Tuesday, November 23, 2010
You End Up Here
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2002. I was flying back to L.A. from D.C. where I had spent the holiday with family. On this particular trip I was flying first class, the only time I’ve ever done that, but as I was waiting at Reagan National for my connection to Chicago word came down that the flight had suddenly been cancelled. Fast as I could, I scrambled to get another way back home as soon as possible which resulted in my being put on a tiny American Eagle up to New York, from where I would get a flight that night back home. And it worked out just fine, though it was a little frustrating to land in New York but not get to spend any time there. Anyway, I was sitting in first class of the American Airlines flight out of JFK acting like Frankie Valli or some kind of big shot as all the other passengers walked through the cabin back towards coach, just as I’ve also done every other time that I’ve flown. I was on the aisle with an empty seat next to me and I wondered who might sit there, hoping it wouldn’t be an old guy with a cough to kill the cool vibe but down to ten minutes before takeoff it was still empty and I wondered if anyone would be sitting there are all. And that’s when Diana Ross walked onto the plane. Instantly recognizable, she definitely made her presence known as an assistant fussed around having her stuff put away, talking up a storm about how she was going to get some sleep on the flight. She then headed over in my direction to sit in the seat next to mine, looked at me and said, “You, you’re sleeping with me tonight.” “Um, ok,” I think I sort of muttered, not a little stunned at what was suddenly going on. I glanced around and it felt like everyone was staring in my direction. Her assistant soon disappeared, never to be seen again and the music legend with all that hair sat down next to me, shutting her eyes immediately so I figured she was serious, that she really would be sleeping through the whole trip. Then, as the plane began to taxi out for takeoff and we picked up speed, without saying a word or opening her eyes, Diana Ross suddenly grabbed my hand as if for support at this moment. Of course, there’s a rule in life—when Diana Ross grabs your hand, you let her grab your hand.
Soon when we were in the air, she opened her eyes and as drinks were served she began to ask me about myself, probably because since I was in first class she figured I couldn’t be just some schmuck. Little did she know. Now, let me cut in here—of course, I know who Diana Ross is but I’m hardly an expert when it comes to the subject. When she first sat down I began going through the filing cabinet in my head of what I knew about her—the music everyone loves, the Supremes all hate her, that infamous Central Park concert in the early 80s, some movies I’ve never seen…and not much beyond that. So as she began to talk to me I made the decision that except for any follow-up questions that arose naturally from our conversation I wasn’t going to ask her anything that might possibly upset her or make things awkward. No ‘What is the deal with Michael Jackson?’ no ‘So how did you really get along with the other Supremes?’ no nothing, because I was enjoying this and I didn’t want to say something stupid that would cause this experience to end sooner than it had to. So our conversations continued on and off throughout the flight, along with the drinking and the dinner while the flight attendants (who I could very easily tell were treated as ‘the help’ by Ms. Ross) were always quizzing me about what she was like whenever I got up to use the facilities. She got up herself at one point to walk around and returned to first class carrying another passenger’s baby. I guess the rule is if Diana Ross suddenly appears to you on an airplane, you give her your baby. She talked to me about herself and how she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do at that point, she showed off a photo of her daughter, actress Tracee Ellis Ross—for about five minutes I thought she was going to try to set us up—and she asked me various things about myself and my life. And I can say that sitting as close to her as I am to my computer screen right now that she was absolutely beautiful. I jotted down a lot of the specifics of what we talked about soon after which I naturally can’t find right now but packed into the glamour and flirting of those six hours in first class with this music legend was probably one of the best relationships I’ve ever had with a woman. Relatively speaking it was just a brief amount of time spent in the fantasy world of first class but that’s part of the strangeness of flying, finding yourself in a sort of limbo where you can feel free to talk about anything with a total stranger, even one that just happens to be a legendary icon. The following month she was arrested for a DUI in Tucson which made headlines worldwide. I really don’t think I can be blamed.
None of this story about a cross-country flight really builds to anything—I think the last thing she said to me was, “We’ll meet each other again,” but I didn’t see that happening any time soon and I haven’t been proven wrong. I have actually seen her daughter Tracee a few times over the years, but never went up to say something. Still, I’ve maintained a fondness for Diana Ross through the years anyway although it wasn’t until recently that I decided to finally watch one of those films I had never seen, namely her 1975 star vehicle MAHOGANY. If you’ve seen the film, you probably remember it as the one where they play that “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?” song over and over until you can never manage to forget the damn thing. But really, at this point in my life, do I have any idea where I’m going to? I think it’s pretty clear that I don’t. And in all seriousness, speaking as a straight white male, having seen it now I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to say about this film. Do I approach it as a camp artifact of the 70s, an early attempt by African-American filmmakers to move stars of color into the mainstream, as an unabashed vehicle for the famous diva, an update of a Joan Crawford-Douglas Sirk kind of formula? All of the above? Since I wasn’t watching it in a theater with a bunch of people cackling over how it’s-so-bad-it’s-good it is, which is something I hate to do anyway, all I could do was just take it sort of at face value while still being vaguely aware of the sort of response it would probably get. For all I know people think of it as a crazy VALLEY OF THE DOLLS-level campfest but it never quite goes all that nuts, staying firmly in the PG realm and it’s hardly as hysterical as something like THE OSCAR is either. In spite of what I suspect is its reputation out there (One and a half stars in Maltin, which calls it a “silly, contrived affair”) I didn’t think it was even a particularly badly made film, even if all it seems to be about is how wonderful the great Diana Ross is (even I don’t have much of an argument for that) and how much the whole world has learned to love her but she should never turn her back on the most important man in her life, no matter what she’s tried to accomplish. How much all this is actually about Diana Ross’s own travails while pursuing success is a subject I know nothing about but I don’t really feel like seeing DREAMGIRLS again to learn more. Now would somebody please get that damn song out of my head?
Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross) is an aspiring designer living in the Chicago projects and working a secretary job at a ritzy department store as she takes classes at night. While trying to get ahead she begins a relationship with an activist Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams, “looking uncannily like Jesse Jackson” per Roger Ebert at the time) trying to keep the slums from being torn down and running for alderman but things change when she catches the eye of a famous photographer Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins) who soon whisks her off to Rome, he renaming her Mahogany and before she knows it she becomes a famous model, living the high-life among the rich and powerful though she still has thoughts of using her fame to be a designer. But when Brian turns up in her life again she must make a choice in where she wants to go in life. Does Mahogany know where she’s going to? Does she know the things that life is showing her?
MAHOGANY was directed by Motown founder Berry Gordy after kicking the esteemed Tony Richardson off the project (Gordy said in a statement at the time that Richardson “didn’t understand the Black experience”) and, look, this is one of those times where I have to admit that a certain film just wasn’t really made for me or my sensibilities. I have very little awareness of inner city politics in the mid-70s and I certainly don’t have much of an interest on any level in the world of fashion so there’s not going to be much of a response coming from me at the sight of all those wacko fashions designed by Tracy which even I think are pretty garish, even for the 70s. While watching a few of the endless montages set over and over to that one piece of music (interestingly, the title song reached number one on both the Hot 100 and easy listening charts) that chronicle her road to success I could imagine the cackles of laughter that probably erupt at screenings from those bizarre outfits, designed by Ross herself according to the credits, but that’s just not my sort of thing. I suppose that while watching it I looked at MAHOGANY as a sort of intentionally old school Hollywood melodrama updated to the blaxploitation-era 70s (Screenplay by John Byrum, based on a story by Toni Amber) but more than anything it’s a movie star vehicle meant to proclaim as loud as possible to the world the absolute greatness of DIANA ROSS.
More than once the film seems determined to just stop and let her do her thing, like laugh for thirty seconds at something going on or dance around her apartment as she makes up a little campaign song for Billy Dee as he stands there in awe of her, flashing that grand piano of his he calls a smile to quote a line of dialogue she has to describe him. And of course, it’s Diana Ross dancing in front of him—what else is he supposed to do? The film also lets her be as dramatic as possible at various points as well as being totally idealized, an inspiration to every downtrodden woman seeing this film in 1975. Tracy is someone who can succeed as a model, design new innovative outfits, who knows how to handle potential muggers in Chicago just as well as she deals with cab drivers in Rome, not to mention how she can let loose on a bunch of Italian-gibbering fashion sleazes who dare to critique her with all the sass in the world like she’s an updated Lana Turner in IMITATION OF LIFE until the one other woman in the room, the only one of power of course, is instantly impressed by her moxie and asks, “When can you start?” leading to a high class lifestyle in Rome of parties, expensive restaurants and various bottles of J&B scattered around. And, ultimately, I guess that’s what the film is really supposed to be.
As ridiculous and soapy as it all is MAHOGANY is actually weirdly entertaining, more than things like VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and THE LOVE MACHINE are for me anyway. It’s the sort of film where I’m not even sure why I’m watching it but then suddenly I’m surprised at how long I’ve been sitting there, actually involved in this nonsense in spite of itself. Maybe it’s the beauty of the star, the suaveness of Billy Dee, the over the top glamour of Rome or maybe that the story just sort of weirdly works even though it shouldn’t. There’s not much credibility to any number of things that happen as Tracy becomes the world-famous Mahogany—for one thing, it’s one of those movies with a narrative that presumably spans several years but it all seems to be set during the winter months of 1975, with some trees in Rome looking just as bare as the ones in Chicago. Considering this is Berry Gordy’s only directing effort the movie actually has quite a bit of elegance to its visual style and much of the credit for that must go to master cinematographer David Watkin (CATCH-22, THE DEVILS, OUT OF AFRICA) who makes MAHOGANY quite a rich, beautiful film to look at with a true sense of scope to the anamorphic framing and even an impeccable sense of place in a way that films don’t really posses anymore. Along with Watkin, mention should be made of editor Peter Zinner, also a cutter on THE GODFATHER and THE DEER HUNTER, and who maybe more than anyone here is responsible for making some of this flow as well as it does.
There’s a genuinely lived-in feel to the Chicago portion of the story with a great deal of texture in that urban environment compared with the Rome half which feels a little touristy but even that approach makes sense for what the film needs to do, whether it was intended or not. The Italy half certainly contains the craziest stuff, from the wacko vibe of the fashion shows as the sophisticated Europeans are first shocked, then elated by what Mahogany creates, leading to sinuous parties where she literally allows candle wax to drip down on her. And there’s the photographer that becomes obsessed with her who is presumably--well, they never actually say what he is but he’s played by Anthony Perkins, it’s made clear that he can’t get it up for Diana Ross and it doesn’t seem to be because of simple impotence so I can guess what we’re supposed to think. The character is written to behave more and more as a genuine sociopath as the movie goes on, first in a passive-aggressive way than culminating in two separate showdowns with the noble leads, one a bizarre scene involving fighting over a gun with Billy Dee with all the symbolism you can imagine and finally a scene involving an out-of-control car where he crazily insists on taking Mahogany’s picture, a point of hysteria that is probably as much of a reason for the film’s notoriety as anything (and, yeah, I could hear those cackles from that nonexistent audience when we later actually see the photos that were taken). But even the nightmare end of anything that happens in the story never goes too far and MAHOGANY, along with being a pure star vehicle, is also obviously a piece of wish-fulfillment for any of her fans, representing the dreams they may have to go off and do whatever they may want to do but the film seems to say that the dream has to end sometime and the place you really belong in is right where you started in the first place.
The film brings a certain amount of realism to the Chicago sections which grounds it sort of in the real world but the political stuff feels a little too sketched in and keeps some of the approach to racial issues more implied than anything--even a few white faces are inserted among the crowds as if someone was hesitant to make this too much of a story specifically about African-Americans—Tracy’s success as both model and designer happens without comment on her race but maybe all those wackos over in Europe, where Billy Dee can’t tell some of the men from the women, are just more enlightened. At times, the film feels a little like some of the down and dirty success of the blaxploitation genre being co-opted for a big, slick studio production (and it makes me wonder about how that cycle began to rapidly fizzle out around this time though that’s getting a little off topic) and MAHOGANY is almost progressive but is kept from being too much so by making it about how if the romance is a failure than Mahogany is a failure as Billy Dee screams as loud as possible, “Success means nothing unless you have someone to share it with!” leading to her finally, irrevocably realizing the apparent truth of this statement. But is this what it should really build to? Is the conflict really as clear-cut as the jet-set glamour of Rome versus the downtrodden projects of Chicago, a city where we’re told that, “You don’t make it here, you end up here,” as if to say that if Tracy stays in that town she’ll be giving up on her dreams. This is all pre-Oprah, of course. But really, if she could possibly make so much money in the world couldn’t she use some of that to help out back home or would that be seen as wrong? Isn’t there a viable middle ground? Maybe not, since the movie wants to keep things cut and dried. At the very least the final shot, with credits shoved onscreen as fast as possible before anyone can really think about the ramifications of what just happened, displays a political rally that isn’t even all that well attended but the ultimate goal seems to be noble and one worth fighting for (Brian Walker pledges to “stop the power merchants from trotting over the little people.” Yeah, that worked out real well). It almost makes me imagine how maybe in a few years after these two people get together they’ll encounter a young man who’s just hit town then, having been inspired by this great-looking couple gets directly involved in the Chicago community for himself, meets the woman which will become his own wife, and sets down a road that will lead to becoming President, making good on what was begun in the story told here. All right, that’s probably looking a little too hard for optimism in this ending but I’m really trying and as the downbeat on the theme song (like the part where she sings “Now, looking back at all we planned…”) is played at the end the whole thing just stays with me, a big piece of cheese that is weirdly affecting in its earnestness or at least what I perceive to be its earnestness. So if anything it has that.
Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams both play this as charismatic as the stars they were at the time. They’re not great and they certainly don’t always make the problematic dialogue work. But whatever else you want to say about them, she’s energetic, he’s cool, they’ve got chemistry, they’ve got presence and they both look great, each given numerous terrific close-ups by Watkin. Anthony Perkins, who must have been cast with his most famous role in mind, becomes less of an actual person and more of a prissy monster as the film goes on until he zooms right towards becoming the queeniest version of Norman Bates to the nth degree, almost made to look purely eeeevil in some shots. For all I know this sort of behavior still runs rampant in the fashion world but it still comes off as pretty homophobic (and, for all I know, not taken seriously in the least by some of the film’s fans) as these things go. DANGER: DIABOLIK’s Marisa Mell is Italian fashion big wig Carlotta Gavina—is this film her only U.S. production? Mell doesn’t get to do very much beyond say supportive things to the film’s lead but it’s still nice to have her around. DAY FOR NIGHT’s Jean-Pierre Aumont is Mahogany’s European benefactor with an obvious eye towards getting more out of the relationship, Beah Richards and Nina Foch have supporting roles and Bruce Villanch, of all people, plays a dress manufacturer in Chicago. When he turned up I honestly thought it was Severn Darden.
I guess you could say that it’s glossy star vehicle of the sort that really only got made in the 70s and I can appreciate that. Or at the very least, that song has gotten locked into my brain and there’s really nothing I can do about that anymore. And it’s a pure old-fashioned vehicle for the great Diana Ross, in ways that are both good and bad. Maybe if I’d seen this at the time I would have summoned up the courage to ask her a few questions about it. I’d probably at least have brought up David Watkin and Marisa Mell. Maybe. As it is, I kind of doubt that Diana Ross has any recollection of sitting next to me that night but I know that I’ll never forget it. A ridiculous movie like this is a reminder of what an icon she has always been and how lucky I was for a few hours on an airplane back in ’02 to get to know her just a little bit. Now, as I look back at all I planned and wonder how I let so many dreams just slip through my hands I know that I’ll certainly have that to remember.