Interview conducted in London in person at EMI Records, March 1973
NO ONE is more aware than the lady herself of the totally negative attitude prevalent amongst quite a large number of people when it was first announced that Diana Ross would portray Billie Holiday in her first film, "Lady Sings The Blues" based on the tragic life of the jazz singer, who was at the peak of her career in the late thirties and throughout the forties.
At a time when black involvement in movies has reached an almost revolutionary stage (never before have two black actresses been nominated for an Oscar, as happened this year with Diana and the equally talented Cicely Tyson for her remarkable appearance in "Sounder"), "Lady Sings The Blues" is more than just a milestone: it is a total triumph. And most of that triumph belongs fairly and squarely to Miss Ross. For, ignoring the criticism that she would be incapable of coming anywhere near to feeling the harsh problems that life thrust upon Billie Holiday, Diana Ross has produced a performance which she will have a hard struggle to beat — and she's proven that, as an actress, she's certainly got what it takes.
She has indicated that she is not merely a glittering 'manufacture' of the Motown 'machine': Diana Ross is for real and she has a whole lot more depth than anyone had ever really given her credit for. Indeed, my own personal reaction to her choice to play the tough role was that she simply wouldn't know how to portray anyone as troubled as Billie — which was seemingly a common reaction, too!
Having read Billie's autobiography some years back (and re-read it almost annually since!) I was fraught with trepidation as to how Miss Ross — always considered something of a 'glamour girl' in most people's eyes — could possibly convey the tragic poignancy, pathos and sadness of Billie's short life, destroyed as it was, by the drug addiction that she was never able to kick completely. I was perhaps more skeptical than many others — if only because I had familiarized myself with the heartbreak that emerged from the book, by reading it time after time. I couldn't somehow imagine how anyone as 'sophisticated' as Miss Ross could act out the toil and hardship of the woman's life. Not only was I wrong: Diana's performance in "Lady Sings The Blues" is so totally involved and moving that I feel sure now that no one else could have tackled it and brought if off so well. Her performance is, frankly, devastating!
However, it is essential to bear in mind that, through necessity, the film is only based loosely on Billie's life: there are so many major differences (she had more than one husband for example: in the film only Louis McKay is portrayed) but then, in all fairness, it would have been totally impossible for the film to have been accurately based on the book, for it would have been a succession of tragedies. As it is, rightly or wrongly, the film ends with Billie in concert at Carnegie Hall — with news clippings flashed across the screen, climaxing in her death in 1959 at a mere 44 years of age.
In truth, Billie died virtually penniless, arrested on her death bed in a New York hospital on a charge of possession of narcotics. To make the film bearable, it was inevitable that it should deviate from the truth: if you accept that it is not an accurate portrayal of Billie Holiday's life then "Lady Sings The Blues" with Diana Ross is magnificent. There are many moving scenes — it's virtually impossible to select one which exemplifies Miss Ross' fine ability and anyway, by the time this is in print, no doubt many readers will have seen it.
The British premiere of the film was fortunately an occasion to warrant a trip to this country by Miss Ross and although, much to the disappointment of many, she didn't perform here this time, she did devote some of her valuable time to the press. To be perfectly candid, Diana has somehow gotten a reputation for being 'difficult' to deal with and some of her past press has been less than complimentary.
In fact, I wasn't prepared for what I was confronted with: an amazingly warm and friendly woman. When one considers the amount of pressure she is under (no one would have believed the kind of timetable she'd been given), she is astonishingly relaxed but the most important single feature about Diana Ross is that she is very human! Perhaps it's the experience of working in "Lady" — whatever it is, those who've met her before claim there's an air of maturity and depth about Diana now that was never there previously.
She herself admits that the film helped her in many ways to mature but at the same time, she admits to some confusion at the moment as to exactly where she's at! "Somehow I feel lost between "Baby Love" and "Lady Sings The Blues"! I'm not sure which direction my career will take now but I do know that, whatever happens. I intend to spend a good deal of my time with my family. I've been travelling and working for twelve years now — and I want to make sure that my two children grow up properly. I know that as children of a mixed marriage, they're going to face a lot of problems — and I want to help them as much as possible." In fact, there is a very obvious and natural pride that comes out when Diana is discussing her recently-acquired children (one girl is about 18 months old whilst the other was born some four months back) and she recalled what she wrote on the script of "Lady Sings The Blues", whilst pregnant "The most important thing in my life is my child: next comes this script."
In fact, the film was more than just important: it was in many ways a very heavy responsibility and burden for Diana to bear: if only, that is, for the fact that Berry Gordy had taken the risk of sinking so much of his own money into the film. When she was first offered the part, Diana met with an incredible amount of criticism — particularly, she says, from her own race. "People really felt that Billie and I were worlds apart and there is a general feeling that my own life has been easy throughout. But, after all, it's only what everyone reads. I'm not saying that the problems that Billie faced are the same as any that I've had, but I can relate to problems and tragedies also. In many ways, I'm glad that the film has shown people that I've got a brain too!"
In fact, Diana worked extremely hard to get the 'feel' of the Billie Holiday story by meeting with people who knew her, reading about her and generally researching every aspect of Billie's life, in order to present as accurate a character as possible. The fact that the study of her life took Diana nearly a year shows just how deeply involved she got with the project. "To begin with, there was such a total 'no' about the whole idea of me playing Billie, especially since there were so many others in line for the part. I was so upset by it all that, one day. I phoned Berry and asked if we were too late to stop before we'd actually started. Naturally, he said we were too committed, so I just gritted my teeth and got down to it." Diana says that she is happy with her performance in the film, something, she claims, that is rare. "Many times I come off stage thinking how I could have done this or that better but I'm happy that I did my best for the film." She is sensible enough to admit her disappointment at not getting the Oscar — that, though, is a perfectly natural reaction: the fact is she certainly deserved it!
The problems now facing Diana is how to top such an epic performance. Apparently two films are being discussed by Paramount at present — one a musical, the other a re-make of a film that's been done before. Talk has it that one of the two films will be based on the life of Nat King Cole, presumably with Diana playing his wife, but no definite news has been announced. One very interesting comment that Diana did make was in regard the extensive cuts in the film. It started out as a five-hour job, got cut to three hours for the States and was cut even further for this country. "I was angry at the big cuts that were made. I guess it had to be done but it's only natural that I should feel hurt that some of the best things ended up on the cutting room floor!"
Certainly Diana has come a long way from what she terms her "insecurity at the beginning" and she makes no bones about the fact that she is ambitious — certainly not something to be ashamed of! Indicative of just how basic Diana is. was the comment that she revealed she wrote down recently: "I hope I can continue to keep my eyes open" — which says quite a lot for a lady who could well have her eyes blinded by the phenomenal success of "Lady Sings The Blues". It is certainly an achievement for her and will have to make do until she returns to Europe in September for live concerts. And her appearances then should be well worth the wait: Diana will have her own orchestra, backing group and supporting artists!
In the meantime, "Lady Sing The Blues" should be around for long enough to enable everyone to see it and anyway you look at it, it is a moving film with a lot of soul. Indeed, anyone who can come away from it without having been moved at all is definitely missing something somewhere inside.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.