Friday, May 2, 2014

Mahogany (1975): A Love-Hate Letter

Mahogany (1975)
dir: Berry Gordy

The first time I watched Mahogany with my mother, who had never seen the film, her main comment was, "Wow. This is a hate letter from Berry Gordy to Diana Ross." I've known people who say that Mahogany was an inspirational film for their situation, and that it was an honest, if soapy, film about a poor black woman finding success and then discovering that true happiness was actually at home. They're both right.

Mahogany is an undernoticed descendant of the Douglas Sirk Funhouse of Mirrors as soap opera film. While Douglas Sirk was truly an artist who mastered visual structure and irony in ways that still resonate through modern filmmakng, he was also a master at making his movies work on multiple levels and reflecting the real world in a barely distorted fashion that was emblematic of his stars' tabloid lifestyles. Sirk would create a soap opera that works for the audiences as a drama, then layer that with a patina of tongue-in-cheek irony, and blend in the soap opera life of his cast and crew in order to create a mixture that was simultaneously a comment on dramatic cinema, a comment on Hollywood life, and an entertaining work. Mahogany is a film that, while not as masterful as a Douglas Sirk epic, certainly plays with Sirkian levels of commitment.

Real History

In order to truly understand Mahogany, we have to go into the way back machine, because it all ties in together in the end. In 1959, Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records, which would soon become Motown Records, in Detroit, MI. In 1960, a girl singing group called The Primettes auditioned for Motown, but did not get signed. However, in January 1961, Berry Gordy finally changed his mind and signed The Primettes but changed their name to The Supremes.

The Supremes started off as a three girl trio founded by Flo Ballard, and also containing Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. But, somewhere around 1965, Berry Gordy and Diana Ross started having a long term love affair, during which Gordy tended to favor Diana Ross over anybody else. Gordy had people start referring to Diana Ross as Miss Ross, and not by her first name, Diana. Diana started taking over the lead of The Supremes by showboating through her routines. This led to a now-famous long term feud between Ross and both Mary Wilson and Flo Ballard resulting in Flo Ballard leaving The Supremes in 1987.

Over time, Diana, with the help of Berry Gordy, became increasingly difficult and entitled. She started feuds with people, developed an entourage to surround her, and was frequently condescending to almost everybody in order to make her look better. By the time she broke off from The Supremes to start her own show, she had become a full-on diva. Gerald Posner, relates a story from Raynoma Gordy, Berry's ex-wife and then-assistant to Diana. He writes that Raynoma almost quit "when Ross refused to spend a few minutes with 25 blind children who were begging to meet her." Ross stated, "I refuse to subject myself to being depressed by seeing a bunch of blind kids!"

Posner also relates another story, "Eddie Carroll, Ross's Hollywood hairdresser, remembered a small girl once asking the star for an autograph -- the next thing he knew, the child was running from the salon, 'sobbing like crazy.'" On top of those stories, Posner related stories of Ross screaming at people, and even complaining about Raynoma's salary of $250/week as being too high.

Simultaneously, Berry wasn't exactly an easy going man. And, at the end of 1970, Berry and Ross broke up, just as Berry got Diana pregnant. In January of 1971, she married Bob Silverstein, in order to have Gordy's kid in August without arousing suspicion of an extramarital pregnancy by the press. Simultaneously, Berry had been having affairs behind Ross' back, though Gordy later said, "this woman is as selfish as I am. I'm going to have to be kissing her ass all the time. I need somebody to kiss my ass." Still, Ross caught him in an affair and their personal relationship fell apart.

Meanwhile, Gordy had moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1967. Motown became a company split between the two cities. Gordy had all but abandoned the Detroit HQ and Motown started suffering for it. While in LA, Gordy decided to act on getting involved in movies, and had recently come across an offer to make the Billie Holliday story, which would become Lady Sings the Blues. Gordy, still infatuated with Ross, was able to make a deal with Paramount to make the movie with Paramount giving $2m of the costs, and Gordy having to pay the overages. Well, when he went over budget, Paramount refused to give him more money. So Gordy paid the $2m back to have creative freedom. Many of the overages were due, in part, to Diana Ross scrapping her wardrobe into production and throwing fits on set. She also didn't take any acting lessons at all for the role, instead launching into the life of Holliday and earned an academy award nomination.

Mahogany - Production

After Lady Sings the Blues, Berry Gordy had Diana Ross on cinematic retainer, paying her $1m per year FOR DOING NOTHING. No, I'm actually being serious. He wanted to keep Diana Ross from working outside Motown Productions, and so paid her $1m just to be ready for him should he find the right script for her to star in. Script after script passed by, and nothing seemed right. Finally, Mahogany shows up with its basic frame: A poor girl from Chicago wants to become a fashion designer and ends up in Rome as a model, only to discover happiness was at home. Berry Gordy hired people to do a heavy rewrite to custom tailor it to Ross in order to give her the perfect vehicle to premiere a non-singing role that accentuated her side desire to become a fashion designer. To that end, Gordy even let Ross design the costumes. On screen, Diana Ross has sole credit as costume designer.

Gordy had hired Tony Richardson to direct Mahogany. Richardson was a British director who had previously directed an esoteric library from A Taste of Honey to Tom Jones to The Charge of the Light Brigade. Richardson liked being in control of the set, and consciously avoided Berry Gordy on the set. However, they communicated via PAs, with the PAs usually resolving fights between Richardson and Ross.

One fight, however, ousted Tony Richardson from the set. Richardson and Ross had a disagreement over which actor would be selected to rape her in a scene. Gordy came in, and the actor read for all three of them, and Richardson initially went with Gordy/Ross' choice. But, then during the filming, he had brought in his choice of actor, which led to a fight with Gordy on set, and Gordy fired Richardson.

Of course, Gordy was now directing Ross directly, which he had never done before. Even as head of Motown, he had managers and other handlers to do the dirty work for him. Gordy and Ross, now broken up for several years, fought on set like cats and dogs. They were constantly sniping and basically being egomaniacs at each other. Gordy even stormed off the set at one point, to which somebody pointed out this was idiotic because he was the one who was paying for the production and he was merely punishing himself. Eventually, towards the end of the shoot, after being told to do another take of a scene, Ross walked off the set, packed her stuff, and left the movie, leaving Gordy to finish the movie with body doubles.

Mahogany - On the Surface

The actual movie of Mahogany is a tale of ambition and love, fame and destruction, and above all, success and happiness. In Mahogany's world, if you're a woman these pairings are actually opposites, but we'll get to that bit of nonsense later. Diana Ross plays the character of Tracy Chambers, a young black girl living in the ghettos of Chicago. Tracy works for a department store as a display assistant to a bitter white female manager with a racist streak, but dreams of becoming a world famous fashion designer. By night, she attends design school where stuffy teachers just don't get her creative genius. Her drawing of a rainbow wrap is obviously better than any simple cocktail dress would be.

When coming home late one night, Tracy happens to meet Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams), an upcoming alderman who is trying to save the neighborhoods from the evil developers pushing out the poor people and gentrifying the neighborhood.  At first she's not warm to his advances, but after inadvertently getting him arrested, she starts warming up to him.

Later, at her department store job, Tracy meets Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins), a world-famous photographer, while he's shooting a bunch of terrible models for the department store. When Tracy walks in with her manager, he wants her to model. Her manager won't allow it, because she's both an assistant and she's black, and the department store has institutionalized racism, don't you know? Still, in a later, illicit, shoot, Sean convinces her to show him one of her outfits. Encouraged by his appreciation of her outfit, Tracy starts pushing to further her career with other design houses. The design houses don't like her designs, and, after being discovered she was going on these meetings when she should have been at work, Tracy is fired from her assistant job.

Back in the city life, Tracy and Brian start seriously dating, and showing up to events as a couple. Brian sees her participation as essential to his career, even though its detrimental to her career. However, Tracy gets a call from Sean to go to Rome so she can become a model. Torn between her man and her ambition, she chooses ambition and makes it to Rome where Sean McAvoy, with the help of Gavina modeling agency, redubs her Mahogany and makes her into a superstar model.

Tracy, now renamed Mahogany, starts getting an ego and getting too deep into the jetset lifestyle.  She keeps trying to get her designs out in the world's view, but all the forces try to conspire against her and keep her as a simple manipulated model. Meanwhile, Sean pines after her, as he does with all his models, but, ultimately, can't have her. When she finally invites Brian out to experience the life, Brian rejects her lifestyle and she rejects Brian. However, noticing their love for each other, Sean flips out during a photo shoot and crashes a car with both of them. Sean dies, and Tracy survives.

Tracy is then, essentially, bought by an older man who bought her first outfit. The count moves her into his mansion and sets up a workshop in his backyard greenhouse for her and a bunch of seamstresses  so that Tracy can create a full fashion line. Of course, the count really wants a bit of action, but he'll bide his time until Tracy really feels obligated. She designs a whole floor show for her line, a huge endeavor, and then is told that it's time to seal the deal. When she expresses regret at the choice, he takes the high road and doesn't pressure her. Because, ultimately, she discovers that fame and success isn't what she wants. She really just wants love, and so returns home to Brian and, presumably becomes content as a politician's wife.

On the surface, even with all this detail, Mahogany is a tale of a poor black woman being able to make it in the outside world and even becoming a success. Mahogany is a tale of choices. Should Tracy stay with Brian? Should she sacrifice love for success? Is she happy doing what she wants? Many of these questions are asked in "Theme From Mahogany", which gets played twice during the movie: once during the opening credits, and once during the Rome montage.

The Academy Award-nominated "Theme From Mahogany" is subtitled Do You Know Where You're Going To?, also the chorus of the song. "Theme from Mahogany" constantly drills the audience with questions. "Do you know where you're going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO? DO YOU KNOW?!" This line of questioning is followed by even more prying from Miss Ross. "Do you get what you're hoping for? When you look behind you, there's no open doors. What are you hoping for? DO YOU KNOW?!"

Mahogany is all about asking the questions by putting Diana Ross in constantly compromising situations and seeing what she would do. And, it always offers her choices. Unlike most movies, Mahogany actually does provide clear and separate paths for Tracy to follow rather than sending her down a path of pre-determined fate governed by the authors' whims. Tracy could choose to be dedicated to her job at the department store and stay a humdrum life, or she could follow her ambitions. She could choose to stay with Brian, or she could follow her ambitions and go with Sean. She could choose to be a good model and destined to fade away like Sean's other ex-models, or she could push her designs. She could keep choosing to succeed at fashion design, or she could return to Brian. None of this is fate, though the authorial opinion does dictate the happy ending: that success isn't all that it's cracked up to be without love.

Many people have seen Mahogany as a complex movie about morals and ambitions, which asks the audience what they would do. It is a movie that gives ambitious dreams to poor women of color, and tells them that their dreams are achievable. They just have to dream and sacrifice. And, it's a movie which is about compromises in a world aimed to test you.

Berry Gordy also gives the world a political bent by using Brian as a voice of the oppressed. Brian constantly rails against the destruction of low-rent apartment buildings for the incoming construction of expensive buildings displacing poor black people. A whole scene is shown at the unemployment office, which has a full lobby full of poor people trying to collect after a factory was closed down. Gordy is intent on showing the change that is coming to in major cities and will keep the poor oppressed.

The biggest set piece of the differences between the oppressed and the rich is a photo shoot with Sean in Chicago. Tracy and Sean mix high end models with homeless people in a shoot on a dilapidated house that is ready for being torn down. Brian asks Tracy how much the models are being paid, and wonders how much they're going to be paying the homeless people. Tracy dodges the moral implication that they're exploiting the homeless people, and says that what they're doing is art. She's excited to be moving up in the world, and doesn't care about the moral implications of her actions, losing track of herself in the process.

This losing track of herself is the theme of the film, reiterated time and again. Never is it more obvious as when Tracy is told she will be named after an inanimate object, and accepts the name Mahogany. After this moment, Mahogany is set upon a pedestal before she is pulled down to moral levels and depths that she never thought she would be. Meanwhile, both Diana Ross and the score croons at her, "Do you know where you're going to?"Not only is the song played twice, but the score constantly re-picks up the theme to the point where it comes dangerously close to being the only musical phrase in the movie.

Mahogany, which opens with the Kabuki Finale, begins with Mahogany's highest heights only to show her questioning her own choices. However, since this is 1975, Gordy's ultimate choice for the happy ending is that Mahogany would have been better off staying with Brian. He doesn't necessarily judge Mahogany for her success, because he deems it OK for her to have experienced success so that she can settle down and be content with her station as Brian's wife.

Mahogany - The Sirkian Subtext

Just as Douglas Sirk created a funhouse of mirrors in Imitation of Life with the real life stars of Lana Turner Juanita Moore, and Susan Kohner, Berry Gordy creates a funhouse of reality in Mahogany playing with not only Diana Ross' life, but his own and also the life of Anthony Perkins. But, Berry Gordy is no Douglas Sirk, and the subtext of Mahogany rarely stays sub for very long. Still, there is no hiding that Mahogany is much closer to what Berry Gordy thinks about Diana Ross than he is caring to admit. In the next few sections, we see how the text and subtext intertwine to develop a Sirkian complexity that keeps Mahogany fresh even now.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Humiliated

Berry Gordy directed Diana Ross in a dramatic role that he selected for her, rewrote for her, and intended to use as a Diana Ross vehicle. So, he made the role as close to Diana Ross as possible. By which I mean, Tracy Chambers is a driven young woman who starts off crazy and then gets driven to psychotic bouts of egomania. As mentioned before, the movie opens with the Kabuki Finale, which is Mahogany's ultimate fashion show. After she walks on the runway, she is accosted by Gavina, who raves and tells her that it was a big success! Mahogany shouts "SUCCESS!" Gavina talks about how this could lead to other options, and Mahogany looks more worried, and says quietly, "successes?" And, as Gavina talks about how they're going to make lots of money money money, Mahogany backs away and looks wide-eyed scared...freeze frame on Diana Ross looking...I don't even know.

In this opening sequence, we have egomaniacal Diana Ross, gritted teeth Diana Ross, and scared Diana Ross. And, by the time we get to the opening credits we see her acting in Mahogany is pitched psychotically over the top. The next words to come out of Diana Ross' mouth actually come after a scene in art school (where she's told she's not following directions) and a montage later. At this point, we're almost 7 minutes into the movie, and Diana Ross has only spoken "Success!" and "Successes."

In the next scene with Diana Ross speaking dialogue, Tracy Chambers is walking home at night, when she's followed by some guy who is looking to do something bad. Knowing how to scare him off, Tracy does a quick turn, and rants at the guy, saying "Hey mister, wanna buy a piece of ass? C'mon sucka, wanna buy some booty? Yeah, you man, I'm talkin to you. C'mon you, wanna buy something cheap? Yeah man what you want?! You got some money. Well, guess you can't please everybody." Then Tracy wanders off as the guy comments with exasperation, "A'int that a bitch. Goddamn ho!" And, in the next scene, she's harassed by Billy Dee Williams and has beer poured on her.

Reminder, Berry Gordy selected this film for his ex-girlfriend whom he had on $1m annual retainer, rewrote it, financed it, and directed it.

Diana Ross starts off as an egotist with bitchy tendencies. The next time she runs into Billy Dee, at a rally against a construction site, she pours milk into his megaphone and watches as he spills it on himself. He thinks it is the construction crew that pulled this prank on him and starts a brawl, during which she laughs and shakes the milk carton at him going "Wooooo-ooooo. Heyyy." She thinks it's hysterical.

She also bargains with her aunt to get her to make a dress for cheap rates. So, in 13 minutes, Diana Ross pisses off a design instructor, imitates a prostitute, starts a massive brawl, totally undercuts her aunt, and then her next act is to write a bad check and be late to work. This girl has problems. I'm not even kidding.

Tracy gets more and more egotistical as Mahogany goes on. Sometimes it is for good cause, like when Billy Dee tells her that she needs to accompany him to a dinner even though she needs to work on her designs for a fashion show the following week. But, other times it's totally unnecessary, constantly increasing through clenched teeth, exhaled snorts, grunts, and screams. Finally the whole attitude problem climaxes when she starts screaming at the Italian seamstresses and seething through her teeth.

As Mahogany's ego increases, she becomes increasingly unstable. Starting with Sean's seduction of Mahogany, she starts flipping out with increasing frequency. At a party in Rome to celebrate her, she karate chop dances, then pours candle wax on her naked body. She then extends this wax-based flip out to a post-party scene with Brian, where she hysterically shouts at Brian, "I'm a WINNER!" while she has white candle wax still stuck all over her face and upper chest. This flip out even extended to the next scene with the car crash sequence with Sean McAvoy.

Mahogany - Anthony Perkins

Before we get into the all-important car crash sequence, I need to make a quick diversion. We've been talking all about Mahogany and Diana Ross, and the intertwined nature of the two. But, we haven't talked much about Sean McAvoy and Anthony Perkins.

Anthony Perkins is a bisexual or gay actor who struggled with his sexuality for his whole life. While he certainly enjoyed the company of men, including that of Stephen Sondheim, Perkins knew that being perceived as out was lethal in the Hollywood system. This was all before Stonewall, you see. And, so it's almost fitting that his first role was in Psycho, about a slightly effeminate guy who struggles with his sexuality to the point that he kills people.

Perkins also had a bit of a twisted sense of humor and style. He and Sondheim would throw mystery parties on a boat for their friends in order to play fun games with them, that included solving murders or whatever. Perkins and Sondheim would go on to write a movie based on these parties, with the underseen but amazing Agatha-Christie-esque movie The Last of Sheila. Which is highly entertaining and quite amusing.

Berry Gordy and Tony Richardson, probably knowing this, hired Anthony Perkins to play the role of the famous photographer Sean McAvoy, who has a maniacal hatred of women founded in his sexuality. When we first meet Sean McAvoy, he doesn't think much of the models he is shooting for the department store. He tells models to "look horny" or "virginal" or tells them to finger a telescope or to say "shit." He dismisses all of them until he meets Tracy.

After his whirlwind business with Tracy Chambers, we meet up with Sean McAvoy again in Rome. The first images we see of his pad are a shrine dedicated to his last model, Crystal, which has blown up topless shots and a candids thrown in to the mix. When I say it is a shrine, it is literally a nook that you can walk in with walls plastered with the image of this model that McAvoy basically created.

The next image we see is of a giant blow up of Crystal with throwing darts on her face, and the print is scratched to hell. Tracy notices, and McAvoy dismisses it saying you can only be young once, but you can be immature forever (or something to that effect). Then, during the discussion, Sean comments that he names his models after inanimate objects, and will be dubbing Tracy Chambers, Mahogany after something dark and beautiful.

These introductory images of Sean McAvoy's personal life spell out that Sean has problems dealing with his sexuality. Later, when Sean finally gets around to seducing Mahogany (and ending up in a very Freudian position), he can't get it up. Obviously, his impotance is a sign of something else, but Sean decides to be angry at Mahogany, blaming her for his inability to actually have sex with a woman. The real reason for his inability to consummate the relationship with Mahogany, we discover, is his latent homosexuality.

Although his homosexuality is merely hinted at, at the same party where Mahogany flips out and pours candle wax on herself, Sean takes Brian to his back room to show him Sean's "private collection" which Mahogany "has already seen." During the course of this scene, Sean pulls an empty gun from his desk, and wrestles with Brian with each holding the gun and trying to point it at each other. If you'll notice from the collection of representative frames, first Brian holds Sean's gun by the barrel. Later, Brian throws Sean over his desk, so that Sean's legs are not in the air. Then Sean straddles Brian pointing his gun at Brian's face, while Brian grabs the barrel. Then they flip over, and Brian shoves the gun into Sean's mouth before pulling the trigger. The gun isn't loaded, but Sean certainly enjoyed the rather phallic scene. And, in the end, Brian leaves the room as Sean is lying down on the ground, laughing and smiling with his gun hanging limply from his shoulder. Obviously, Sean enjoyed this experience far more than he enjoyed even his semi-forced seduction of Mahogany earlier in the film.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Egomaniac

Which brings us back to the car scene. Here, the twin psychotic natures of Diana Ross and Anthony Perkins come head to head, as Perkins takes the drivers seat during a photo shoot. After the party where Anthony Perkins gets a gun facial, and Diana Ross gets a candle facial, they have a tumultuous photo shoot together. When Mahogany isn't completely present during the shoot, Sean gets in the car and starts harassing her about her desires for Brian, as well as her complete look of exhaustion, commenting that she looks like death warmed over.

In the first two images presented at right, Diana Ross is really kicking Mahogany into high gear by this scene. Sure she already put candle wax over her naked body. That pales in comparison to the seething and kicking Mahogany that Diana Ross gives us following the party scene. The closest cinematic equivalent of Diana Ross' performance in the second half of Mahogany is Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls, where she's nothing but kicking and seething and screaming.

But, Diana Ross was here first. She can glower like nothing else. This is the scene where she picks up the odd trait of seething through clenched teeth while shaking her head. And, when Sean McAvoy starts driving the car without steering it, eventually steering it off the cliff, Diana Ross goes into overdrive, providing one of the single best frames of movie history.

Sean was taking photos throughout the experience, and capturing her fear and humiliation on film. When Diana Ross recovers in the rich man's house, we get a glimpse that we were not the only ones who notices Mahogany's exaggerated expressions, as her "friends" are looking at the remainders of the film on her bed.

The car scene is emblematic of the systematic character assassination that Berry Gordy had been building up throughout the movie. By the time you get to this bit of humiliation at the hands of the director, you begin to realize that this might be a bit of brutality on the hands of Berry Gordy himself. Perhaps it is a sort of revenge for taking him away from Motown Records in Detroit. Perhaps it is for dumping him after becoming pregnant with his kid. Maybe it was something unconscious. In any case, Gordy was unleashing his real attitudes about Diana Ross in this film, and the next scene to really showcase her diva attitude was in the Sewing scene.

At this point in the film, a mere two scenes after the car scene, Mahogany is now being "kept" by the older count, who has basically paid for all her medical expenses and has been letting her shack up on the mend in his castle. We had just seen her wrapped in a a blanket in a wheelchair being taken to a back shed where the count has set up a sewing studio so Mahogany can develop her line of "fashion" and have a bunch of seamstresses to make her designs into a reality.

Here is where the Diana Ross diva of reality really comes out. When the scene opens, she's on the phone screaming at somebody about something, but the topic isn't as important as her tone and the visuals of her about to explode out of her head. She's screaming at the top of her lungs, holding her hands in impatient gestures, and finishes by doing her clenched teeth seething.

Then, she starts checking on the seamstresses' work and starts yelling at one of them that something needs a double stitch. Then screams at the main assistant to help her get through to the first seamstress. This whole scene is pitched at the top of her vocal cords, and is as violently entitled as you can imagine. The only thing that keeps it tempered is the final bit of the scene where the count reminds her that HE'S the one paying for the seamstresses.

With the amount of entitlement that happens in this sewing scene, one can't help but be reminded of the real life stories I mentioned earlier of Diana Ross. Her not meeting up with blind kids, complaining that her assistant is making a grandiose $250/week, having an entourage and her own dressing room while in The Supremes, and using Berry Gordy as a level to get her way. It's almost that Gordy knew this about successful diva Diana Ross and decided to show the world just how bad Diana Ross could be.

Mahogany - Berry Gordy

Which brings us to the character creator of this fiasco. Berry Gordy? If Diana Ross is obviously Mahogany, who is Berry Gordy's cinematic equivalent? Honestly? Berry Gordy is in all three male characters, slightly. He really wants to be Brian, as the low-rent urbanizer politician who is out to do good for the minority community and the underrepresented. But, if Gordy is honest with himself, he is probably more like Sean, a womanizer who is selfish and immature to the core. Yet, much like Gordy, Sean is a person who can make and break a person who is an artist and a product. Gordy once said of Diana Ross that she wasn't a personality, but a product.

Amusingly, Gordy is also giving Ross' husband a bit of shit by making her almost marry the count. You see, Diana Ross actually married a record executive when she broke it off with Gordy. Since Mahogany and the count never actually do the deed (it is a PG movie after all...despite the candle wax and nip slip), Gordy is seen here practically telling her new husband, "she doesn't really love you after all! She had sex with Brian, and with Sean...but she didn't have it with you. You gave her even more wealth and riches, and even married her and took care of my kid, but it isn't enough."

Berry Gordy was obviously still pining after Diana Ross, even though the relationship was toxic for both of them. He really wanted to be the good guy she needed, and gave both Diana and Berry the happy ending they both wanted. But, he was really Sean. He would self-destruct the relationship because he couldn't keep it in his pants, and was too egotistical himself, and she was too needy. Perhaps, there was a little bit of Gordy in the count as well, since both were incredibly selfish.

Mahogany - Feminist?

The three male characters all reflect different aspects of the men surrounding Diana Ross. Which all complicates the feminism of Mahogany. Mahogany is a story of a black woman succeeding, but it's all seen through aspects of Tracy's relationship with men. Brian doesn't want to allow her to have a career. Sean wants to have sex with something he doesn't respect. And, the count wants to own Tracy and make her relationship one of obligation to him. He wants to buy her love.

When Mahogany rejects her success to be a politician's wife, it's a patriarchal fantasy that puts egotistical women in their place. Though Mahogany succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, she ultimately couldn't be happy being successful without Brian. Meanwhile, Brian doesn't have that problem. He keeps going up and up in the world, as shown by his last rally, which has his biggest platform yet. He can do it without a woman, though a woman would make him happy.

That's not to say it's all a one-sided patriarchal fantasy. Carlotta Gavina, a side character, owns her own modeling agency, and is frequently seen profiting from men and women's success. When Mahogany is in front of the modeling agency's board, Gavina lets the men run the roost but she has the final say. Gordy doesn't let the audience off the hook by making Gavina into a lesbian, or even a spinster. She's never seen with a man, but we're not given clues that she prefers the company of women.

If one can point out the racial politics of Mahogany, the white characters of the film are all seen as toxic for Tracy and ultimately use her for their own success. The white characters of Mahogany are: the design teacher, the department store manager, her aunt's factory supervisor, Sean McAvoy, all of the fashion heads she visits, Gavina, the men on the board, and the Count. They all want to use other people for their own gain, including the Count whose gain is Tracy's love. Gavina represents the white world of Mahogany and, while complicating the anti-feminist message, isn't seen as a potential role model for the young impressionable black audience that Mahogany is aimed at.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Bad Artist

Mahogany is a Motown Production. It's actually the second Motown Productions film, following Lady Sings the Blues. Berry Gordy produced it, financed it, and ended up directing Mahogany. It stars his ex-girlfriend, and, arguably, one of the most famous names to come out of Motown. Yet, she does exactly one song for the movie. ONE. The soundtrack for Mahogany, released on Motown records, is 15 tracks long, and all but one is score. "Theme from Mahogany" is the only non-score song on the soundtrack. While Mahogany was released after American Graffiti, Gordy wasn't making Diana Ross into a songstress, but making her into a dramatic star. Still, one would have expected Diana Ross to be singing more than one song on the album.

Instead of allowing Diana Ross to show off her assets as a singer, Berry Gordy focused on Diana Ross, the fashion designer. As previously mentioned, during the production of Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross scrapped an entire collection of period gowns because they were not glamorous enough. So, what better way to make a diva happy than by allowing her to live her dream as a fashion designer? Right? Then, she can't complain about the wardrobe. And, so, Diana Ross was allowed to design all of the costumes that Mahogany designed. Mahogany's success would be Diana Ross' success.


As you can tell, Diana Ross is insane. We have statue of liberties, disco space aliens, peacocks, and a renegade mushroom outfit that is straight out of the The Nutcracker ballet. And, that's just in the Kabuki Finale opening.

The outfits only get more bizarre later in the film. In the strip on the left, you'll find a selection of some of the costumes that Diana Ross designed for Mahogany. The first outfit is the first dress that Tracy ever designs in Mahogany. It's a rainbow cape over a simple yellow dress that looks like a colorful something or another when the dress is flat and the wearer is standing still. It's only when the model spins, as Tracy Chamber is doing, that the dress comes alive.

The second and third pictures come from later in the movie, as the dress is an outfit that Tracy has designed to wear on a runway at a charity auction. She is actually intended to wear an outfit by a famous designer, but decides to eschew tradition and try to sell one of her own pieces. The audience thinks it is ugly, because it is, and only after Sean humiliates her does anybody actually buy it for One Million Lire.

Pictures 3-10 come from a fashion montage directed by Jack Cole. Amongst other outfits, this montage features Mahogany as a low-rent Egyptian queen, an ostrich, a wombat, a 1960s psychedelic model, and as a Hitchcock heroine with birds flying out of her vagina. One could easily be forgiven for thinking this is a movie about drag queens with this litany of outfits. The wombat alone...

The final picture is a fateful outfit with Mahogany wearing a gigantic poof sleeve. It's fateful because this is the first sign that Sean is getting fed up with Mahogany and decides to push her into the fountain, turning the subsequent pictures of a shocked and drenched Mahogany into an advertising sensation. Which, of course, brings us back to the constant humiliation that Berry Gordy subjects Diana Ross to throughout the course of this movie. Also, what advertising agency would make Mahogany the largest name of the billboard? No, really, it seems like it is a billboard for Mahogany and not Revlon Touch & Glow. It's only a brief flash, but was this ever a thing?

There's one last jab I have to fit in of Diana Ross as a terrible artist, and this one seemed so extremely petty and hilarious, that I can't imagine leaving it out. It's a brief shot, of Tracy working on an hanging poster for Brian Walker. I don't even know what this actually is about. It seems this proto-poster has been signed by a lot of people, but that drawing is supposed to be Billy Dee Williams. Tracy Chambers is an accomplished sketch artist, at least when it comes to drawing outfits. Her sketches had a little more character in the face than this. Here though, we get an extreme closeup of a poster that looks like a 5th grader made it. And, maybe they did. I don't know. The story of this poster was left out of the film. But, I like to think of it as another sly jab that Diana Ross is a terrible artist.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Actress

That's not to say that Berry Gordy was writing a complete hate letter to Diana Ross with this movie. During certain parts of the film, Diana Ross is allowed to shine. And, frequently she does. Berry Gordy gives Diana Ross a whole makeover montage, directed by Jack Cole (credit where credit's due), with parts that are ripped straight from Vertigo.

This is Berry Gordy telling Diana Ross that she is a beautiful woman, but also a product. Much like Vertigo was all about dissecting a woman into her beautiful parts for a man's visual pleasure, this montage is about dissecting Mahogany into her parts and making her a product for a man's visual pleasure. A beautiful product, but an inanimate object nonetheless.

Berry Gordy, throughout Mahogany, is constantly showing us how beautiful Diana Ross is. Not just Diana Ross being crazy, but Diana Ross being emotional, dramatic, and happy, frustrated and just plain gorgeous. She has bedroom eyes and pouty lips that makes her face iconic.

However, Berry Gordy made a movie where the high fashion beauty is actually loaded in the middle of the movie. By bookending her beauty as a model with lower-class fashion choices at the beginning and over-the-top hysterics at the end, it is easy to forget that Diana Ross actually is showcased gorgeously during the movie.

Her acting, when being over the top, is not that bad. She can say whole paragraphs with just her eyes. Sometimes she'll be telling people off, or communicating frustration. But, her eyes speak volumes for her. Billy Dee Williams was also in Lady Sings the Blues, and one of Berry Gordy's intentions was to make Ross and Williams a cinematic romantic couple that would do a series of different movies, much in the style of the 1950s pairings of Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Actually, Ross and Williams work extremely well together and have some chemistry. I think Billy Dee actually has chemistry to spare, and gave some to Diana Ross, but they seem to actually have sparks.

So, the fault of Diana Ross isn't that she can't act. It's that she was directed to shoot the moon, and she did that and more. She took the direction to make a superstar character and ran with it. The over the top parts of her performance actually overshadow all of the good work she does when she's not being over the top. Unlike Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls, Ross' quieter moments are fraught with emotions and understanding of the character. The rest of the movie is just turned up to 11.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Superstar and Drag Role Model

I would be remiss if I didn't include at least a tiny section on how Mahogany is one of the main inspirational sources of modern drag queens. Hell, RuPaul even said that the video for crossover hit "Supermodel" was inspired by the makeover/fashion shoot of Mahogany, and that Mahogany is one of his favorite drag queen movies ever made.

My first experience with Mahogany was here in Seattle a few years ago at a bar called Re-Bar. There, about 4 times a year, they do re-enactments of movie scripts that are adjusted. It's done on the cheap (which makes for awesome attempts at blockbusters like Total Recall), and is done by a queer friendly group led by Ian Bell. It's called the Brown Derby Series. One of the movies they selected was Mahogany, with a fabulous local black queen, Adé, as Diana Ross. The way Adé chewed up the scenery, screaming at everybody at the top of her lungs, seething through her teeth and basically being an egomaniac from frame 1 was such a spot on characterization it barely counted as parody. Then I saw the movie, and saw everything about how it is a drag classic.

What is it about Mahogany that makes it a drag movie? And, not just any drag movie, but one of THE minimum requirements for drag queens the world over? Mahogany holds a place in drag culture that is just barely surpassed by Mommy Dearest. So, what is it that makes Mahogany such an endearing and enduring movie to this day?

Well, for one, it's about a Diva. And, not just any Diva, but Diana Ross, who literally made her face the haunted image of her 1976 album. This is a woman who was the height of ego and lived larger than life. She had entourages when her band mates had none. She threw fits of egomania and was able to keep her brand alive through it, and even because of it. This was a woman who was able to get people fired with waves of her hand. She was able to make her name in the business and ended up larger than life.

Mahogany is also about a Diva who throws fits, wears glamorous clothes, lives a larger than life existance and has constant bouts of egomania. Tracy Chambers is a larger than life personality, perhaps even larger than Diana Ross, herself. And, the fabulous self-designed clothes just enhances this perspective. Drag queens are all about magnifying the traits of women, namely superstars, to elevations that are beyond the realm of reality. It's all about superstardom and the ego that it takes to get to it.

Plus, Mahogany is batshit crazy. I mean, really. It has a wombat outfit. It has a car crash. It has insanely over-the-top outfits presented as high fashion. Diana Ross screeches through the last 40 minutes of the film to higher and higher pitches. Nobody ever looks down on Tracy Chambers or Mahogany. She makes questionable choices, but everybody goes along with and/or puts up with her crazyness in order to profit. The whole movie is a psychotic version of the melodramatic woman's fantasy turned up to 11. Plus, the outfits. Holy shit, I cannot mention the drag quality of the outfits enough.

Mahogany - Conclusion

If you've made it this far, congratulations. When I started writing this, I never expected to write 7000+ words on a movie who has two claims to fame: inspiring young black girls, and drag queens. Mahogany is a Sirkian classic that, while not as masterful as Douglas Sirk's famous works, is just as complicated. Some will dismiss it because it takes so many tropes from the woman's movies of the 1940s-50s that Sirk also used and abused. Others will say that Diana Ross is over the top hysterical in it. They're both right. But, Mahogany is practically flawless because of these things. It's a hall of mirrors that can be read in so many ways, it deserves to be reassessed.

Plus, so many many drag queens were created because of this movie. I shit you not.

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