Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Diva's Place Is In the Home

By Odienator

The problem with having nothing but yes men around you is that there's nobody available to pull you aside and tell you, as gently as possible, "Bitch, you look like a turkey!" I believe this is why so many celebrities get into trouble. Would Britney Spears have been driving around using her baby as an airbag if she had someone in her entourage to tell her just how "not all that" she was? Do you think Eddie Murphy would have been picking up Asian transvestites with pretty feet on Sunset Blvd., or worse, released Norbit, if he had someone around to say "yo, Mr. Fuck You Man, perhaps you should order pretty dude feet from a private escort service. And use the master print of Norbit to light your post-coital cigarette?" Methinks not. Celebrity brings out, to quote Seal, "limousines and sycophants," and any dissenting voice is drowned out by the numerous people whispering in the star's ears and telling them how great they are.

Sometimes the people closest to the celebrities are the biggest yes men. Especially if they're screwing them. Such is the case with Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown and the director of another M word, Mahogany. I admit he had the foresight to see that Diana Ross was all wrong for The Wiz, but he didn't have the sense to believe that Tony Richardson was a better director than he was. Gordy fired Richardson allegedly because Richardson wasn't going to make the movie Black enough. It already had a predominantly Black cast featuring Miss Ross and her Lady Sings the Blues co-star, Billy Dee Williams. The only way the movie could have been blacker was if they'd shot it in the dark. Considering how Mahogany turned out, this would have been a good idea. Director Gordy may have made the movie Blacker simply because he was Black, but he also created a bigger disaster than anything Irwin Allen got his hands on back in the 70's. As a filmmaker, he was worse than Uwe Boll.

Mahogany probably would work better as an event rather than a movie. In New York City, they turned The Sound of Music into a sing-a-long, and gay men and people's mothers (the only people who could get away with liking The Sound of Music) showed up in droves. One guy was interviewed on the news wearing a brown paper package on his head, wrapped up in string. Others showed up dressed as nuns, which did as much for the convent as Ken Russell's The Devils. As much as I dislike The Sound Of Music, I do enjoy public spectacles of bad taste; I'm sure the theater show was better than anything on the screen.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a horrible movie, but if you've ever gone to see it in the Village, it was a lot of fun. I don't know why no one has turned Mahogany into The Rossy Horror Picture Show, because it's a favorite of drag queens and at least one person's mother I know. Imagine people showing up, dressed in the horrific outfits from the film, ripping off their tops and pouring hot candle wax on chests as flat as the one Miss Ross douses in this film. At the end, everyone sings the Theme from Mahogany and drinks Colt 45. If only I had a theater.

What I'm about to commit here is pure blasphemy. I know a lot of people who love Mahogany. My female classmates in high school loved it so much that they voted the theme from Mahogany as our senior prom song. It was my aunt and uncle's first date movie, and they went back to see it twenty-three more times. Fellow blogger cinebeats may never speak to me again, or worse, tell my mother about this piece. Mom is a HUGE Diana Ross fan, and she loves Mahogany, so Lawd help me if she gets wind of this. She'll call me up and sing her favorite "let me guilt the shit out of Odienator" song, Shirley Caesar's "I'm a cheapskate" gospel classic, No Charge ("for the nine months I carried you, growing inside me: no charge"). Then, like Bill Cosby in Ghost Dad, she will come through my telephone, swinging a switch she pulled from the switch bushes she has in her yard, and I will be subjected to the first ass whipping I've had in a long, long time.

It'll be worth it.

I had hoped to use several screenshots from Mahogany, but Netflix didn't have the movie at their local facility (surprise surprise--if it's got Negroes in it, Netflix doesn't have it out here). They had to send it from St. Louis, (why not Detroit?) and it still isn't here. It saves me from having to watch it again, so thank heaven for small favors. Also, special thanks to my blog hijackee, Steven Boone, for scrounging up some pics for me. (Yes, I'm mentioning him so that when Miss Ross comes to kick my ass, she'll save some energy for his too.)

Mahogany is an old-fashioned woman's picture, colorized in a way Ted Turner never dreamed. It tells the story of Tracy (Miss Ross), a fun-loving secretary studying fashion at night school. Tracy dreams of becoming a top fashion designer, so she can get away from her department store job. It's perfect casting for Ross, herself a former fashion student before her rise to the top as the lead tyrant, I mean singer, of the Supremes. It also highlights why Miss Ross should count her blessings; she's a far better singer than clothing designer. Ross is credited with the costume design for Mahogany, and as aforementioned, nobody was around to tell her the truth about her fashions.

Bitch, you look like a turkey!

Tracy meets an activist named Brian (Billy Dee Williams) and the two begin a courtship after she plays a dumb trick on him involving milk and a megaphone. Tracy causes Brian to be arrested because he gets into a fight, and after she bails him out, instead of him going upside her head with a tire iron for causing the altercation, they start to fall in love. Ross and Williams have dynamite chemistry, as evidenced in Lady Sings the Blues, and it's on display here. Brian courts Tracy, something we didn't see too much of in Black movies of this time (Claudine being a notable exception), and I think this is why a lot of Black women fell in love with the movie. It starts out as a sweet little romance on the streets of Chicago. What woman doesn't want to be wooed, especially if the wooer is as hot as Billy Dee?

But then Mahogany loses its gaat-damn mind. Brian turns out to be a sexist bastard, telling Tracy that her dreams are silly and that his activist work is the be all and end all in this world. He wants her to stay and work for his campaign, to help him build HIS dreams. He doesn't need a diva, he needs a maid like Florence on The Jeffersons.

A fashion photographer named Sean (Anthony Perkins) sees Tracy at a fashion show and thinks she'd make a great model. In fact, he just grabs her and says "get me six more of her!" Big dollar signs start flashing in Tracy's eyes. If she can become a model, she can model her own fashions! Sean has some warped ideas about fashion shoots--after all he IS Norman Bates--and Brian sees Tracy helping Sean with some kind of shoot involving homeless people. As Tracy helps Sean take advantage of an old lady who looks like she's had more to eat than the fashion model Tracy is dragging her toward, Brian asks her if she's into exploiting the homeless as a fashion statement. Tracy says something asinine that I don't remember, something like "it's fashion, not politics!" Soon, however, Tracy's right in the thick of politics, working for Brian's campaign after getting fired from her secretary job. Their courtship continues until the aforementioned "your dreams ain't worth shit" speech that sends Tracy to Rome to model for Sean.

Sean gives Tracy the name Mahogany, which is a kind of wood, but when he tries to give her that OTHER kind of wood, he fails miserably. This is because Perkins' character is obviously gay, and a bad gay stereotype at that. He joins the long list of psychotic cinematic gays and bisexuals, except his freak out is hilarious and not to be taken seriously. I should stop here and point out that practically every White person in Mahogany is some kind of fucked up sexual deviant and/or freak. Berry Gordy must have been working through some serious shit with creditors when he made this movie. It's not like the Black folks fare much better--Brian's an asshole and Tracy is delusional and a sweat shop terrorist (more on that later)--but the Whites in this movie are really put through the Eurotrash Cuisinart.

Tracy is fired by Sean after she models one of her fashions in the show instead of the one he's chosen. Ross' creation is met with stunned silence because, well, it looks made by a drunken Japanese red-ass monkey. She is saved from humiliation and ruin by an Italian designer who pays an ungodly sum of money for Tracy's outfit. Tracy is ecstatic, but she doesn't realize he only paid a buck-oh-five for that dress; the rest of the money was for her skinny Black ass.

Tracy offers up her S.B.A. but the Italian (Jean-Pierre Aumont, proving Paris is in Italy) declines "for now." Suddenly, Tracy, I mean Mahogany, is the hottest designer in town. This gives the movie time to showcase more of Ross' designs which, for the most part, are terrifying. There are a few moments when she actually does look decent, but they give way to the big party scene, where Mahogany embraces her inner freaky-deaky, tearing off her top and pouring hot candle wax all over herself. By this time, Billy Dee shows up in Rome (I forget how he got there--damn you, Netflix!) and has an absurd gun fight with Sean. Perkins throws himself at Williams, and I'd say this performance was the nadir of his career, except I've seen Crimes of Passion.

After the gunplay, Brian confronts Mahogany, who has just proven that there's a HO in MaHOgany. And a hog too. She looks disgusting, covered in candle wax and that stuff they put on Christina Aguilera in the Dirrrty video. When Brian tells her off, Mahogany has a Miss Ross style tantrum. "They all love me! Men and women! I'm Mahogany and you're nothing!" This is the first of two times we see the Diana Ross Kitty Kelly wrote about, the diva who was intolerable. Williams tells her "success is nothing without someone to share it with," which sounds like a ghetto version of Love Story's "love means never having to say you're sorry." Both are incredibly stupid lines, but moviegoers swooned over both. My aunt and uncle swooned 24 times over Mahogany's tag line.

Mahogany winds up in a crazed car ride with Sean who, true to the actor who plays him, goes psycho. Mahogany distracts him by getting him to take pictures of her while he's driving (I'm not kidding) and he winds up dead from the ensuing accident. Then, Mahogany, with some help from her rich Italian benefactor, now husband, starts mass producing her Halloween costumes in a factory where nobody speaks English. NOW we get the REAL Miss Ross! Her workers keep saying "non capisco" when she demands things, so she chews them out real good. "I'm sick of this non capisco shit!" she yells. "DO AS I SAY!" I remember in the theater asking my mother "why is she being so mean to them?" and her replying "because she's being a diva." For years, I thought diva meant bitch.

Mahogany's hubby also decides, after all this time, that it's time to cash in on the skinny Black ass he bought under that outfit two reels ago, but he can't get it up either. Now, I'm not one to gossip, but this made me wonder about Mahogany's choices in terms of giving up the nana. Ross appears to be doing a Liza Minelli, which makes sense as Minelli beat her for that Oscar back in 1972.

Anyway, after all the screaming and the cock killing, Mahogany gets to have the big fashion show the movie thinks her character deserves. And it's a success!!! But she can't stop thinking about Brian--broke-ass Brian--and all the Colt 45s they shared when she was a nobody back in Chicago. So she gives it all up to go back and be Brian's woman. The end. The moral, ladies, is that your hopes and dreams mean nothing, especially if you could be that great woman standing behind the great man who's achieving HIS dream instead. For all the fun I've been poking at Miss Ross, this is what makes Mahogany truly reprehensible. The film gives us a Black heroine who MAKES IT, regardless of the hardships, and ships her back home to be barefoot and pregnant behind some activist who'll probably lose his damn campaign. I know people were too busy swooning over the romance, but that doesn't make the message disappear.

Despite having chemistry with Williams, Miss Ross' performance shits on the promise she showed in Lady Sings the Blues. At times, she out Joan Crawfords Faye Dunaway, which would be a lot of fun if the film weren't so poorly done. Gordy doesn't know how to direct traffic--
literally--nor is he any good with actors or transitions. The Wiz put the final nail in her acting coffin, and she's been pretty much off the screen ever since. This is rather sad, because despite my ribbing, I always thought she had talent. She was quite good in Lady Sings the Blues, another problematic romance, except this one is saved by the leads, and she's fantastic in a little seen TV movie where she played a schizophrenic. And even though I dislike the Supremes, I love quite a bit of her solo stuff, including the Oscar nominated song that graces this film, a song that the writers basically had to threaten Oscar with a lawsuit before it could be eligible for its nomination.

However, I'm not blind (I'm only half-blind) so I can't excuse the mess this movie is. But I can understand the love for it. Like I said, it shows a successful Black woman, and how many movies in the early 70's had that? If the movie had ended with Billy Dee coming to be by her side in Rome, or a more explicit depiction of her continuing to have a career while coming back to Chicago, I'd be more forgiving. The fact the movie robs her of success really irritates me. Granted, her fashions were nightmares, but there's no accounting for good taste. She hustled those folks and made them buy her shit. I have to respect that on some level. What I can't respect is this movie.

Your homework assignment:

Don't tell Miss Ross where I live.

"I'ma get you Odie! Do you know where you're going to? The hospital, bitch!"


Anonymous said...

Ah, Odie. Bravo. And that last screencap of La Ross killed my soul.

odienator said...

Isn't that a terrifying picture of her? You can't say Miss Ross is such a diva that she won't allow herself to look raggedy.

But that picture makes me think of Abby, the Black version of the Exorcist. Remember that movie? All I remember is that Abby put fried chicken in her coochie, and that she banged that guy so hard his ass caught fire and he died. Immortal Richard Pryor quote: "He died in yo' pussy. That's recycling!"

Bill said...

Great review, Odie. Now I think I have to see this. I remember reading a review of Double Platinum which read: "this is the kind of movie where someone breaks into tears, then rushes to a mirror so she can watch herself cry."

odienator said...

Bill, Big Media Vandalism is not responsible for whatever happens to you after the credits roll on Mahogany. This includes you exploding or your TV electrocuting you for forcing it to project the movie.

If you like camp, you'll probably enjoy it very much. I totally forgot about Double Platinum. That's the Brandy-Diana Ross movie where everybody cries the entire movie.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add that I loved your review of Mahogany, even if we totally disagree on the fashions (what can I say... I'm just a sucker for completely over-the-top 60s-70s era fashions) and you made some smart arguments about the film. Even though I love Mahogany, I know it has some very serious flaws. The ending doesn't bug me so much though only because the idea of being Billy Dee's "barefoot and pregnant" woman, doesn't sound too nightmarish to me. He's damn sexy in this!

odienator said...

cinebeats, I think that's why no women complained! Being Billy Dee's babe is a lot less complaint-worthy than being Odie's babe. But after about 9 Colt 45's, women look at me and see Billy Dee. It works every time.

70's fashion--I've worn my share! But I wasn't dressing me back then, so I am not at fault. The 80's stuff--now that's my fault. Nobody will ever see those pictures!

Anonymous said...

I love it, bad good films like "Mommy Dearest" if we didn't have movies like this what we imitate at parties. Sometimes a film makers mistake is our treasure.

Warren Peace said...

I stumbled on this blog through Jim Emerson (who I stumbled on through Roger Ebert). Anyway, I have read the entire 2008 BHMumf and I’m going to get to 2009 shortly. This is the best thing on the internet that I have ever read. Of course, I am probably your ideal target audience: Black, born in 1966, and I love movies, cartoons and TV. BTW Odie, my mom also played Shirley Ceasars “Don’t drive me away” so as to keep me from putting her in “the old folks home” almost as many times as she played “No Charge” to cap my allowance.

odienator said...

Warnpax, we need to start a support group for people scared into submission by Shirley Caesar records. I should sue her for back allowance myself. She'd probably have a song that scares me out of suing her, though.

Thank you for your comments and your compliments. I hope you enjoy reading the rest of the Mumf, past and present. Jim Emerson has been a champion of this series, and someday I'll repay him for that.