Monday, February 04, 2008

The Content of Their Character Actors: Diana Sands

By Odienator


My introduction to Diana Sands came when my Pops took me to a theater in Times Square to see Car Wash. Sands didn’t appear in that feature, but on the second half of the double bill was an R-rated 1974 movie called Willie Dynamite. Sands appeared there as the nemesis of the titular pimp, a former hooker turned advocate whose compulsive desire to ruin Willie D’s hustle and flow is the biggest thorn in his side. Sands is everywhere, pulling Willie’s hos aside and filling their heads with ideas. She tells them to either get out of the life, or if that’s not their desire, to go into business for themselves. She’s like that friend of your girlfriend—the one whom you just cannot stand—who keeps pulling your woman aside and telling her “gurl, you need ta get ridda dat triflin’ man!”

Sands’ description of her job is priceless: “I’m like a Ralph Nader for hookers.” I didn’t know who Ralph Nader was, but I knew that hookers were the people we passed on the way into the theater. I also knew I was in love with the line simply because of the way Ms. Sands delivered it. It was a matter-of-fact description that was as succinct and accurate as it was absurd. And I couldn’t stop saying it, even if, years later, I’d realize that I was slightly misquoting her. (I believe she actually said “Consider me a Ralph Nader for hookers.”)

I would see Sands several more times as a kid, mostly on TV in repeats of old shows or in the numerous replays of The Landlord on New York’s Channel 5. Whenever I saw her, I’d say “hey, it’s Ralph Nader for hookers!” Like most character actors, I’d never remember her name and, even worse, like most Black folks, I’d call her by the character she played instead of her government name. If you think I’m making a blanket statement about this particular Black characteristic, stand on the street in Harlem and take a survey. Hold up a picture of Lela Rochon and ask passersby “who is this?” Count how many people who say “Sunshine,” the hooker character she played in Harlem Nights. You’ll run out of numbers.

The beauty, and curse, of character actors is that you always remember their faces and never their names. I’ve committed myself to remembering these actors’ names with the same tenacity I combat showing up places on CP time, and so during Black History Mumf at Big Media Vandalism, I want to occasionally showcase a character actor and force you to remember their names.

Diana Sands appeared in roles that were both named Beneatha and actually beneath her, yet she filled every one of them with something I don’t see in many actresses, even today. She had mystery. You always got the sense that there was something she kept from you, something that she held just for herself. Maybe as protection, maybe to mess with you, I don’t know. I cannot describe it; it’s like an odd mixture of pride, self-preservation and balls. It drew you in, and added to her complexity. She was never just what she presented to you onscreen, and you got the sense that she was smarter than she let on. The real danger was you didn’t know just how much smarter. Even when she played a character trying to find her identity, as in A Raisin in the Sun, it shone through. She also had a Swiss timing to her delivery, imbuing her line readings with the right note at the right time. No matter how dopey the line was, she could make it work in service to her character.

Sands was a more accomplished stage actress than film actress, appearing in plays like Shaw’s Saint Joan. She received two Tony nominations during her tenure. She originated the role of Beneatha Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which she would translate to the screen two years later. She also originated the Tony-nominated stage role of Doris, a hooker character who had been written for a White actress, in The Owl and the Pussycat. The playwright didn’t change a line of dialogue or alter a situation despite the change in casting. The interracial relationship between her character and Alan Alda’s neighbor was controversial in 1964, so controversial that I wonder if it’s the sole reason she wasn’t cast in the film version in 1970. The role instead went to the actress I used to call “that big nose What’s Up Doc? lady.” What was her name again?


Ah yes: Barbra Streisand.

In 1970, Sands was cast in the movie for which I’ll always remember her now that I’m older, The Landlord. Hal Ashby’s directorial debut is strange and funky, proud of its quirkiness and possesses a darkly bitter world-weariness that seeps through its bright satirical façade like bubbles rising up from a tar pit. Sands plays Francine MarieJohnson, one of the tenants in the rundown Park Slope building rich White boy Beau Bridges buys as his new side project. When we meet her, she seems to be set up as the stereotypical chocolate fantasy for Bridges, but there’s something off about that characterization. First, she’s bold and terrifying. She openly flirts with the landlord, sizing him up immediately and calibrating her hustle. Second, she’s married to a man named Copee (her costar from Raisin, Lou Gossett, Jr.) who is clearly a little mad but controllable in her presence. She must be stronger than we think. Third, she was Miss Sepia 1957 (the way she says it is wonderful), and she could probably do better in both her situation and her choice of this dopey, inexperienced asshole of a landlord. The film goes where the chocolate fantasy would designate, but afterward, Sands pulls the rug from under the clichéd stereotype: “you know it didn’t mean anything. I’m in love with Copee.”

Her character handles differently, yet appropriately, the reactions of both Gossett and Bridges to the resulting pregnancy. Gossett swings an ax at the landlord, but Sands’ verbal decapitation of him is far more effective. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan says she wants to have a daughter “so she’ll grow up a fool, a beautiful little fool.” Sands tells Bridges she wants their baby to be adopted White “so he can grow up casual.” Both Daisy and Francine MarieJohnson knew the benefit of being born a certain way at a certain time; Daisy assumed that being a girl meant she could be blissfully ignorant of the world as the people of her time would expect a girl to be, and Sands knew that being White, her baby would be afforded the world he could never have if they knew he was Black. But then Sands turns the knife on Bridges the way Daisy would never have the guts to do to her husband Tom. Sands ends her statement with a sharply delivered coda. “I want him to be adopted White, so he can grow up casual. Like his daddy.” Stuff like this you just can’t shake.

In Willie Dynamite, Sands is clearly in an exploitation movie but she doesn’t care. She turns in the same level of performance, standing up to Willie when he tries to intimidate her. She looks at him with a “been there, done that” expression, as if to say “I’ve been scared by a better grade of criminal than you.” I thought I understood her motives completely, but once she vanquishes her foe, she feels a form of sympathy and compassion toward him. It is totally convincing, yet completely baffling. By no means should it work because, honestly, it makes no sense. Yet I couldn’t stop asking myself why, going back through her performance and thinking about her intent.

Like some recent and past actors, character and otherwise, Sands was cut down in her prime. She died of cancer in 1973 after turning down the role that would probably have made her a movie star. She instead suggested her friend Diahann Carroll take the role, and the result was an Oscar nomination for Carroll. Watching Claudine, which I’ll discuss on February 21st, the ghost of Sands hangs over Carroll’s performance; it’s almost an homage, and I can only wonder what it would have been if Sands hadn’t been too sick to take it.

According to the imdb, Sands once said "I refuse to be stereotyped. Look at me. Never mind my color. Please look at me!"


Your homework assignment:

Please do.

9 comments:

Comb & Razor said...

these have all been great so far... it's been years since Black History Month (sorry... Mumf) has been this much fun (AND educational!)

keep it comin'!

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

A great post on an underappreciated star whose star should have burned more brightly, and longer.

I never would have thought to compare "Gatsby" and "The Landlord," but the comparison is right-on (in the parlance of their times), and I think you're not reading into the "Landlord" so much as excavating an influence that was surely there all along. Fitzgerald's book was, in part, about the impossibility of an outsider ever really assimilating into the entitled class; it's about the persistence of the fact of class difference in a country that prides itself on not observing any such thing. "The Landlord" goes "Gatsby" one better by flipping the equation, and having a doubly entitled hero (who despite his alienation from his family, is ultimately not really estranged from America proper because he's both white and rich) going into a neighborhood whose characters are (by virtue of being working class and black) doubly disenfranchised.

The very structure of the movie is an inadvertent critique of the existence of Fitzgerald's book. It's like it's saying, among many other things, "You think you know what otherness is, white boy? Check this out."

Steven Boone said...

I first came across Diana Sands not in the movies but in an epic Ebony magazine article from the '70s that my friend had preserved and gave me to read. She said, "This would make an amazing script." It was basically the story of Ms. Sand's rise to acclaim and her love affair with one of the few black assistant directors in Ho'wood at the time. Google reminds me that his name is Kurt Baker. They were about to be married when she died of cancer. Imdb says Kurt was also an AD on The Landlord. The account of their last days together is devastating.

Their story is the story of a New Wave that never was. Imagine if she had lived and hooked up with the black visionaries of the day, like Bill Gunn and Charles Burnett. She was what they were missing. She could have been to them what Nicholson was to Ashby, Rafelson, Forman, et al. Ah, just daydreaming.

Thank you for bringing her out again with the grace she deserves.

anon said...

I, too, first saw Sands in The Landlord on NY TV, and I've always thought of it as the first bait-and-switch type movie I saw. That is to say, the movie is ostensibly about Elgar, but as it progresses the movie turns out to be about Francie. (You know, the way Big Trouble in Little China is supposedly about Jack Burton, but really it is about Wang Chi.)

It is gratifying but sad to learn about Sands' Broadway career (sad because those performances are lost to me). I'm too young to have seen any of her TV work. And I am sure I would have preferred Segal/Sands to Segal/Streisand. (Then again, I would probably think that even if I didn't know of her history with the role.)

Anon

Hal said...

I always have thought of Diana Sands as a leading lady rather than a character actress because of her Broadway stature.

I thought that Cora had sympathy for Willie Dynamite because she merely wanted to bring him down, not totally destroy him, and she felt maybe a twinge of regret after seeing just how completely devastated Willie was. His downfall came in concurence with the death of his mother, who also found out the truth about her son right before she died. As I remember thinking, she felt sympathy for him because of the magnitude of his collapse; the formerly bulletproof Willie was now completely humble.

It's been a while since I saw WILLIE DYNAMITE, certainly a flawed film with good intentions (produced by Zanuck and Brown!) but Sands was truly dynamite, as always.

You must check out GEORGIA, GEORGIA, which I've been trying to find a good VHS copy of for years. Sands had one of her rare opportunities to play a lead on screen opposite a very young Dirk Benedict. Scripted by Maya Angelou.

To sum it up, Sands was awesome, and I really need to check out THE LANDLORD again...it's been awhile.

Hal said...

I always thought of Diana Sands as a star rather than character actor, mainly because of her stature on Broadway.

I think the reason that Cora is unexpectedly sympathetic to Willie Dynamite is that his complete collapse and subsequent devastation (and humility) is so startling to her. In addition to losing everything professionally, he's also just lost his mother...and he's dealing with the knowledge that she found out about his real profession just before she died.

You must check out Sands in GEORGIA, GEORGIA if you haven't already. It's hard to find. I've been looking for a VHS for years...but it is Sands in a rare screen lead, in a script by Maya Angelou.

I really need to check out THE LANDLORD again. Perfect for my blog, as it is strangely missing from DVD.

nicoledenise said...

there is an epitome catch to see diana sands in an very serioyus way. im also a writer,family and father activist and songwriter, to tell you the truth, she was the first choice black actress mostly black actress would like to behold her legacy,but today it's stuck on the go-on-girlfriend jiveness like queen whack-tifah and other dizzy piss yellow haired hookers are going to get better roles like sand ever played for. i love her when she portray a spy on i-spy. if i seem to realized, no white director won't hire "diva hoes wont get high action adventuress roles"-[thanks angela tionne davis on essence,may,1987]-she sure is right on those cunt-for-sale whores like trina, lil' kim and porn thrash mouth foxy brown. i rather stay on the bridge on making my own films to be edited and directed. thanks,mrs. sands, you would have been a better but the greatest claudine ever! R.I.P.

nicoledenise said...

there is an epitome catch to see diana sands in an very serioyus way. im also a writer,family and father activist and songwriter, to tell you the truth, she was the first choice black actress mostly black actress would like to behold her legacy,but today it's stuck on the go-on-girlfriend jiveness like queen whack-tifah and other dizzy piss yellow haired hookers are going to get better roles like sand ever played for. i love her when she portray a spy on i-spy. if i seem to realized, no white director won't hire "diva hoes wont get high action adventuress roles"-[thanks angela tionne davis on essence,may,1987]-she sure is right on those cunt-for-sale whores like trina, lil' kim and porn thrash mouth foxy brown. i rather stay on the bridge on making my own films to be edited and directed. thanks,mrs. sands, you would have been a better but the greatest claudine ever! R.I.P.

nicoledenise said...

thanks for selecting dians sands, she will not be forgotten. i rather known a long time actress who'd been working to find better portraying roles. i'm may not want to do some g--on-girlfiend queen whack-tifah movies that really cack my mucus system and im never find her film matireal either.that's why you dont see any white director won't hire "diva hoes wont be hire to play adventuress roles" [thanks, angela tionne davis,essence, may 1987]. that is why i perfer mrs. sands a real queen of the techincolor ciema. yes, you dont find piss yellow haired hookers like trina. lil' kim and trash mouth,foxy brown plays a brown baron pilot. no way no how. i love mrs. sands plays a sexy spy on i spy and to catch a theif. i love to write my own and start film my movies. thanks queen diana-you should been a great claudine.