Andra Day, Lee Daniels Succeed at ‘Shocking’ Billie Holiday Story

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Tim Gray
·3 min read
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The lead actress Oscar race is competitive, so there’s no guarantee that Andra Day will win for her socko performance in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” But Day has the kind of backstory that Oscar voters love: She (and the movie) appeared with little advance fanfare, and she makes a huge impact in only her second feature (after a tiny role in “Marshall”). Plus, she and director Lee Daniels are succeeding where many have tried but failed: a biopic on Holiday.

In 1956, Variety quoted a Doubleday press release shortly before the publication of Holiday’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues,” saying, “This is a powerful, often shocking and immensely saleable book.”

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It was indeed sale-able. The book sold 1 million copies in 16 languages, and rights were sold to producers many times in the next few decades.

In 1957, Lester Cowan announced he had rights, and he said among those interested in filming it were Darryl F. Zanuck and Otto Preminger. Those plans went nowhere and in 1959, shortly after Holiday’s death at age 44, producer Philip A. Waxman announced a film, saying he had a “verbal agreement with Dorothy Dandridge” to star.

The following year, Albert Zugsmith — a producer whose credits range from Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” to the Mamie Van Doren comedy “Sex Kittens Go to College” — announced a West Coast stage version of “Lady Sings the Blues,” which would then move to Broadway, followed by a film; Dandridge was again named to star. Nothing came of these plans.

Chaton Prods. acquired rights in 1967; the following year, Variety wrote about three competing biopics: one based on the book, the second tapping into tales from Holiday’s heirs, and the third relying on newspaper stories and public records.

In 1969, Jay Weston announced a project that was eventually made. Paramount in 1972 released “Lady Sings the Blues,” the first feature from Motown Prods. Diana Ross, like Andra Day, was Oscar-nominated.

Daniels’ film gives glimpses of Holiday’s early life, but focuses on her battles with drugs and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics starting in 1947. Garrett Hedlund plays Harry Anslinger, the real-life FBN agent who explains his attitude by saying, “This jazz music is the devil’s work.”

Since generations have embraced jazz, it’s easy to forget that it was once considered dangerous because of its Black origins and because it was synonymous with people having a wild time. Variety first used the term “jazz” in 1916, and 1920s America was described as “the Jazz Age.” But every movement has a backlash, and in 1933 Variety reported on the Nazi Party’s “very outspoken anti-jazz attitude,” which was shared by some Americans.

That repressive attitude cropped up in the 1940s via people such as Anslinger, who also obsesses over the song “Strange Fruit,” by saying, “You’ve heard those lyrics. They provoke people in the wrong way.”

The song, written by Harold J. Rome and Lewis Allan (a pseudonym for Abel Meeropol), debuted in 1939, when the biggest hit records included “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland, Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” and “God Bless America” by Kate Smith. So protest songs were not exactly popular at that point, but Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” recording was a big hit.

When she performed at New York’s integrated Cafe Society in 1939, Variety stated that the anti-lynching song “has an undefined appeal, though it’s basically a depressing piece. There’s no compromise with Miss Holiday’s stuff.”

There’s no compromise in Day’s work either. As Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review, “Billie Holiday” is a must-see for “the glamorous, blowsy and dagger-eyed force” of Day’s performance.

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