Monday, May 10, 2010

Lena Horne (1917-2010)

Keeps raining all the time...
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)

Lena as Glinda

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)


John T said...

RIP Ms. Horne-there may be no sun up in the sky, but now we have one more star.

City_Of_Lights said...

Wow, Lena singing Kristofferson is heaven. Thanks Nat.

RIP to a wonderful lady, Ms. Lena Horne.

Pierre said...

A great lady has departed. RIP, Lena.

Anonymous said...

Such a talented and classy lady, and a true inspiration! This is the best thing I've read about her today and I'm glad her passing has been acknowledged, it's a shame the way the system held her back. R.I.P. Miss Lena Horne.

Chris Na Taraja said...

Funny, I turned on this old Jayne Mansfield movie, where this singer was trying to sound like Lena Horn, and i even said it out loud, "She's trying to be Lena horn, but that could never be."

That was a beautiful tribute, but I'm sorry to say that I find the term "blacktress" totally offensive. I know it's a fresh hot term in Hollywood, but I think it continues perpetuates the racism.

Sorry, i'm sure that's not what you intended, but I'm wondering if anyone else feels this way.

Chris Na Taraja said...

The Jayne mansfield movie was horrible and called THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT. it was worth it ony for this wierd scene wheere the lead man sees Julie London in a drunken stuper appear in ever room singing "Cry me a river" and appearing in a different dress in every room.

ShoNuff Lives said...

i've been listening to "the lady and her music" all day...i might switch up for "jamaica" for the ride sad, but she lived a terrificly important in peace, indeed

NoNo said...

She was always so lovely and most women could only wish they had her grace. I'm sure both Broadway and Harlem will pay tribute in their own ways.

I know that Janet Jackson was supposed to play her in a made-for-tv biopic (produced by Oprah, of course). However after the Superbowl, she was against it. Then there were rumors of Alicia Keys.

Dorian said...

RIP to one of the greats. She lived in a time that wasn't ready for her and didn't know how to properly utilize her talents, but we got what we got, and the world's a better place for Lena Horne being a part of it. Really sad news. RIP.

coolmon said...

A special lady has passed away.