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"Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose..."
on September 15, 2004
The most influential, creative, and emotional blues singer from the 1930s through 1959, Billie Holiday may have attracted a whole new generation of fans through this 1972 film biography. Though the film is not historically accurate about her life and her relationship with Louis McKay (played by Billie Dee Williams), it is effective in demonstrating the traumas of her early life, the color bar which prevented her from singing in many whites-only venues, her drug and alcohol addictions (which eventually led to her death at age forty-four of liver and heart disease), and the events which led to many of her most famous songs.
Diana Ross, as Billie, is passionate and driven, and her portrayal of Billie in the midst of drug withdrawal is heart-rending and effective. Playing the role "full out," Ross deals with the script she has been given, and she richly deserves her Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Female Newcomer in this screen debut. A consortium of scriptwriters, which drew on the frank, but partly fictionalized, autobiography Billie wrote with William Dufty in 1956, has omitted or changed many aspects of her life in order to make the film more unified and dramatic, creating a film that creates even more myths about Billie.
Billy Dee Williams is terrific as Louis McKay, appearing slick and smooth at the beginning, but showing subtle changes of feeling as he is drawn into Billie's orbit and provides some stability for her. The accompanist (Richard Pryor) seems genuinely to care for her, as, it seems, does Reg Hanley (James T. Callahan), though the reasons Harry Bradford (Paul Hampton) has for getting her hooked on drugs is not clear. Ross is surprisingly good when she sings Billie's songs, copying her phrasing and creating a sound that somewhat resembles hers, though Billie's gutsy heart is missing.
Nominated for Best Actress (Diana Ross), Set Decoration and Art Direction, Costumes (Bob Mackie), Best Music/Scoring, and Best Story and Screenplay, this is a dramatic and showy film about a singing legend's tragic life, but it is more entertainment than biography, especially in its emphasis on the Reg Hanley band. Though one would not know this from the film, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie also played important roles in Billie's career. Mary Whipple