Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Bronze Venus

While I was traveling the past three or four weeks, a whole lot of people kicked the bucket. Some of them, I have no interest in writing about, but several deserve some attention, even this late in the day. I hope to catch up on everybody before the week is out. Gotta start with the biggie:

Lena Horne


Everybody knows this musical legend died several weeks ago, and there have been so many tributes out there, well, this will seem like old news. Horne was born into an upper-middle class family, with a mother who was an actress and a father who made some money in the gambling industry. She spent some time in the chorus at the Cotton Club before moving to L.A. to pursue a nightclub career. She was one of the first black performers to be offered a contract at MGM, a contract which was negotiated by her father, and included assurances that she would never be forced to play a domestic or a hooker. Her breakout roles came in 1943, in Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Liza Minnelli has recently claimed that her father Vincent discovered Horne and brought her to Hollywood to star in Cabin in the Sky, but in fact, Lena was already in Los Angeles when talent scouts brought her to his attention, and she already had several small film roles to her credit, including one in Panama Hattie.

Horne remained in Hollywood for about a decade, making musical contributions to such films as Broadway Rhythm, Ziegfeld Follies, and Words and Music. Her appearances in those films were usually stand-alone musical numbers which could be easily removed when her films played in the deeply segregated South. She was devastated to lose the plum part of Julie in 1951's Show Boat; the production code at the time banned inter-racial relationships on film, ironic in this case, as the role was a woman of mixed race who fell in love with a white man. Ava Gardner took the role, and rehearsed the musical numbers by listening to Horne's pre-recorded renditions.

Horne and Hollywood parted company, partially due to Lena's leftist political views, which forced her onto the blacklist for a time. She continued to perform live concerts and returned to New York to costar in the Broadway musical Jamaica, for which she won a Tony nomination. Her political activism always influenced her career; she walked out of a USO concert she was giving during WWII, when she discovered that white German POWs were seated in front, while black USA soldiers were confined to the back rows of the theatre. She marched on Washington with Martin Luther King, attended a rally for the NAACP with Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers only a week before he was murdered, and was a visitor to the Kennedy White House only two days before JFK's assassination. She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to outlaw lynching and, decades later, hurled a lamp at a fellow restaurant patron who was murmuring racial epithets. You gotta love this gal!

Horne announced her retirement in 1980, but it didn't stick. She returned to the spotlight the following year, sharing the stage for a single performance with Gene Kelly in a gala benefiting the Joffrey Ballet. One of the Nederlanders was present, who offered Lena a Broadway house for a month of concert performances. Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music was a smash hit, and ran for a year, winning its star a special Tony and two Grammys for the cast album. The show was videotaped for home viewing, spawned a lengthy international tour, and placed Lena Horne in the history books for giving the longest running solo performance in Broadway history (she still holds that distinction).

Horne's eventful life seems ripe for a biopic, and Janet Jackson was attached to such a project for television, until her wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl attracted such negative attention. Lena attempted to block the production, though ABC was prepared to move forward with the project without Horne's consent; it was Jackson herself who willingly withdrew from the film, once she discovered Lena was against her playing the legendary singer. A stage musical covering Horne's life, starring Leslie Uggams (below), was presented at the Pasadena Playhouse last year. The show was called, appropriately, Stormy Weather.

Since Lena Horne's death almost a month ago, the airwaves have been full of clips of her great song stylings. Her early film performances proved that a woman of color could be sensual and sophisticated, and her concert appearances showed an artist of great range; she easily moved from sultry seductiveness to cool detachment. It is not surprising that her film career dried up; she spent most of her life in an inter-racial marriage, which made her an awkward presence in segregated Hollywood. Here is a clip (sorry about the poor quality) from her final film appearance, as Glinda in 1978's The Wiz. It's an over-the-top performance of a preachy song, a number which became a second signature tune for her, the first being, of course, "Stormy Weather."

Lena was considered a trailblazer by other women of color in the entertainment world; Halle Barry thanked her for her contribution when she won her Oscar. Horne's funeral was attended by Leontyne Price, Dionne Warwick, Jessye Norman, Chita Rivera, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Audra McDonald and Vanessa Williams, all of whom would point to Lena Horne as an artist whose commitment to civil rights paved the way for their own careers. As everyone on the planet knows, she died last month at the age of 91.