Lady Sings the Blues is an old-fashioned Hollywood biopic about a famous doomed singer. Except this film is about the black chanteuse Billie Holliday, and she would be played by the star thrush of the Supremes — Diana Ross. Barry Gordy believed that audiences of all races were ready for a female star in the old-fashioned mold — suffering like Bette Davis on screen, or Judy Garland off — and that the svelte, kittenish Ross could bring a burnished sexiness to the job. He got that right. LADY SINGS THE BLUES, directed by Sidney J. Furie, was a hit, and earned five Oscar nominations, including one for Ross as Best Actress.
This was one of those years like 1982 where two monumental lifetime achievements on film were going up against one another. Liza Minnelli for CABARET and Diana Ross for LADY SINGS THE BLUES. Both incredible performances – both singing. Any other year and Ross would won have been the first black actress to win the Oscar in a leading role.
In her first feature film Diana Ross delivers a tour de force performance as Billie Holiday not only capturing the Holiday persona but also delivering on the Billie Holiday sound. The soundtrack did shoot straight to #1. From a child in pig tails playing hopscotch to her satin-gowned debut at Carnegie Hall Ross delivers a flawless performance worthy of an Oscar or two. The chemistry between Ross and Billy Dee Williams (Lando of the Star wars saga ) smolders on screen, the way they play off each other is touching and tangible. Ross`s reaction upon first seeing Billy Dee Williams is shear brilliance. Richard Pryor as Piano Man adds a spark of humor as only he can. Other notable performances include Isabell Sanford (of the Jeffersons) as the Madam and Scatman Crothers (One Flew Over the Cuckoo`s Nest, The Shining) as Big Ben. The exchange between these two in a brothel is classic, the sense of delivery, the timing, its hard not to think of Ross as a seasoned pro. She holds her own and delivers a touching portrayal, she makes you believe she is Billie Holiday. And then there is the singing. Ross takes on the Holiday catalog with a hunger unsurpassed, her renditions of Good Morning Heartache, God Bless The Child, Strange Fruit and others rival that of Holiday herself. To think that a singer with no acting experience, sans a few television spots from the Motown stable had it in her to tackle the heavy handed material in this movie makes this film even more of a must see. I watched it the other night for the first time in about 15 years and thought – this isn’t acting – this is pure guts and glory.
Diana Ross tackled this role like a hungry rabid dog might attack a huge piece of raw sirloin. She is astonishing both in her performance, singing and her timeless beauty. She show's you Billie Holiday, (as well as herself), from the inside out. She was able to throw any sense of personal vanity out the window, something actors today never fully do. I literally gasped watching her during the heroin withdrawal scenes it is so real, ('girl I feel ya'!), and her ability to mood swing from convincingly sweet, to wild eyed hellion is nothing short of miraculous.