Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) # 22: Mahogany

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Mahogany (released October 1975)

Mahogany: Diana Ross
Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Signed to the fledgling Motown Records in 1961 at only 17, Diana Ross became lead vocalist of The Supremes, the most commercially successful female group of the Sixties. Going solo in 1970, she released "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and scored a number one hit on the Billboard pop and R&B charts, plus a Grammy nomination. When Motown founder Berry Gordy decided to make movies, his first project was a biopic about legendary jazz/torch singer Billie Holiday entitled Lady Sings the Blues. Ross was cast in the lead role, prompting criticism from Holiday fans and industry insiders alike. But under the direction of Sydney J. Furie, Ross delivered a performance that Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert described as "one of the great performances of 1972." She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but Liza Minnelli picked up a statue for Cabaret that year.

And then Diana Ross made her second film, Mahogany. It's about a high-end department store secretary named Tracy Chambers (Ross) who takes fashion design classes at night and dreams of making clothes. It's never really clear what kind of woman would wear her clothes, since they're a cross between Kabuki theater and Cirque du Soleil costumes. Anyway, Tracy lives in a run-down Chicago neighborhood like the cast of that beloved '70s sitcom Good Times. Unfortunately, none of her friends or neighbors are that interesting or funny. Her Aunt Florence (Beah Richards) sews her designs for her, but don't get used to this character because she disappears after two scenes and never comes up again. Tracy keeps crossing paths with Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams), a community organizer who's running for alderman and wants to restore her neighborhood. Let's just say he's not nearly as eloquent or savvy at politics as Barrack Obama -- Brian gets into fistfights every time he emerges from his campaign van. And despite his naked contempt for Tracy's career aspirations, they fall improbably in love and she helps him run for office. Meanwhile, back at the department store, revered fashion photographer Sean (Anthony Perkins) drops by searching for a muse. He mistakes Tracy for a model and invites her to Rome. She goes, leaving Chicago without even saying goodbye to Brian or poor Aunt Florence.

Up to this point, Mahogany is just silly and implausible. Rome is where it all takes a turn for the worse, becoming a flagrant, ludicrous, overwrought train wreck -- and that makes it a lot of fun to watch. In Rome, it's immediately obvious that Sean is in deep denial about being gay -- and he has a creepy, obsessive fixation on his models. "There's only one word that describes rich, dark, beautiful and rare," he tells Tracy. "I'm going to call you Mahogany." And one lavish 4-minute montage later, she's an international supermodel. Convinced that he's in love with his creation, Sean becomes psychologically unhinged when he can't perform sexually with Mahogany. Seriously, he goes from bitchy queen to homicidal maniac pretty quickly over that. And because Anthony Perkins played a cross-dressing, knife-wielding madman in Psycho, I kept expecting him to throw on one of Mahogany's dresses and slash her to pieces. Instead, he comes up with a screwball way of killing her and fails.

Of course, Brian's not out of the picture, either. He shows up in Rome after losing his election. Indifferent to Tracy's success as Mahogany, he apparently flew thousands of miles to disapprove of her lifestyle in person and get into a spectacularly awkward homoerotic knock down, drag out catfight with Sean. Oh, he also spits out the movie's tagline: "Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with!" But Tracy won't know the meaning of success until she sells those Kabuki-inspired frocks to somebody. When models work the runway in her designs and luminaries of the fashion world approve, she realizes -- SPOILER ALERT, but not so much -- that she needs to be with Brian because Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with! 

Diana Ross is an extraordinary woman. She was already a fashion icon by the mid '70s. So, on paper, the idea of casting her as a supermodel must have looked like a cinematic coup. Ross' performance is erratic in the early Chicago scenes, then ferociously mercurial in Rome. Her evolution from wannabe designer to Frankenstein's fashion monster is wholly unbelievable (though bizarrely entertaining). To be fair to Ross, no actress could make that character work or rise above the hoary cliches and idiotic melodrama of John Byrum's screenplay. Worse for Ross, Motown Productions founder Berry Gordy dismissed the film's original director, award-winning British filmmaker Tony Richardson (Tom Jones), and finished the picture himself. Mahogany was his first directorial effort; his approach is, to put it kindly, crude. And Ross was his former lover. Nothing good could come from all that.

And one more thing about John Byrum's screenplay. Brian repeatedly invalidates Tracy's dreams and ambitions, essentially dismissing them as self-centered and superficial. He wants her by his side as political eye candy, more or less. It's classic subjugation. So, the idea that Tracy would abandon Rome and her burgeoning fashion line for this asshole is completely nonsensical. Even for 1975. We all know there's not going to be a happy ending for this couple. The plot of Mahogany 2 would go something like this: After failing to get elected to any office, Brian hits the bottle pretty hard. One day he finds Tracy sketching dresses again and knocks her down a flight of stairs. While he languishes behind bars for assault with a rotten personality, Tracy flies to Rome and resumes her fashion career. She becomes wildly successful -- something we learn via a dazzling 4-minute montage -- designing Kabuki-inspired capes for the pope. Back in Chicago, Brian is murdered by his cellmate.

Diana Ross & Lando Calrissian... oops, er, Billy Dee Williams

Stray Gay Observations: The closing credits declare, "Costumes Designed by Diana Ross." The whole movie is filled with the kind of clothes that get you kicked off Project Runway.

Ross also recorded the movie's dangerously-close-to-cloying theme song, "Do You Know Where You're Going To." Aside from the irritating fact that it's the default music for the whole movie, it bothers me that the title ends in a preposition and does not contain a question mark.

Anthony Perkins worked steadily after playing schizophrenic murderer Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), but he was often cast as someone sweet and nervous or somewhat unbalanced. He's the single best thing about Mahogany. A fine actor, I suspect he recognized the script's insurmountable flaws, had some hammy fun and cashed the paycheck. (He succumbed to AIDS complications in September 1992.)

Should You See It? Mahogany is a godawful movie. But consider this: When I reviewed Valley of the Dolls early in this series, I mentioned that it's a renowned camp classic. And for anyone who didn't know what camp is, I offered this explanation: Camp is what happens when a bunch of creative people come together to make a serious drama, but something goes monumentally awry in the process and they unintentionally make a comedy. They just don't know it until the audience starts laughing in all the wrong places. Mahogany succeeds as camp.

Next Week: Can't Stop the Music (1980)

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