Not every African-American producer of the 1970s wanted to make crazy-sexy-violent films for a specifically black audience. Berry Gordy, Jr., the Motown Records founder, wanted to make an old-fashioned Hollywood bio-pic about a famous doomed singer. Except the film would be about the black chanteuse Billie Holliday, and she would be played by the star thrush of the Supremes — Diana Ross. He 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.
Ross would make only two other features: the goofy melodrama Mahogany (where she channeled both Audrey Hepburn and Garland in a Funny Face in the Valley of the Dolls) and The Wiz (a pop-soul version of Garland’s The Wizard of Oz). By 35, she was done with pictures. But she came as close as any black actress to becoming an authentic movie diva. That was proved 34 years later, when Dreamgirls, the fictionalized story of Gordy, Ross and the Supremes garnered a $100 million box-office gross and eight Oscar nominations.
Next Cooley High