Mahogany

Ross at her Rossiest
★★★★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1975
Director: 
Berry Gordy
Starring: 
Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Perkins
The Setup: 
Woman rises to fame as a model, but she’s really a designer with a crisis of conscience.
Discussion: 

My friend, who was completely enthralled by Dreamgirls, suddenly became very interested in watching this. He said that some totally staid straight guy came into the office one day and said that he had watched “the most interesting movie,” which turned out to be this. Which we both thought was funny. So we located a copy, and were both stunned to discover that it is not yet available on DVD. Then we were stunned anew to discover that it I directed by Motown founder [and non-movie director] Berry Gordy! So the shockers were piling up fast, and the movie had barely started.

We open with this fabulous fashion show at some huge hall, and finally Diana Ross comes out to accept the ovations for this, her stunning collection. Then she goes backstage and is congratulated by someone, hears the word “success,” and the frame freezes as we zoom into her face: flashback! We see Diana as Tracy several years back, when she had to take the bus, supposedly in Chicago, although I KNOW some of this was shot in Detroit. When she comes home Billy Dee Williams [BDW] as Brian is outside with a bullhorn, lecturing everybody about their social responsibility and political activism, etc. Personally, if I had someone with a bullhorn outside my apartment at 10pm, I doubt I would be very receptive to his entreaties, regardless of how socially responsible they may be. And neither is Diana. Me and my friend thought that this was the first time they met, although a few minutes later they’re talking as though they’ve known each other their entire lives.

Sometime later, during the day, BDW is out with his bullhorn lecturing a bunch of white construction workers [who are building condos and pushing the poor out]. He puts his bullhorn down for a moment and Diana goes over and fills the mouthpiece with milk, so that when he lifts it to his lips it sploshes all over his face. He assumes that the white guys did it, and a fight between blacks and whites breaks out, causing Diana to laugh and cheer! I turned to my friend, who said to me “She just caused a race riot, and now she is laughing!”

Anyway, she bails him out with a bad check for $100, because she feels guilty. Hoo boy, talk about a meet-cute. So then Diana is late to her job as a secretary, for her repressive white boss. She goes down to where they’re doing a fashion shoot with Anthony Perkins as photographer Sean McAvoy, who, unhappy with his models, grabs Diana and says “now that’s more like it. Get me six more like her.” Then there’s this whole drama about Diana working for the boss, and Sean wanting her as a model, and of course eventually she becomes a model.

She assists Sean in this photo shoot which uses one of the run-down urban projects as a backdrop, while all the poor neighborhood people look on. BDW is there and appalled that Diana is a part of this and doesn’t see anything wrong with it. It’s a pretty incendiary scene, and BDW isn’t the only one who’s rather disgusted with our heroine. Which only gets worse when she drags a poor old woman over to stand as a prop next to a glamorous model. Billy asks her how much the old woman will be paid for the shoot, and Diana responds “This is fashion, not politics.” It’s a little funny because they’re having this conversation in the middle of a protest, with a crowd around them just listening in, including one guy smack dab in the center of the frame who looks from one to the other as they talk.

Then they make up when Diana comes to one of BDW’s rallies and asks him about “getting her old man back.” At this point she has lost her job as a secretary and goes to work full-time for BDW’s campaign [to become alderman or something], which succeeds in going on for a while before you start to think “So what? Did she just forget about her modeling career?” This is where Berry Gordy’s non-director status really becomes apparent. More on that later. At one point Diana takes a flyer off the wall and reveals one of her old fashion sketches, accompanied by a musical surge of the “Do you know?” theme [which, forgot to mention, we have been hearing in snatches all along]. This was her dream! It’s hard to miss the symbolism as she puts a poster for BDW OVER her sketch.

But Diana and BDW have been drawing closer together, and during one of these Diana sings a spontaneous, made-up song out of his name that reveals a more versatile voice than I knew she had [and it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with her output]. Then she wants to go to some fashion thing and BDW wants her to accompany him to some political dinner, and during this conversation he is REALLY insulting to her and her interests—so much so that if these lines were uttered today he could only be a villain. He basically tells her that fashion is bullshit and she’s being silly to want to pursue it. Remember this, because we’ll come back to it at the end.

SPOILERS > > > Stung by BDW, and having received a sudden invitation to go become a model in Rome [because the agents in the US are not ready to accept black models], she takes off. Anyone who has ever been to Rome will get a good laugh out of the montage of Diana’s drive through Rome, as it places all the city’s landmarks all within four feet of each other on the same street. On the left, the coliseum! Turn to the right, there’s the Victor Emmanuel monument! And just across the street, why it’s the Trevi fountain! I’m surprised they didn’t have her look up and see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But now it’s time for “the dark side of fame.” Sean [that’s Perkins] tells her that he names all his models after inanimate objects, and gives her the name Mahogany. My friend pointed out that any of Perkins’ outfits could be sported with pride by any Brooklyn hipster today, and it’s so true. Then he starts trying to get closer to her, and at one point she lets him snuggle up to her and put his head to her breast! We find out the next morning that he couldn’t get it up. It is never outright said that Sean is gay, but the whole [offensive] portrait of him as an evil queen fashion photographer who devalues women while remaining obsessed with his mother but unable to sexually perform comes across quite clearly. Evil queens, man. There would be no dark side of fame if it weren’t for those evil queens. Oh, and drugs, I guess.

In here we have noticed that Gordy likes to shoot conversations with the two actors facing directly into the camera, which can inadvertently be effective during the scenes in which Perkins is being an invasive psycho. So after a spell Diana tells Sean she wants to showcase her own designs, and he dismisses her. Then Diana is to be the final model at some huge fashion show, and she comes out wearing her own gown! This causes a shock, everyone just stares at her, but evil Sean steers it toward mocking laughter as he bids an insultingly low amount. So Diana is having her “they’re all going to laugh at you” moment—and OH how the movie could have been redeemed if she killed them all using telekinetic powers—but this older Italian bids a huge amount for the gown and not only is Diana saved, she’s now the hot, hot designer. Isn’t it amazing how life works?

But will Diana be forced to give up MORE than her designs? Not like she cares; at her first meeting with the Italian, in which it is clear that he has bought HER as well as the gown, she tells him “Mister, I just made my first sale—you can have whatever you want,” to which he somewhat menacingly replies “I’ll take a drink... for now.” By the way, all in here we have noticed that Diana is DISTURBINGLY thin. OH, and Perkins freaks out.

So then BDW shows up in Rome. He looks upon 3000 years of human history and sums it up: “Here they call ‘em ruins. Back home we call ‘em slums.” Wow, that’s really putting it all in perspective. Except that slums aren’t the ancient remnants of a now vanished society that produced a shocking amount of artworks and architectural achievements. But yeah, except for that, I guess they’re pretty much the same! Let’s hear it for the homespun wisdom of the common man.

Gordy the first-time director who apparently felt fully qualified to make a film because, hello, HE’S Berry Gordy, runs into strange continuity confusion during a particularly careless edit around this point. Diana and BDW are talking, then she turns away. We see a hand squish into a nearby cake and offer a piece to BDW’s lips. But surprise—the hand belongs to someone else and this scene is taking place a few hours later. There’s a fair amount of this stuff in the movie, where you just can’t tell who’s standing where and facing whom and whatever. It’s just a really good example of amateur filmmaking.

Then Perkins shows up and we have THE longest struggle for a gun in film history, then another example of shoddy filmmaking as Diana is apparently on stage at a party, but appears to be BEHIND the entire crowd. This scene is begging to be taken out of context and, you know, mocked, as Diana dances around whilst pouring candle wax on herself. She comes home to BDW with dried candle wax—white blobs of wax all down her face and neck [it's bukkake Diana!]—and they have a fight. Diana screams “They love me! All the men! All the women! The people love me! I’m a woman, baby!” then she does something really juvenile and irritating which is mockingly come up behind him as he’s making to leave and pour some champagne down his neck. But in a way, it’s so juvenile it’s almost genuine. He turns to her [i.e. directly into the camera] and says the movie’s tagline: “Success is nothing without someone to share it with.” Well yeah, but you can just BUY someone to share it with, right?

Then Perkins conveniently dies in a car accident, leaving Diana stumbling around, and causing my viewing partner to exclaim “She has been raped like three times in this movie!” which is metaphorically true, because there are numerous sequences in which Miss Ross is threatened or smacked or traumatized—in fact, the movie begins with her being stalked by a mugger and her standing up to him. The next thing I have written in my notes is: “Story doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.”

With the evil queen out of the picture, Diana is free to run her own factory in Rome, and we have a CHARMING scene in which she divas out ALL over her workers and subordinates over the phone. Now, “Non capisco” means “I don’t understand” in Italian, as in ‘you are speaking English and I only understand Italian, therefore I don’t understand you” and is not exactly something a person is doing just for spite, and not something you can tell them to just knock off. But not Diana, who has a luminous diva moment when she rants “Non capisco! I’m sick of all this ‘non capisco’ shit! Do as I say!” Which is amazing. Also, you’d think that in the months and possibly years she took to set up her fashion empire, she might have learned a word or two of Italian, but I’m afraid not.

Suddenly she has this huge acclaimed fashion show where she receives an ovation from white people as her brain is internally assailed by the damning voice of Billy Dee. Then her Italian hubby, who has been all hands-off up until now, suddenly demands sex, causing my friend to turn to me and exclaim “This is the fifteenth time she has been raped in this movie!” I believe the husband also can’t perform whist in terrifying proximity to the Ross phenomenon.

Anyway, we have returned to the moment that started it all, at the acclaimed fashion show, where Diana heard the word ‘success’ and it reminded her of BDW and how she’s become a servant to white people, and how this sucks. So she goes back to BDW while he’s making a speech, and we have a joyous reunion with a repeat of her scene where she says she wants him to help her “get her old man back,” and we cry, the end.

What I didn’t remember from seeing this movie before is the message that women must give up their dreams of their own success and subordinate themselves entirely to men’s needs. Remember how snide and belittling BDW was to Diana about how stupid and unimportant fashion is? So at the end she gives all that up and settles down to a life presumably spent helping him with his campaigns and putting his needs ahead of her own like a good little woman. Mothers, please be prepared to have a long discussion with your daughters about this should she choose to watch this film. It’s kind of shockingly blatant. And the bizarre wish-fulfillment aspects of the entire scenario are hard to ignore: she was a secretary who wanted to be a designer, but she’s just so gosh-darn beautiful that she is diverted into modeling! Then ultimately she is able to have both, but gives it all up for true love, which is also conveniently available. I can relate. I can’t tell you the sheer amount of times my career plans have been shorted by the fact that I am just so goddamned smoking hot. Please, don’t limit my career because I’m beautiful. < < < SPOILERS END

Nevertheless, this movie IS Mahogany, it IS this giant megalithic thing that stars Diana Ross at her Rossiest, with the high-fashion world as a backdrop and with a killer theme song, making the entire thing somewhat immune to criticism. It’s awful, but you MUST see it. It it’ll definitely show you a good time while you do.

At the very end we find out that many of the costumes here were in fact designed by Diana herself. It’s so real. I should have a little home film fest about movies in which the costumes are designed by the female lead.

Should you watch it: 

Maybe, if you're straight, definitely, if you're gay. One of my favorite comments on the IMDb about this is that it is "of interest mainly to fashion designers and drag queens."

Comments

Apparently Tony Richardson started as director on this film and was fired by Gordy. In her marvelous review, Pauline Kael states the obvious: "Since there is not one well-directed sequence in the entire film, Gordy seems to have had some reason to object to Richardson's work, but what a pity nobody had the power to fire Gordy." (Other favorite line: the very first one--"Diana Ross doesn't act the starring role in 'Mahogany', she shoots up on it.")