Look, I know nothing about Billie Holiday. I knew she was a jazz singer. That’s it. Funny thing is…I don’t know much more about her after having seen the movie based on her life. But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie, on the contrary. I enjoyed it very much, primarily because of one thing…Miss Diana Ross.
Now, I am not what you would call a “fan” of The Supremes. I enjoy their music, appreciate it for it’s place in music history, but don’t have any of their albums and don’t know much about them as a group, except that they inspired ‘Dreamgirls.’ So I really have no individual interest in seeing Diana Ross, the singer, in a movie, as an actress (unlike the fascination I had to see if Britney Spears could pull off the jump to film in ‘Crossroads’…she couldn’t). Ross is simply amazing in this movie! I mean, everything about her. Gimme a break…it’s not easy for a middle-aged actress to convincingly portray a 14-year old girl! She pulls it off so convincingly that you quickly forget that you are watching Diana Ross play an adolescent. But she doesn’t stop there. She is heartbreaking in the scenes in the sanitarium where she is completely out of it, writhing around on the floor and barely mumbling, her eyes wild and her twitches so believable that for a second you think you’re watching one of those HBO documentaries. And her singing!!! From what I understand from reading other reviews from other critics and doing a quick Wikipedia search, Ross wasn’t really trying to emulate Billie Holiday’s singing voice. She was simply doing Diana Ross singing a bunch of Billie Holiday songs. But who cares when your voice sounds like that?? The voice is gorgeous! So clear and filled with emotion. It’s beautiful.
The ferocity of her performance, however, doesn’t completely outshine the other performers, all of whom do standout jobs. Billy Dee Williams is smooth and charming and you can tell that his character, Louis McKay, clearly loves Billie with all his heart. (Again, from doing some basic research, I understand that in real life, McKay was her third husband and, like both of her previous spouses, was physically abusive.) But, in the context of the movie, their relationship is tender, loving and passionate, and Ross and Williams project some real chemistry. We believe them when they look into each other’s eyes and say, “I love you.” Richard Pryor, as Billie’s faithful piano man, is also noteworthy for his charismatic presence on the screen and his natural ease of performance. While director Sidney J. Furie clearly takes many liberties with Ms. Holiday’s life story, and doesn’t take any non-musical-biopic-genre-specific chances with the narrative, he directs the film with substantial style and grace. The production looks beautiful and expensive (it was produced by Berry Gordy…do you think he’d let Diana Ross out of the house if he thought this was going to be a cheapo production?). Many of Holiday’s songs are heard and they are wonderful, as interpreted by Ross.
But it all boils down to the performance of Diana Ross. I mean, the strength of the role and of her acting places this performance in the same league as other tremendous debut performances, like Dolly Parton in ‘9 to 5’ and, more recently, Jennifer Hudson in ‘Dreamgirls.’ It’s mesmerizing and stunning to watch. Watch the film for her, even better if you like the music. The movie, by itself, is good, but, trust me, watch it for her.