Among the many cringe-inducing moments in “Mahogany” is the moment when a world-famous fashion photographer gives Diana Ross’s character her new name.
“I give all my creations the names of inanimate objects,” says the photog. “There’s only one word that describes rich, dark, beautiful and rare. I’m going to call you Mahogany.”
Imagine what the Twitterverse would do with THAT if “Mahogany” had a 2015 release date.
In point of fact October marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Berry Gordy’s lurid fashion-world soap opera, which attempts to combine social commentary with romance and stylish European chic, and pretty much fails on all counts.
“Mahogany” will be screened Tuesday on a 40-foot-by-22.5-foot screen at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park as part of a summer series that has included “Apollo 13,” “Almost Famous” and “Dirty Dancing.” While it might be fun to see Diana Ross in all her glamorous beauty, Billy Dee Williams as an aldermanic hopeful and a downtown Chicago much grittier and less spectacular than the skyline that will be looming all around that big screen, the film is likely to inspire groans at the mid-1970s attitudes concerning race, gender and the role of a woman (even when she’s the title character) in a Hollywood blockbuster of the time.
Diana Ross plays Tracy Chambers, a secretary from the South Side who dreams of becoming a fashion designer, even though her boss (Nina Foch, about as subtle as the Wicked Witch) doesn’t believe someone such as Tracy should ever aspire to anything more than taking dictation and getting coffee for the professionals.
Billy Dee Williams is Brian Walker, an ambitious and charismatic community activist who favors turtlenecks and works the neighborhoods with a bullhorn, promising a better future. (Roger Ebert’s review of “Mahogany” noted how much Williams resembled Jesse Jackson.)
Brian’s got a thing for Tracy, but she puts romance aside when she’s discovered by one Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins), a world-renowned fashion photographer who puts Tracy in front of the camera and woos her to come to Rome with the promise of becoming a famous fashion model AND getting the chance to show off her own designs one day.
When Tracy’s skeptical mother asks Sean, “What’s wrong with Chicago?” Sean replies, “Nothing. Nothing a trip to Europe won’t cure. … In Rome, they don’t send their pretty things out to get coffee.”
A word about Tony Perkins and his portrayal of Sean, a former war photographer with a maniacal thousand-yard stare, a frighteningly comprehensive collection of guns and a penchant for humiliating women. This guy is so clearly insane, it feels as if Norman Bates from “Psycho” escaped from captivity, changed his name, took up photography and wound up in Rome in the 1970s. What is he doing in this movie!
Once “Mahogany” leaves Chicago for Rome to focus mostly on Tracy’s modeling career and her daring fashion designs, we’re thrust into a bizarre, garishly photographed, trippy movie, with Sean and an aging, creepy, wealthy benefactor (Jean-Pierre Aumont) warring over Tracy as if she’s a prized possession and not an actual human being.
Meanwhile, the supposedly progressive Brian, who’s all about improving conditions for the working man and the poor blacks in the projects, can’t stomach the idea of a woman having her own career. Even when Brian visits Rome and sees the success she’s having as Mahogany, the whole scene sickens him, and he tells her to give him a call if she’s ever ready to become the nice girl from neighborhood he once knew.
Ross looks great, and from time to time the soundtrack plays “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” which would go on to become a No. 1 hit for Ross and will be stuck in your head for hours after seeing the movie. She throws herself into the performance, going over the top because the material is asking for just that kind of unsubtle acting. It’s not a great work, but she captures the screen.
SPOILER ALERT! “Mahogany” ends on a curiously mixed note that seems to say Tracy’s future will be all about standing by her man and helping him achieve all his dreams. Perhaps one day she’ll take out her old sketches and remember those crazy times in Rome with all those buffoonish white men who wanted to get her drunk and sleep with her.
Do you know where you’re going to? For Tracy, apparently it’s the campaign trail, the kitchen and the bedroom.