In 1972, singer Diana Ross played Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Her performance was raved over and she earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. You could say that she proved to the world that she was more than just a singer…now she was an actress! Unfortunately, the other films she has starred in suggest she maybe should’ve called it quits right there when it comes to acting. In 1978 she starred in “The Wiz,” a movie I love even though I recognize it is bad. I’ll even go as far as to say the majority of its problems fall squarely on Ross’ shoulders. Then there was today’s film, which came a few years earlier in 1975. Directed by Motown founder Berry Gordy himself, it’s “Mahogany.”
Ross plays Tracy Chambers, a woman with dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Unfortunately, when you live in the Chicago projects…well, that’s not exactly the height of the fashion scene. However, she does work as an assistant to one of the buyers in a high-class department store and occasionally gets her aunt to sew up some of her designs. One day, Tracy and her boss pay a visit to Sean (Anthony Perkins), a famous photographer doing a fashion shoot for the store. At first, Sean is convinced that Tracy is one of the models and wants to use her for the shoot. However, Tracy’s boss explains that the agency has strict standards…in other words, no black girls. Eventually, Tracy ends up working as Sean’s assistant.
Meanwhile, Tracy begins a romance with a local community activist named Brian (pre-Lando Billy Dee Williams). Soon, he moves on from just making speeches to begin a run for city alderman. Though Sean insists that she come with him to Rome, the heart of the fashion scene, Trach elects to stay in Chicago and assist with Brian’s campaign. Over time, however, she grows frustrated with Brian’s expectation that she put his campaign first and ignore her night school fashion classes. This leads to her heading off to Rome, after all.
It doesn’t take long for Sean to turn Tracy into the hottest new model in Rome. He dubs her “Mahogany” and gets her set up with many clients. The two also begin a romantic relationship. To put it lightly, success quickly goes to Tracy’s head. She starts trying to force her own fashion designs on Sean for his photo shoots, and trouble erupts big time when Brian comes for a visit. Strangely, after finally getting everything she wanted, she starts to think she may be better off back in the projects.
When “Mahogany” began production, it was under the direction of Tony Richardson; no slouch, having directed the Best Picture winner “Tom Jones.” However, an argument with producer Berry Gordy led to Richardson’s removal. Thus Gordy stepped into the director’s chair. Now, Berry Gordy made a name for himself as a record producer. He created Motown! I’m afraid that doesn’t rank high on my list of qualifications to direct a major motion picture. Unfortunately, “Mahogany” ended up a train wreck!
As if out to prove that “Lady Sings the Blues” was a total fluke, Diana Ross’ performance is all over the place. Nobody seems to be able to make up their mind as to the proper tone for her character. Subtlety is not something that’s in Ross’ repertoire in this film. She tries way too hard to draw attention to herself. One scene in particular, where she briefly flashes a breast, comes across as awkwardly choreographed. Her performance isn’t helped by the fact that it’s quite a stretch for the audience accept that the (at the time) 30-year-old Ross would be the biggest model in the world. 30 might as well be 300 in model years.
The supporting cast do their best to salvage things. After all, Billy Dee Williams just always brings a great flair to his roles. This is far from his best work, but he rises way above the material he’s given. The highlight of the film, though, is Anthony Perkins in his wonderfully nasty role as the photographer, Sean. This guy is an absolutely full of himself sexist pig, and Perkins just eats it all up! He’s not too extreme, but if anything makes this film watchable, it’s him. One sequence, however, which involves both Perkins and Williams, is completely bizarre. It involves Perkins switching into Norman Bates mode and threatening Lando with a gun. The two then wrestle over control of the weapon. Both actors pretty much needed to dial it back several notches during this sequence. The fact that a record producer, rather than a film director, was at the helm probably didn’t help matters. The scene should’ve ended up on the cutting room floor.
Of course, with a singer as the star and a music producer as director, you’ve gotta know that there was a hit single from this film. “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” made it all the way to the #1 slot on the Billboard charts in January of 1976. The song has become a staple of soft rock stations in the decades that have followed. It’s a decent enough song, but I promise you’ll be annoyed by it after watching this film. Not only is the song played multiple times, but it also provides the default melody for much of the rest of the score. It’s used so much that it almost becomes an unintentional joke.
After the success they had with “Lady Sings the Blues,” I understand why Ross and Gordy were quick to do a follow-up film. Gordy’s insistence on taking over the director’s chair is truly baffling, however. At least we can all be thankful for the fantastic music that Gordy has brought to the world…and that “Mahogany” was the only film he would direct.