Monday, May 10, 2010

Lena Horne, 1917-2010



From Vincente Minnelli's autobiography, I Remember It Well, 1974.
During my first few months at Metro, the only challenges were to my imagination. Lena Horne came to the studio at the same time, and my first assignments were to direct her musical numbers. Another director would do the rest of the film. Lena complained in her autobiography that because she was black, her many numbers were never integrated into the script. They could thus be cut out of the film if Southern distributors objected. This was, of course, contemptible. Could it have been only 30 years ago that we considered it daring to cast a black actress in a non-servile role? We were raising our puny voices for social progress. They should have been louder.


From Lena Horne's landmark 1981 one-woman show, excerpted in her interview with Ed Bradley, a snippet of which is accessible here.
They said to Max Factor, "Look at this woman. Look at her. Create a makeup to make her look more colored." That's a little something we used to call each other before we got straight. He said, "Okay." Okay, they'll do anything. And he went away, come back about two weeks later with a makeup they created for me. Named it Light Egyptian. Took this Light Egyptian and put it all over Ava Gardner. So I'm gonna tell you, I felt bad for a while. About 12 years.

And a beautiful tribute here, from Sheila O'Malley.

26 comments:

Sheila O'Malley said...

"About 12 years."

Wow. Such a tough lady. Love her.

RIP.

The Siren said...

Sheila, if you follow the link, immediately afterward she admits that it was much longer than 12 years. And laughs. A tough lady indeed.

In Minnelli's book he also alludes to having dated her, taking her to restaurants where they had called ahead to make sure they would not be thrown out.

To go through that, to have a huge talent but a career that you know was stunted by the fetid prejudices of the times, and then to have the grace to be so damn funny about it - but still scathing - surely that kind of toughness and grace is something we should all aspire to.

Maya said...

I saw that one-woman show when she brought it to San Francisco. One of the highlights of my cultural life. Especially when she sang "Where or When" while re-enacting her rise through the Hollywood studio system. How she was trained to act for the cameras. How she was told to stand still, lift her head and then (with a sudden spotlight) smoulder!

Also loved how she had these young hoofers dancing all around her while every now and then she would flip a semicircle with her boa.

The Siren said...

I envy you - I have only seen bits and pieces on TV.

Jeff Overturf said...

Goodbye Lena...your voice will ring for years to come.

Gloria said...

I recall seeing her on a film clip singing "stormy Weather" in my early teens.

Guess which is my favourite rendition of the song.

Arthur S. said...

My feeling is that Lena Horne's lack of film career is ultimately Hollywood's loss because they could have made really exceptional films with an actress of such unusual beauty and intelligence. In ''Cabin in the Sky''(with Minnelli) although she's cast as the temptress or the like, she plays it with real style, that is she doesn't treat the character beneath her or anything.

Vanwall said...

Boy, she was lovely and talented, more so than almost anyone else. If she'd lived in the "modern" world, I wonder how many awards she woulda won, how much more acclaimed she would be? She was already a yardstick, it would've taken a nautical mile rope to measure anyone else as good if that had happened, and that might be the result now anyway. I used to wonder what it would've been like to hear, and see - knockouts both - Lena Horne and Ketty Lester in a Broadway show together - I'd've killed to see that.

X. Trapnel said...

V, if she had lived in the "modern world" she might not have had to endure the indignities of racism but she would also have missed the great age of American popular music.

The Siren said...

Ah XT, that is true. Her rendition of "Where or When" stops my heart.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I saw her in "The Lady and Her Music" too. Simply Beyond Amazing.

Insterestingly the Bubble Bath Number cut from Cabin in the Sky was included in a Pete Smiht Speciaty A Visit to the Studio.

Read the biography "Stormy Weather." It tells the whole story -- and it's quite a story.

surly hack said...

Horne also admitted that the changes wrought by the civil rights movement put strains on her marriage to Lenny Hayton, who was white. More than enough intolerance to go around.

When Lena was feeling the weather
I could have been knocked with a feather
She carried a torch
with sizzle and scorch
Burned beauty and talent together

http://limoday.blogspot.com/2010/05/rip-lena-horne.html

Karen said...

This one really does cut deep. What an endlessly elegant lady; beautiful to see and beautiful to hear.

Dave said...

I was an admirer of Horne's and have nothing but sympathy for the crap she went through in Hollywood.

That said, she would have been totally miscast in "Show Boat."

VW: fucup (no comment)

Trish said...

I remember seeing her on variety shows when I was very young. It wasn't until I saw "That's Entertainment" that I realized she had a movie career, so to speak.

Yojimboen said...

Lenny Bruce on how to confront Southern bigots:

(You say to them): “O.K. You are a white. The Imperial Wizard […] This is the logic: You have the choice of spending fifteen years married to a woman, a black woman or a white woman. Fifteen years kissing and hugging and sleeping real close on hot nights. With a black, black woman or a white, white woman. Now dig this. The white woman is Kate Smith...
And the black woman is Lena Horne…"

gmoke said...

"And your sister will jump over ten Charles Laughtons to get next to one Harry Belafonte."

I posted the same routine on a dailykos thread and received a comment that decried Lenny Bruce as a misogynist more concerned with size and weight than anti-racist.

I wonder if Lena Horne ever heard that routine and, if she did, what she thought of it.

A courageous and elegant lady who will be missed.

gmoke said...

BTW, Harry Belafonte was one of the speakers at the recent reunion of SNCC. A friend attended and told me that he was exhorting the 1000 or so attendees, old SNCC people, their families, those studying them in college, and even some high school students, to get off their behinds and make some changes happen.

Although I'm sure he stated it more elegantly than that. Harry Belafonte is hard core.

Gloria said...

"And your sister will jump over ten Charles Laughtons to get next to one Harry Belafonte."


Why jump over? ;p

The Siren said...

I don't know, Horne was so fiercely ladylike no matter WHAT she was discussing that I mostly see her finding the Bruce routine crude, although I could be wrong.

As for Harry Belafonte, he has been walking the walk all his life. And the Siren **adores** him.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

Anne Brown, the original Bess, died last year. Fed up with American racism she had emigrated to Norway where she had a distinguished career as a singer and voice teacher. She also speculated on what she might have done in America had she been born a generation or two later, but added, "but then I wouldn't have met Mr. Gershwin and that would have been a shame."

cgeye said...

"A class act" is a gross understatement. I'm glad she lived so long, to see others continue her path.

Buttermilk Sky said...

A lovely post, as usual, Siren. Two comments...in her (OK, not always reliable) "Lady Sings the Blues," Billie Holiday recounts how nobody wanted to be seen with her after she got our of prison -- except Lena Horne. Also, the great vaudevillean Bert Williams had to darken his skin, too. We have always had decided ideas about the way black people should look (and sound), and get nervous about any ambiguity. Horne would have made a great Julie in the second "Show Boat," but the Production Code required a white woman, so they put the Egyptian makeup all over Ava Gardner and then dubbed her singing. Our loss.

The Rush Blog said...

I love Lena Horne. God knows that I love her. But she has never struck me as an exceptional film actress. Ethel Waters, another singer-turned actress, could act circles around her.

But . . . I still loved Ms. Horne in "STORMY WEATHER", "CABIN IN THE SKY" and "THE WIZ". Actually, she was the only good thing in that last film.

MichelleLispi, don't expect much from me here. I blog like never. said...

My grandma was on a float in a parade in Huntington Park, CA in like 1932/1934 for (I think winning) a beauty pageant. She and runners up were dressed like the "It" girls of the time. Probably one was Theda Bara, and one was probably like "Andrews Sisters"-esque. and so on. My grandma was half Mexican , but looked more caucasian. She was "forced" to be Lena Horne as she was most ethnic of the group, being the prevailing White Anglo Saxon Protestant population at that time. (She was conceived en route via covered wagon, then born in the City of Los Angeles in 1913, where my great grandma raised her with a loving step father (who she knew as her father until about age 16). Any way, I always pictured Lena Horne as the hot older friend of Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". Probably because she resembles my Grandma more. (Actually My grandma died a couple years ago at age 97, a good long life, now in death, granted a peaceful rest as opposed to an "after-life".) She worked for a season as a coat-check girl at a speak easy underground the Santa Anita Racetrack back in the prohibition period. She got $5 tips from the likes of Bing Crosby and such. That's a lot for back then.

MichelleLispi, don't expect much from me here. I blog like never. said...

Oh yeah, like the main thing was that the "hot" item of the time was the sarong. It was linked to Lena Horne. As the winner she was at the top of the float, and she said it was cold, but it was ok. All the other girls had more substantial outfits material-wise and she laughed as she explained her woes of that moment. She is so humble, I love her. I'm probably more like her, really, than any other woman in my family tree.Probably why we argued a bit in regards to her marriage and how I in my infinite wisdom thought she should have left my grandpa if he was so "emotionally unavailable" and overly harsh with the kids. (The only reason my Dad ended up OK being the only white family (practically) in Pico Rivera in the 50's, was his paper route to keep him out of the house which he picked up at like 5 or 6 years old. But all I have to do is take a look at a piture of him in his heyday and see that he can't be that bad. No one can look that hot lihgting a cigarette in a Navy outfit no less, and be too bad of a person. So I have a peaceful understanding of him now. I learned you ought never be involving yourself in the inner workings of others' marriages. That is for them to work out themselves. I now know that first hand as my marriage has all but completely failed. Even if domestic violence an issue, it is still the woman's (or man's I guess possibly too, as a potential victim, but I haven't seen it)responsibility to leave. I think battered woman's shelter's are in every yellow pages, or the internet. My grandma actually saved me from a domestic violence situation I couldn't seem to want to leave regardless of black eyes, bloody noses, and cheating with a homeless girl in the bedroom while I was home. If she wasn't at my parent's visiting that day, I would have had no empathetic, sympathetic source to realize it was serious and all I needed was a loving pep talk to empower me, and I was gone in less than 2 minutes, never to return, until the poor guy,(regardless of his rohypnol rape scam he carried out more than a couple times, he still suffered at the hands of his father's brutal beatings of his mother, and now, I would presume, has nearly paid his debt to the spiritual hole he dug out of his soul) had been removed into custody of the police. But really only for incidental paraphernalia with illegal substance still measurably intact. Only to prison because of priors probably. I still had to go to court, and he in his orange jumpsuit, to serve the restraining order. This was 15 years ago and it hasn't been a problem again. Probably because I'm no longer a dopewhore. Yay! Well that's enough about me.