"There's no damn business like show business. You have to smile to keep from throwing up."Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday's life was complicated with great extremes and she lived it on her terms, and the now-Oscar-nominated Andra Daywho plays Holiday in the movie The United States vs. Billie Holidayshows us extremes in a way we have not seen. The film takes a more in-depth look at Holiday's complex life, focusing on the last decades of her life with a depth and richness lacking from the earlier 1972 movie Lady Sings The Blues. That version of Holiday's life stars Diana Ross, and the contrast between the two films are as striking as the complexity that was Holiday's life.
There are some similarities between the films. Both were the first major roles for both Ross and Day; both focus on Holiday's drug addiction and feature some of her music, but that is where the similarities end. The 1972 film paints Louis McKay as the love of Holiday's life trying to save her when, in reality, he was abusive, controlling and manipulative.
This film's focus is the federal government's relentless pursuit of Holiday because of the perceived threat she posed by singing "Strange Fruit." This blatant fear and racism are masked under the guise of trying to "save" her from the perils of her addiction. To achieve the real goal of silencing her singing that particular song, the feds lured others into setting Holiday up by planting narcoticsa development that included her last husband, McKay. While not depicted in the film, it is interesting to note that Talullah Bankhead, played by Natasha Lyonne, wrote a letter to FBI director and family friend J. Edgar Hoover, pleading for Holiday's release when she was arrested. The 1972 film doesn't explain how she came to be arrested; it only uses the scene to start the movie.
Like many female performers before her, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Holiday was openly bisexual and was rumored to have had a notable affair with Bankhead, among others. Although the film touches upon that to a small degree, it contrasts her relationships with men and women. Being that Bankhead was white, we also see the subjugation Holiday faced as a womanand as a Black woman. There are obvious hierarchies, involving race and gender, absent from the 1972 film.
The 1972 film was a huge success, but it does not hold up regarding authenticity or show Holiday as a multifaceted woman. Ross' performance was good (especially the singing and acting in the early part of the film) but it ends up being somewhat of a caricature of how history has painted Holiday as a victima view through the very narrow lens. It also neglects many aspects of Holiday's life, including her love of women as well as men. Although that representation would have been inconceivable in 1972, one wonders if Ross would have even touched the subject given the time and her newly minted solo career.
As has been reported in various articles and interviews, Holiday and Bankhead (whom she called "Banky") had an intense, stormy relationship that lasted a few years. "Bankhead seemed obsessed by her," according to John Szwed, who wrote Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. Szwed argued that the autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (1956)written by Holiday and William Duftyis a generally accurate account of her life.
The sexuality of Holiday and other famous individuals is widely known. Still, it is only recently that we have begun to see an acceptance of bisexuality and positive representation of it in projects and performances like Day's. Considering director Lee Daniels is openly gay, it would be surprising if Holiday's sexuality didn't make it into the film. Daniels is well known for including LGBTQ characters and actors in other projects.
Daniels brings a visual and emotional richness to this film missing from the 1972 film. He and Day not only show us who Holiday was, but what made her that way. Beyond their incredible talents, this new film was made when we can openly and honestly see a complete version of Holiday that includes aspects of her life that either would not or could not be shown. That alone sets the two films apart.
The United States versus Billie Holiday is available on Hulu.