GIFs via Les Fabian Brathwaite
Mahogany, the greatest film of all time (Citizen Kane, go fuck yourself), celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. If you’ve never heard of it, well, today’s your lucky day, queen. It’s basically 105 minutes of Diana Ross owning everything and serving up hair, face, and body to the gods.
Ross had earned an Oscar nomination for her film debut, 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, for playing Billie Holiday. Along with Cicely Tyson, who was also nominated that year for Sounder, Ross became the second African-American woman up for Best Actress — after Dorothy Dandridge for 1954’s Carmen Jones.
In what could only be described as the gay man’s Sophie’s choice, Liza Minnelli beat out Diana Ross for the Oscar for Cabaret.
History claims that Berry Gordy — Motown honcho and Svengali of the Diana Ross mythos — and his aggressive Oscar campaign cost her the trophy. Either way, we’d have to wait 31 more years for a black lady to win Best Actress at the Academy Awards.
The soundtrack to Lady Sings the Blues was also a runaway hit, becoming one of Ross’s most successful albums to-date. So riding high on that groundbreaking wave, Ross and Gordy tried their luck with another feature film, 1975’s Mahogany.
Think Audrey Hepburn’s Funny Face meets Babs Streisand’s The Way We Were meets The Diana Ross Story and you’ll get the gist of the film.
Ross, as aspiring fashion designer Tracy Chambers, falls for political activist Brian Walker (Ross' Lady Sings the Blues co-star Billy Dee Williams). When noted fashion photographer Sean McAvoy notices how rail thin and flawless Tracy is, he turns her into a supermodel, renaming her Mahogany.
In retrospect, the film often blurred the lines between fiction and reality. McAvoy is probably a closeted homosexual and he's portrayed by famous closeted homosexual Anthony Perkins (of Psycho fame). He tries and fails to sleep with Tracy, who tells him the same lie women have been telling men since the beginning of time.
The seduction is simply an attempt to control every aspect of Tracy's life — much like Berry Gordy was accused of doing with Diana Ross.
The production was plagued by trouble almost from the start. Gordy fired the original director, Tony Richardson, and assumed duties behind the camera — even though he had never directed a film before. From there, Ross and Gordy clashed over the course of filming. At one point, the diva reportedly slapped her director and stormed off the set.
Mahogany/Tracy eventually breaks free from McAvoy’s control — as Ross would later do from Gordy — except Gordy didn’t die in some random car crash as McAvoy does while trying to take pictures of Tracy behind the wheel of a Fiat.
Tracy’s injuries land her in the hospital, where she miraculously recovers and returns fierce as ever to launch her own fashion line.
In another nod to those blurred lines, Ross — also an aspiring couturier — designed the film’s costumes, which John Galliano may or may not have stolen.
With the world at her feet and her dreams finally coming true, Mahogany/Tracy quickly becomes an egomaniacal monster.
Brian walks out on her, forcing her to choose between love and success. So Tracy does what Diana Ross would openly laugh in her face for doing, and chooses to give up her career to be with Brian.
Despite its setbacks, the film was a hit with audiences, though not with critics. Roger Ebert called it a “big, lush, messy soap opera” and Time magazine read Gordy to filth for “squandering one of America’s most natural resources: Diana Ross.”
Still, it wasn't all bad news. “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?)” became Ross’s third #1 hit as a solo artist and was nominated for Best Original Song at the 1976 Academy Awards. It was the only nomination the picture got, but in a diva defining moment of the 20th century, a fur-covered Ross performed the song live via satellite from Amsterdam, where she was on tour.
Just like Time magazine, time itself has not been good to the film, which is just as messy though maybe not as lush 40 years later. That messiness, however, is what gives Mahogany its camp appeal. Well, that messiness and the willingness of its leading lady to turn it up to 11, even when everyone around her is coasting at a 5.
I can never stress enough the importance of Diana Ross as a gay icon and Mahogany perfectly explains why. Both impossibly fabulous and impossibly camp, Ms. Ross is throwing tantrums, slapping people, fucking shit up, wearing an endless array of kimonos (as a matter of course), and just generally living her life.
If Mahogany was made today, it would simply be called, Yas, Kween!
Tracy Chambers/Mahogany/Diana Ross was the archetype and the epitome for many a black girl and a black gay — myself included. Just one year after Beverly Johnson became the first black woman to cover Vogue, Mahogany introduced Diana Ross as the biggest black female fashion icon since Josephine Baker. Future supermodel of the world RuPaul was clearly taking notes, as were all the queens serving high fashion Parisienne in Paris Is Burning.
And of course, Diana Ross was what Beyoncé is now: a global superstar who transcended the limitations of race and gender.
That Ross was black and from the Detroit projects; that she was beautiful, glamorous, and successful when women of color weren’t supposed to be beautiful, or glamorous and certainly not ambitious — that was an inspiration. Mahogany tells that story, only it fails where Diana Ross succeeded. Ross had five kids and was still slipping into catsuits to perform for audiences around the world. She didn’t have to give up her career for success; she found success on her own terms.
So maybe Mahogany isn’t the greatest film of all time, but it’s a camp masterpiece. You could play a drinking game to how many times Diana changes outfits and be sloshed within 30 minutes. The only thing bigger than the wigs is the melodrama. It's one of the gayest and most over-the-top things to come out of the '70s. And this is the fucking '70s we're talking about.
40 years later, Mahogany is still owning everything.
Meanwhile, every drag queen worth her salt should have her "I'm a winner" speech memorized or hang up her tuck and get the hell out of the game.
Les Fabian Brathwaite doesn't know where he's going to. Call for help.