Cult classics revisited: ‘Mahogany’

Mahogany [VHS]Mahogany is the movie that killed Diana Ross’ film career. The Wiz buried it, but Mahogany was the film that made movie audiences rethink their adoration for the diva, after her spectacular debut in Lady Sings the Blues. Diana Ross is in practically every scene in the film, and though not a musical, she’s seemingly treated the film like an extension of her concert career. For those who have never seen Miss Ross on stage, a hallmark of her performing style is epic schmaltz. She urges her audiences to bask in the glow of her dewy love, but it all has an edge of artifice and calculation. Mahogany‘s storied background is far more intriguing than the resulting film – Oscar-winning director Tony Richardson was fired, replaced by Motown head, Berry Gordy, who had a deeply personal relationship with his star, that often resulted in public spats. Gordy wasn’t a film director, and his novice status shows in how badly he mangled the film. Aside from Ross, he also wasted the estimable talents of Billy Dee Williams (Ross’ costar in Lady Sings the Blues) and a nervy Anthony Perkins, who, surprisingly brings the most energy in the film, despite the awful writing. After watching the film for the first time, and having my laughs, the second time I watched it, I no longer had the self-satisfied snark that accompanied my first viewing. Instead, I was sad because so few movies with a black director and two black leads get the full studio treatment like Mahogany. And its critical failure undoubtedly made it all the more difficult for these kinds of movies to be made.

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Mahogany starts off as a promising film: Ross plays Tracy Chambers, a fledgling fashion designer who makes a living as a secretary for Miss Evans (Nina Foch), a buyer at a luxury department store. On her way home, she meets local civil rights activist Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams), who is leading a crusade to stop developers from tearing down houses in poor neighborhoods of Chicago. Tracy is initially wary of Brian, seeing his politicking as a waste of time and energy, but when a prank she pulls goes horribly wrong and Brian ends up in jail, Tracy bails him out of guilt. Soon, a relationship develops, but Tracy quickly becomes an appendage to Brian’s burgeoning political career. But before his ascent can begin, Tracy is whisked away to Rome by Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins), who hires her as a model. This is when the film swan dives into sheer absurdity. She suddenly becomes a supermodel and deftly adapts to the hedonistic lifestyle of the fashion world, but chafes at being simply a living mannequin. In another lurch in the plot, Tracy is yet again, rescued by another man, this time a rich count, Christian Rosetti (Jean-Pierre Aumont). At a fashion show, Tracy’s hideous Kabuki-inspired getup is mocked by the audience, until Rosetti offers 20 million lire for the monstrosity. Sean is insanely jealous (in fact, he does everything insanely), and tries to kill the two of them, in what has got to be the most ridiculous scene in film history (more on that in a bit), in which he careens down the Roman highway, leaden foot pressed on the gas, while keeping his hands off the wheel, snapping away at a panicking Tracy. The car crashes, leaving Sean dead, but Tracy is found covalesing in the Christian’s grand manor (that looked like a scrubbed up Grey Gardens to me). Inexplicably, Christian bankrolls Tracy’s fashion career, and she’s a hit. But she’s lonely at the top, and returns to Chicago, to support Brian’s congressional ambitions.

The movie is ridiculous. The message is garbled and confused, and it’s unclear whether Gordy and his screenwriter, John Byrum, knew what kind of story they wanted to tell. When set in Chicago, Gordy attempts at a serious drama that highlights the widening gap of income and racial inequality. With Brian Walker, Byrum creates a mouthpiece for racial and social justice – just not a very effective one. Byrum’s ideas of social justice don’t transcend mere political talking points and the socially-conscious aspects of the script feel forced and superficial and reductive, which is a shame because there is potential in telling the story of a young black woman from the inner city who wants to leave for a more financially stable and lucrative life. Quickly, we’re given the parallels of Brian, the hardworking, dedicated dynamo, and Tracy, the feckless diva, and Tracy’s concerns are dismissed as one-note and frivolous, when compared to Brian’s more high-minded work.

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For Chicagoans, Mahogany is fun to watch because the film takes advantage of some great locales for the film – and for the younger folks, it’s nice for them to see what the Red Line looked like back in 1975. Gordy comes perilously close to capturing the city in all of its complex glory, but seems bored with the grittier aspects of Byrum’s speech, because the majority of the film takes place in a decidedly more glamorous Rome. It’s during the Chicago scenes that Ross also gives the best of her performance in the film. She’s loose and funny and not done in by the neurotic mannerisms that plague her performance later on. When Tracy is interacting with her Aunt Flo (a lovely Beah Richards), the chemistry is sweet, and Ross gets to show off her underrated comic skills. The early courtship of Brian and Tracy also shows that Ross and Williams should’ve become a legendary onscreen couple a la Bogie and Bacall or Hepburn and Tracy.

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But as magnetic as Williams and Ross are, they also cause one of the films many problems, in that it’s hard to forget that we’re looking at movie stars. Though costumed to look suitably working class, Ross and Williams exude star power and Hollywood glamour, and at times, look sorely out of place in their realistic surroundings. The sense of realism that Gordy is going for in the Chicago scenes is broken up by the magazine cover gorgeousness of his leads. Byrum also doesn’t do Ross and Williams any favors by writing them lines that sound stagy and precious (the film’s tag line is “success is nothing without someone you love to share it with” which Williams delivers with hair-quaking seriousness), and the two often speak to each other in slogans.

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But the issue of Ross and Williams being too glammy quickly falls away when we’re whisked to Italy. It’s telling that the film’s most potent moment is an extended fashion sequence set to the film’s theme song “Do You Know (Where You’re Going To).” The film achieves some kind of transcendence here because it highlights Ross at her best – not only is her dreamy voice singing the haunting theme, but she’s paraded around in a variety of kooky outfits, posing on the streets and ruins of Rome. Some of the film’s most iconic images come from the movie – including a fantastic sequence, in which Ross is done up like Cleopatra. It’s worth noting that a movie is pretty bad if its best sequence is a fashion montage.

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The Italy scenes though, indulge in some fine camp, courtesy of Anthony Perkins, who seems to see his character as a blend of Richard Avedon and Norman Bates. Perkins, a fine actor, is also a nervy and edgy one, and even when Sean isn’t being crazy, there is always something unsettling about the fidgety, tense manner in which he delivers his lines. Sean is the second man in Tracy’s life who tries to act as a Svengali of sorts – mirroring Gordy’s relationship with Ross, no doubt. He essentially establishes Tracy as a model, even calling her Mahogany. He sees models as inanimate objects (another model is christened Crystal), and exploits them. There’s also some strange psycho-sexual issues lurking beneath Sean’s quivering exterior, and in a hapless sex scene, he proves to be impotent as well.

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As said earlier, Perkins is probably the best of the bunch in this sorry spectacle, but that’s some damning with faint praise. Gordy obviously watched Psycho a few times, and instructed his star to recreate the role and shoehorn it into Byrum’s script. There are two notable scenes which should be discussed when looking at Perkins’ performance. The first one occurs when Tracy is reunited with Brian in Italy. After surprising her by showing up at her doorstep in Rome, Brian and Tracy must examine their relationship as Tracy’s modeling career has positioned her as a queen in a decadent world in which Brian feels uncomfortable (there is some knee-jerk homophobia and transphobia throughout the infamous party sequence that’s troubling given Ross’ stature as a queer icon). Sean feels threatened by Brian’s presence and invites him to an office, where he pulls a gun on him. What happens next has got to be the most awkward and badly choreographed fight sequences in film history, in which Brian and Sean lethargically roll around the floor, struggling over a gun. The fight culminates in a nasty bit of subtext, in which Brian overpowers Sean, and forces the gun into Sean’s mouth, mocking fellatio, and pulls the trigger, only to discover the gun is a fake. Sean is left in a happy heap, laughing maniacally, while an unnerved Brian leaves.

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The other scene has Sean and Tracy fighting in a sports car during a commercial shoot. Occuring shortly after Tracy dumps Brian, she looks rough and tired (well, as rough and tired as Diana Ross will allow herself to look). Instead of fighting in front of the camera crew, Sean jumps into the drivers seat and starts to drive the car, while taking snapshots of an irritated Tracy. Quickly the scene turns from boring to ridiculous as he presses on the gas pedal and allows the car to swerve crazily while he continues to snap away with his camera. Tracy lunges for the wheel to control the car, but Brian roughly pushes her aside, wanting to capture real fear and panic with his camera. The two fight over the steering wheel, while the car hurdles down a suspiciously-empty highway, before Tracy gets in on the act and starts to grimace hideously for the camera, before the car flips over.

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When I watched Mahogany the other night at the park, the scenes I just described provoked laughter from the audience. In the next scene, when Ross was swathed in bandages, the audience erupted in cheers. It’s clear that Gordy’s intention was to inject drama, tension, and poignancy in the film, but failed. Instead, his all-thumbs grasp at directing a film showed just how little he knows about film making. He allowed his actors to mug hideously – Ross, in particular, who when pitched feverishly, gets shrill and grating (it’s amazing that her gorgeous coo of a voice can get so metallic and nails-on-a-chalkboard irritating).

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And though Perkins is all kinds of crazy in Mahogany, Ross gets to act ridiculous, too. The aforementioned party scene, Ross gets to revel in the decadence of the fashion world. After Brian storms out of the party because the party was too much, Tracy shrugs off her fashionable robe, and starts to drip candle wax on her naked body. It took a moment for me to realize that I’m watching Diana Ross, ex-Supreme, writhing on the floor, holding a candle aloft and letting the wax pour on her gorgeous body. Like Brian, we’re meant to shake our heads in disapproval – after all, in the beginning of the film, Tracy prim and proper, morals firmly intact. But with the influence of sexually-ambiguous fashion folk, Tracy lets loose, while Brian jets back to Chicago to do good work, rallying folks in the inner-city and plotting his political ambitions.

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After watching Mahogany I left feeling very unsatisfied. I hated the ending, in which Tracy chucks it all to return to Chicago to be with her man. In the final scene, Brian is addressing a crowd, during his congressional campaign (he’s running as an Independent). Some of the crowd is receptive to his speech, but others are a bit skeptical, and while he’s spinning in his wheels, Tracy pipes up from the crowd, recreating an in-joke they shared, in which she pretends to be a poor widow with small children, contending with a slum lord.

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I wasn’t happy with Tracy dismissing her fashion career to support Brian’s political career. And then I remembered Tracy’s designs, and I thought, “Huh, she may have a point.” Let’s be real, Tracy’s designs are fuuuugly. A disaster of Kabuki-drag (which Ross took the blame for…er, took credit for), her designs are so garish, drag queens would’ve wished for something subtler. Christian’s heroic bid of 20 million lire for her garbage designs is an act of charity that rivals the greatest works of Mother Teresa.

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Mahogony1Watching Mahogany 40 years later, it’s clear to see how well intentioned the film was. It’s a strained attempt to make Diana Ross a multi-platform diva – a star of film, stage, screen, and music. Like her biggest artistic rival Barbra Streisand, Ross sought to become an all-purpose diva, a quadruple threat. Instead, it’s become a pale relic and a camp artifact, imprisoned in various cabarets, drag clubs, and gay bars.

Click here to buy Mahogany on DVD from amazon.com.

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