moves do not impress owner Jerry. Charmed by her ambition, the accompanist, the piano man, encourages Eleanor to sing “All of Me.” The touching solo easily sways Jerry into hiring Eleanor, who quickly takes the stage name of “Billie Holiday.” Under pressure to make fifteen dollars in tips her first night, Billie nervously sings her first number, but is unable perform the bawdy dance necessary to pick up tips left on the table. When the rowdy crowd boos the shy young woman during her second song, Louis, impressed with her strength of will, hands her a large bill, unleashing a flurry of tips that customers graciously hand to the lady-like Billie. Pleased with her success, Jerry’s hires her and delivers a gardenia from Louis. Prompted by the piano man’s warning that Louis is a rakish philanderer, Billie rebuffs his overtures that evening, but Louis finally convinces her to go to an exclusive supper club, where the prickly Billie is wooed by the big band music and Louis’ lavish praise. After a night of lovemaking, Louis is so infatuated that he breaks his own rules and allows Billie to spend the night. In the ensuing months, the couple is inseparable as Billie rises to local fame with her nightly singing appearances at Jerry’s. After a year at the club, Billie is approached by white band leaders Reg Hanley and Harry to join them on a tour. They assure that her that with success outside New York, she will achieve bookings at the wealthy Manhattan supper clubs, where Billie longs to sing. At first reluctant to join the all-white, male band, Billie finally agrees to a grueling cross-country tour. One day, when the bust stops near a field, Billie discovers the body of a lynched black man hanging from a tree. Dazed and melancholy over the incident, Billie succumbs to Harry’s offer of heroin to boost her spirits. Months later, after Louis sees Billie perform at the Plantation Club, he demands that she stop using drugs and, desperate to keep her only love, Billie vows to quit. Soon after, when a torch-wielding Klu Klux Klan mob attacks the musicians’ bus after seeing the black woman on board, a bruised Billie is unable to muster the will to continue performing without heroin. Days later, when the band plays a radio show for sponsor Sunray Soap, Billie is promised a spot on the show, but is purposefully overlooked as several white singers take the stage. Although Billie resists humiliation by mocking whites’ bigoted beliefs that blacks do not use soap, the singer later begs Harry for heroin at the Manhattan Café to soothe the pain, but he refuses. Called to perform a song, Billie, numb from her addiction, sings tragically of the “heartache” haunting her and then rushes home to get high. Louis tries at first to outwit Billie to make her stop, but when she threatens him with a switchblade, he gives her the drugs. Minutes later though, when Louis sees Billie slouched on the toilet high on heroin, he asks her to move out. Returning to Jerry’s for work, an addicted Billie can only perform listlessly and forgets to visit her ailing mother in the hospital. One night, when she interrupts her act to buy drugs from a dealer, Billie learns that her mother has died. Inconsolable, Billie finally decides she has to take responsibility for herself and checks into a drug rehabilitation institution. When Louis visits her there, he promises that if she marries him, he will never leave her. Touched, Billie accepts the offer, but after she sends Louis out to buy her an engagement ring, New York narcotics officers arrest her for illegal drug use. In jail, Louis’ visit and her doctor’s administration of some drugs stave of the horrific withdrawal symptoms, narrowly saving Billie’s life. Months later, upon Billie’s release, she is received by friends and family at a welcome home party, where Reg gives her a copy of the band’s first album, “Don’t Explain,” which credits Billie as the song writer. Billie soon begins a domestic life as Louis’ wife, but her unrelenting urge to perform prompts Louis to get her an agent so she can return to the stage. Because Billie’s cabaret license has been revoked due to the arrests, the new agent suggests that a Carnegie Hall engagement, unheard of for a jazz singer, could easily help her win back her license and love of the New York City public. He then plans a grueling road tour, gathering publicity that will garner her a Carnegie Hall performance. Although Louis joins her for three months of the tour to ensure there is no drug relapse, he leaves her in the piano man’s care for the last two months. Depressed in Los Angeles, Billie begs the piano man to get drugs for her, giving him her wedding ring to pawn for the money. Unable to pawn the sentimental piece of jewelry, the piano man gets the drugs without it. Soon after, Billie and the piano man are high when the drug dealers demand payment, then beat the piano man to death in front of Billie. Minutes later, Louis and the agent call excitedly to announce the Carnegie Hall date, but the terrorized Billie can only mumble deliriously on the phone. Learning of the piano man’s murder, Louis quickly flies out to California to bring the dazed Billie home to New York. Although still in a state of shock, Billie delivers a triumphant performance to a overjoyed audience at Carnegie Hall. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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