Monday, March 2, 2009

Lady Sings - I Boo

Having an autistic son requires flexibility and creativity. You wouldn't expect a High School Senior to need to be read aloud to, but that's part of our routine. It helps his comprehension to read slowly, and take notes. There's a natural limit to which books we can read. Reading Moby Dick ten pages at a time out loud - it's not going to happen. 200 pages, that's the max. It's also important that the chosen book has been made into a movie. The visual helps him understand better.

This year one of our books had to be a biography/autobiography. Scouring my shelves, I found one that fit all the criteria - Lady Sings the Blues. Though, 18 years old, my son is in no way wise to the adult world, so Billie Holiday's searing life story of poverty, racism, rape, drugs, imprisonment and dysfunctional relationships was lost on the boy. However, whatever he gets, he gets. That's my attitude.

I had never seen the movie. There are a few seminal flicks from '72 that I've missed - LSTB, Sounder and Cabaret. I was looking forward to it. Plus, Diana Ross was nominated for Best Actress.

It's rare that the actor in a biopic resembles their subject. But in Holiday's story, her physical appearance is a crucial plot point. Billie, at 13, had the voluptuous figure of a full-grown woman. This lead to some of her problems - rape, prostitution. Nearing 30, Diana Ross has the body of a 13 year old boy.

It would be unfair to expect Ross to sound like Holiday. Billie was a singular talent and her style is impossible to match. At times, Ross reaches for an impersonation, but other times one expects her to break out into "Baby Love." As to her "best actress" kudos, Ross' over the top performance, from histrionic fits to eye rolling stupor is hard to watch.

Shining through it all and stealing every scene he's in is Richard Pryor. Totally natural, and with characteristic humor, Pryor is a joy to watch. Holiday's book is replete with real people - Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Lester young, et al. But in the movie, Pryor doesn't even get a fake name. He is "Piano Man" and nothing else. Every character refers to him as such, and after a while it is strange. Doesn't anybody know his name? SPOILER ALERT. Actually, nothing can spoil this scene of rottenness. When Pryor gets beaten to death, complete with slo-mo footage, Ross is at her worst. Her high pitched, squeaky mewling "Piano Man don't die" is laughable.

Lady Sings the Blues is a harrowing account of struggle and triumph. It's made for the movies and Holiday presents a story that is in little need of alteration. Holiday pulls no punches about her life and herself, and though she may have been destructively naive, Billie was one tough broad. That may be the most unforgivable part of Ross' portrayal. Her Billie Holiday is weak and dependent, nothing like the real item.

But as Holiday herself once sang, "Forget If You Can." I'll try. God knows, I'll try.

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