Ross Dressing

Berry Gordy, Mahogany, 1975, 35 mm, color, sound, 109 minutes. Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross).

MAHOGANY, THE DIANA ROSS VEHICLE from 1975 that has launched a thousand drag tributes, is the first and only film directed by Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, which financed the movie; it was originally slated to be the seventeenth feature helmed by Tony Richardson, the British New Wave stalwart. According to an article in the New York Times from February 1975, Richardson—best known for Look Back in Anger (1959), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and Tom Jones (1963)—was sacked midway through Mahogany’s production because the Motown impresario, who had managed Ross’s career while she was the lead singer of the Supremes, “did not feel Richardson was capturing the feeling of ‘blackness’ necessary to the story of a girl from the Chicago ghetto who achieves success as an international fashion model and designer.”

That “girl” is Tracy Chambers, played by Ross three years after her screen debut as Billie Holiday in the highly successful 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues and five years into her career as a solo recording artist. Tracy works as the secretary to the priggish head of the display department of Marshall Field’s, though her off-hours are devoted to fashion classes; the El ride back to her South Side walkup provides the precious few minutes needed to complete the sketch of a design begun in night school. That lavish garment, and several others, will be realized about halfway through Mahogany, as Tracy leaves Chicago for Rome at the invitation of Sean (Anthony Perkins), the sociopathic fashion photographer who discovers her on a shoot at the upscale department store.

In leaving the boot-strapping Windy City for the decadent Old World, Tracy is also abandoning Brian (Billy Dee Williams), a community organizer running for alderman who’s disgusted by his girlfriend’s profession (“Baby, I don’t understand this whole trip”). Williams, once known as the “black Clark Gable,” also played Ross’s love interest in Lady Sings the Blues; in Berry’s film, the actor must revile the other “feeling” necessary to a project about fashion: queerness, which Mahogany simultaneously celebrates and repudiates. Visiting Tracy on a surprise trip to the Italian capital, Brian, whose preferred attire consists of Shaft-inspired ensembles of thick turtlenecks and leather coats, is treated by his lady to a bespoke suit, though the outfit makes him uncomfortable: “I feel like an ol’ sissy walking around in this thing.” He squirms even more at a party thrown by Sean—whose sexual deviance is confirmed by his inability to get it up for Tracy—after a gender illusionist tries to finger-feed Brian a canapé. Butch guest and effete host will soon be tussling in Sean’s gun room; despite the tricked-out, macho redoubt, even here the photographer shoots blanks.

Perkins, who died of complications related to AIDS in 1992 (one year after Richardson’s death from the same illness), had played a queer character before, albeit a far more sympathetic one, in Frank Perry’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1972), in which he acted opposite Tuesday Weld as B.Z., a tormented bisexual movie producer. Yet the gayest signifier in Mahogany is, of course, Ross, who also served as the film’s costume designer. (Perhaps the most lavender moment in ’70s cinema occurs when Tracy shows her designs to an indifferent dress manufacturer played by Bruce Vilanch.) The outré japonaiserie that makes Tracy an haute-couture superstar isn’t quite as outlandish as her outbursts at her nonbilingual staff in her atelier: “Don’t give me that ‘non capisco’ shit!” And in the string of rhetorical questions that make up the bulk of the movie’s theme song, which became a number-one hit for Ross, is embedded a query that could have served as a salvo for homosexual intifadists forty years ago: Do you like the things that life is showing you?

Mahogany screens Monday, June 8, at the IFC Center as part of the series “Queer/Art/Film: Black Summer Nights.”