I don’t know what put this movie in my head again. It’s such a mishmash, a gorgeous mess of a picture that gets most of Billie Holiday wrong but did inspire my life-long passion for her singing. Maybe that’s all we should expect from a biopic, that we’re left wanting to learn more about the subject’s life.
First problem: Diana Ross is Diana Ross. If you’re old enough to remember her as a Supreme, you’ll never buy her as Billie. She lacks gravitas. Sure, the film makes you feel sorry for her, especially when she’s tricked into becoming a junkie by the white preppie bandleader (who looks like Robert Redford’s evil twin) while touring the south.
Which brings me to the second problem: Billie’s attitude, or lack thereof. Watch the real Lady Day sing “Strange Fruit.” The bitter howl against injustice was based on a poem that describes a lynching. The movie has Diana Ross witnessing a lynching, and she is the victim of much racist humiliation and even some violence as her tour bus is somehow caught up in a KKK rally. But when we get Ross doing the song, it comes out empty.
She looks kind of alienated on the bus, but what’s she emoting about on stage with the double gardenias in her hair? You don’t get the feeling that she understands the lyrics; it’s all she can do to hit the notes.
One New York Post critic described Holiday’s 1939 performance of “Strange Fruit” as follows: “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its ‘Marseillaise’.” Ross turns it into the kind of advertising jingle they used back in the day to sell liquor or cigarettes.
Okay, third problem: Billie’s boyfriend, Louis McKay. Billy Dee Williams isn’t the problem. He’s quite nice to look at, an all-around nice guy who does his best to keep Billie off drugs. You wish she’d had somebody like him in real life, somebody who loved her like that, but it doesn’t ring true. The real-life Louis was some kind of Mafia enforcer, and he beat Billie and tried to exploit her talent.
But there’s one surprise here, a real bright spot. Richard Pryor’s performance as Piano Man, her one true friend, is just perfect.