When Diana Ross as Billie Holiday sashays down the steps of a Harlem tenement wearing that bright yellow dress in Lady Sings The Blues, we immediately know that she has graduated from scrubbing the ho-house steps to full-fledged ho. It's the moment that we've all been waiting for. The first on-screen moment that we get to see Ross as we've always come to know her - in full drag! She looks amazing and we're enjoying the sassy old-school swag but there is the nagging sense that we've seen that dress before. Somewhere. But we just can't remember where.
LSB commenced filming on December 3, 1971. They wrapped on February 18, 1972. And so many things happened in between! Berry Gordy impusively decided to rewrite the movie script on an airplane and then hired two Motown women who'd never written a screenplay to rewrite the whole movie - Suzanne De Passe and his part-time woman, singer Chris Clark. But that was nothing. His other part-time woman had never starred in a movie before!
Gordy went over the $2 million dollar budget alloted by Paramount by $4 million-plus (a then astronomical sum) and had to eat the costs. Then, Paramount wanted to "butcher" the movie down from its proposed three and a half hours to just ninety minutes. Gordy eventually bought out Paramount to own the film and do it his way. Some say it was still butchered at two hours and twenty-four minutes with the glaring inaccuracies about the life of its subject, jazz genius Billie Holiday. Gordy said he wanted to be respectful of the Holiday legacy in the film, but later admitted that while his finished product was "honest" it wasn't "necessarily true."
Two days into the filming, Miss Ross decided she hated the costumes! All the gowns were dumped and Bob Mackie and Ray Agayan were hired to complete forty-three fabulous new creations. One of them was the yellow ho-stroll dress with the matching hat, white purse and gloves. And it's obvious that THEY had seen that outfit before, too
Reginal Marsh didn't design the dress. But he did paint it in 1936. If Berry Gordy couldn't stay true to Miss Holiday's harrowing life story, Mackie and Agayan were certainly sticking to detail with this particular costume. Reginald Marsh made his mark as an artist in the 20's and into the 30's with deft portrayals of Depression-era iconography. He had sketchbooks filled with drawings made on the beach, in the subway and on the streets of New York. Whether in the nightclubs or on the streets of Harlem, his work always showed a passion for contemporary detail, and women were among his favorite subjects. His imagery was known for detailing women as sexual and powerful figures with men often portrayed as voyeurs and less imposing figures in the background. Obviously, the Harlem sistah that wore this dress must have made quite an impression on Mr. Marsh. It is said that he painted High Yaller from memory, but was he referring to the dress or the woman?
Lady Sings The Blues ultimately turned out to be a visually arresting and shamelessly romantic expression of cinematic black love. But it has little to do with Billie Holiday. Diana Ross made almost everyone who initially had something negative to say about her hiring as Holiday virtually eat their own words. In my opinion, the movie totally transformed Ross as we'd come to know her once and for all. The movie makeup team gave her a more natural, flawless kind of beauty that ended up being timeless as well. The poster art for the movie boldly declared to us that Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday. Many begged to differ, but in the process we got a whole new Ross vocally speaking. Gone were the trademark hiccups that punctuated much of her solo work from just a few years before. All of sudden, her vocals were more fluid and romantically lush, sometimes nuanced with blue and moody hues.
And when Miss Ross strolled down those old run-down, Harlem brownstone steps in that yellow ho-stroll dress, she took our breaths away. That moment is taken for granted now but viewed back then by a contemporary audience, even us kids sensed (or knew more than anybody) that we had been introduced to a new high glamour that we hadn't quite seen before. More than anything, Diana Ross introduced a whole generation to the music and real life of Lady Day, the legend before her.