Throughout her life, Billie Holiday was preyed upon by an endless succession of cruel, parasitic men. Some pimped her out. Some introduced her to drugs. Some stole her money, while others viciously abused her. But of all the pimps, players, and leeches she hooked up with, only her husband Louis McKay was lucky enough to serve as technical advisor on Lady Sings The Blues, the 1972 feature-film adaptation of her largely fictionalized autobiography. So it doesn't seem coincidental that McKay emerges as Lady's dashing hero rather than the vicious lowlife of historical record. In a rare concession to historical authenticity, the film acknowledges that McKay made his living as a small-time crook, but Lady depicts him in such a fawning, unambiguous light that audiences can be forgiven for thinking he was actually a professional Boy Scout.
Lady Sings The Blues opens with Holiday (Diana Ross) getting busted for heroin possession; it then flashes back to her hardscrabble youth doing odd jobs at a whorehouse before graduating to full-on prostitution. The film follows the unsteady progress of her musical career as well as her battles with alcoholism and heroin addiction and her epic romance with McKay, played by Billy Dee Williams in one of his most charismatic performances.
Lady Sings The Blues incongruously transforms Holiday's messy, bisexual, masochistic romantic history into a glossy romance about a troubled, needy woman-child and the endlessly patient dreamboat who could slow but never entirely halt her march toward self-destruction. But where the film glosses over the complexities and bleak realities of her love life, it wallows in the scummy depths of her heroin addiction. Director Sidney J. Furie films the movie largely in long and often static continuous takes that highlight Ross' vulnerable and moving lead performance, but linger far too long without shape or structure, especially in sequences dramatizing her heroin addiction. For much of the film, Holiday seems like a junkie first and a musician second, and when Furie does try to comment on Holiday's art, he stumbles badly, as in a sequence where Ross witnesses a black body hanging from a tree in the South, then channels her pain and despair into a haunting rendition of "Strange Fruit." But Lady is ultimately about Ross as much as Holiday, and Ross' remarkable debut performance, bruised and melancholy, lovely and raw, nearly redeems the film. For all the liberties the film takes with the facts of Holiday's life, the bottomless hurt in Ross' voice as she channels Holiday's tartly tragic spirit rings true.