Keeps raining all the time...
Legendary songbird Lena Horne passed away yesterday at ninety-two years of age. Her big career essentially began at sweet sixteen while in the chorus of The Cotton Club in Harlem. She made her movie debut at only twenty-one in The Duke is Tops (1938). By twenty-six she was both a star actress (if not a movie star) and a hit recording artist headlining Stormy Weather (1943) and scandalizing Hollywood with her flirtations from the bubble bath in Cabin in the Sky (1943).
She moved away from the cinema rather quickly, though, and it's easy to understand why. Despite her spirited presence, dazzling smile and those best-selling pipes -- key ingredients of many movie musical superstars -- Hollywood kept marginalizing her, keeping her in small parts or famously passing her over for lead roles. The one that probably stung the most was the romantic mixed-race lead of the musical Show Boat (1951), which she reportedly wasn't even considered for. Ava Gardner got the part. By the start of the 50s, Lena had smartly moved on to concentrate on music, television and the stage though she would make infrequent trips back to the movies. In her last film role she took on an immortal oft-interpreted character "Glinda the Good Witch" for The Wiz (1978)
For all of her gifts, Lena Horne didn't exactly ease on down Hollywood's road. Like many talented performers, she struggled to forge a career in the face of ingrained prejudices and Hollywood's conservativism about rocking any boats. It's hard to look at her few screen performances now and wonder how anyone once thought she was inappropriate for romantic leads. Even if she weren't so talented... there's the beauty alone to consider! Nevertheless Lena forged a remarkable career spanning several decades. I love this righteous quote:
In my early days I was a sepia Hedy Lamarr. Now I'm black and a woman, singing my own way.She's one of countless blacktresses over the years who Hollywood has struggled to understand or properly utilize. Things have gotten a lot better but it's still, strangely in 2010, a trouble spot for Hollywood. Even the few who do make it to leading roles (like the great Angela Bassett in the 90s) end up back in disappointing supporting roles before long. But change takes a long time and it doesn't happen without the slow cumulation of forward momentum from trailblazers like Lena.
Lena's husband and son died before her but she is survived by her daughter Gail Lumet Buckley (One of Lena's granddaughters, Jenny Lumet, wrote the great Rachel Getting Married)
Goodbye Lena. Thank you for the music.
Here's another couple gorgeous song performances to send you on your way. In the first she does a subtle rendition of a song by another actor/singer (Kris Kristofferson) called "I've Got To Have You" in the 1970s and in the second, a very early clip, she does flirtatious empowerment with "Unlucky Woman"
Related Post: Cabin in the Sky (1944)