Lady Sings the Blues Sidney J. Furie

If you want to gauge a movie by the number of important signposts that get stuck near it, Lady Sings the Blues is certainly significant, even crucial, to film history. It marked the acting debut of former Supreme Diana Ross; as a tragic biopic of an African American woman it was a significant leap in subject matter; it signalled the arrival as a Hollywood powerbroker of Motown architect Berry Gordy; and it won a handful of Academy Award nominations to honour these accomplishments. But this biopic of Billie Holiday, in retrospect, isn't a great film. Diana Ross, nominated for Best Actress, does her level best — and as a non-actor, threw herself into the role in a way similar to Björk's experience on Dancer In the Dark — and she remains the revelation here. The filmmakers wisely use Ross's talents as a singer and performer to portray the tragic life of Holiday, limiting her dialogue scenes for more musical numbers. But the rest of the film doesn't give her an appropriately structured backdrop. Holiday's relationship with her patron/lover Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams) is briefly sketched, giving talented New York City stage actor Williams little to work with; faring better in a small role as an early supporter (and in a rare dramatic role) is Richard Pryor. But the film shies away from exploring Holiday's dark side; her struggles with drug addiction and her untimely death at age 44 are strangely glossed-over in favour of more Ross performances. Those are good — and the costumes, set design and other artisan-oriented aspects, all honoured with Oscar noms, are stunning — but the film itself remains a disappointment. A contemporary retrospective featurette reveals Gordy's backstage machinations and the struggles a now-heavily Botoxed Ross went through in prep, aspects further highlighted in a commentary by Gordy, director Furie and Ross's agent. It's remarkable they got a film about Holiday made in 1972; it's disappointing that it didn't turn out better. Plus: deleted scenes. (Paramount)