This year marks the 50th anniversary of “The Godfather” and “Cabaret,” two Oscar-winning masterpieces that will receive plenty of press for the occasion. It is also the 50th anniversary of “Sounder” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” two lesser-known but equally important classics that vied for Academy Awards. Both depicted the struggles and triumphs of Black people while focusing on the romantic and familial bonds of their characters. Despite their differences, they are bound together both in cinema history — and in the hearts of fans like me.
The Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings the Blues” was the more controversial feature, due to jazz purists complaining that the tagline “Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday” was a mortal sin of a misnomer. My parents contributed to this argument when I was growing up. While my Pops loved Diana Ross, he had no use for her Lady Day covers. My mother is the universe’s biggest Miss Ross fan, so she thought Ross’s versions were superior than the originals. When this film premiered on television, my folks spent most of its running time defending their positions. I still don’t know who won the debate. I do know I was not allowed to watch the R-rated movie.
In 1972, action-oriented Blaxploitation films were on the rise. “Sounder” and “Lady Sings the Blues” offered an alternative for Black viewers who found that divisive genre unpalatable. This was a coincidence rather than an intent. Both movies were made before the Blaxploitation behemoth “Super Fly” had been shot or released. With the studio-saving success of 1971′s “Shaft” (which helped pull MGM out of debt) and the earlier, big box-office numbers for “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” the most successful independent film at the time, Hollywood concluded that there was a market for Black-themed films.
“Sounder” and “Lady Sings the Blues” fit easily into the preexisting Hollywood genres of coming-of-age story and biopic, respectively. The screenplays for both films were adapted from books and nominated for the 1973 Oscars, though in different categories. Despite its origins in a previously published work, enough dramatic license had been taken to allow “Lady Sings the Blues” to compete in the original screenplay category.
With “Sounder,” director Martin Ritt helmed the adaptation of William Armstrong’s 1969 novel about a Black family of sharecroppers and their dog, Sounder. The screenplay was adapted by Black writer Lonne Elder III, who shifted the novel’s focus from its titular canine to the Lee family, specifically the relationships between young David (Kevin Hooks) and his father, Nathan (Paul Winfield), and Nathan’s bond with his wife, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson). Like 1961′s “A Raisin in the Sun,” its closest predecessor with a primarily Black cast, the plot revolves around a father providing for his family. The story is bathed in gorgeous, widescreen cinematography by John A. Alonzo, who also shot “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Though Armstrong’s book was aimed at a youth audience (it was required reading in my Jersey City fifth-grade class), Ritt’s film is more adult than its MPAA rating of G would indicate. There’s genuine sexual chemistry burning between Winfield and Tyson, accomplished by delectably salacious glances that most kids in the audience would miss. The film doesn’t shy away from the racial animosity and injustice the Lees face; Nathan is jailed for stealing food to feed his family. Elder’s screenplay also provides a reconciliation the novel does not, resulting in an emotional reunion scene so masterfully played by Winfield and Tyson that it earned them both Oscar nominations. “Sounder” was also nominated for best picture, a first for a film solely focused on Black characters.
“Lady Sings the Blues” is a different animal altogether, a giant, old-school Hollywood biopic beautifully rendered on the level of Doris Day’s “Love Me or Leave Me,” Cary Grant’s “Night and Day,” and others that spotlighted white musicians. Like those films, it had a major star powering the pyrotechnics. In 1956, with William Dufty, Holiday coauthored her autobiography, which served as the jumping off point for the screenplay by Chris Clark, Terence McCoy, and Black writer (and then-Motown exec) Suzanne de Passe. The much ado from jazz fans was futile because the effect outweighed the complaints. Diana Ross may not be Billie Holiday, but Cary Grant was no Cole Porter, either.
Ross may not have sounded like Holiday, but her covers of Holiday standards like “Good Morning Heartache” and “God Bless the Child” generated hits that she continued to sing for decades. More importantly, in her first film, the always glamorous star is unafraid to get ugly. Her opening scene finds her suffering from withdrawal, and the horrifying wail she conjures while flinging herself across a padded cell is so unnerving and real that the viewer fears for her safety.
Assisting Ross in her Oscar-nominated performance is costume designer Bob Mackie, who gave her an incredible fashion sense; cinematographer Alonzo, who lights with a glorious sparkle previously unseen on actors of color; and her costars Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams. Pryor plays Piano Man, Holiday’s mentor and friend. He’s fantastic here; a rare time when Hollywood knew what to do with Pryor in a film.
Williams plays Louis McKay, Holiday’s lover. Again, sexual chemistry burns between the two leads, with Williams bringing the same enviable blend of suave and swagger to Louis that he’d later employ in Star Wars’s Cloud City and in Colt 45 commercials. Reviewers called him “the Black Clark Gable.”
“Lady Sings the Blues” was one of the first films to present Black love with the same swooning movie magic reserved for white actors. Though I’d love to say my childhood desire to be Williams stemmed from this performance, I didn’t see it until I was 25. Alas, those Colt 45 commercials were my inspiration.
Combined, “Lady Sings The Blues” and “Sounder” earned nine Oscar nominations. Winfield was up for best actor. His costar Tyson, and her competitor, Ross, were both nominated for best actress, making it the first time two Black women competed in that category. Winfield lost to Marlon Brando, and Liza Minnelli won best actress for “Cabaret.” Though Tyson gave the definitive performance of her career, she would place second if I’d had an Oscar ballot back then. Diana Ross was robbed of that Oscar.
Both de Passe and Elder made history as the first Black nominees in the writing categories, with de Passe being the first Black woman to get a non-acting nomination. “Lady Sings the Blues” also earned a nod for Gil Askey’s score, putting him in the good company of other Black folks like Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Calvin Jackson, and Isaac Hayes. The year before, Hayes won the best song Oscar for his theme to the Blaxploitation classic “Shaft.”
“Sounder” was inducted into the National Film Registry last year. Like “Lady Sings the Blues,” it deserves to be remembered alongside the godfathers, cabaret singers, and super fly action heroes.
Odie Henderson is a film critic who loves film noir, musicals, Blaxploitation, bad art, and good trash.