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!"
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