Mahogany

mahogany.jpgMahogany came out in the theaters shortly before I turned six years-old. By that time I was already obsessed with film, and had made up my mind that when I grew up I somehow wanted be involved in movies. I knew I had to pay attention to everything I saw in every movie I watched, but Mahogany was the one of the first films to teach me a valuable lesson about life. Although I could not articulate it at the time, I was aware of the fact that part of the measure of a film was how an audience reacted to seeing it. If an audience laughed, I understood that what was on screen was supposed to be funny. If the audience cried, I understood that something sad had happened. But while watching Mahogany, I heard the audience do something I had never heard before. Approximately seven minutes into the film, Billy Dee Williams appeared on screen for the first time, and I heard a noise come from a majority of the audience, which happened to be women. I didn’t know what that sound was, but as I recall is was a combination of gasps, sighs and moans. It wasn’t until years later that I would come to understand that that sound was a collective chorus a female sexual desire. This sound, that was emanating from nearly every row in every corner of the movie theater in Norwalk, Connecticut, was the sound of women wanting. And because of that and another key life lesson I learned from Mahogany, I will always have a place in my heart for that film (even though it sucks).

Unfortunately, even though Mahogany helped educate me in ways of the world, it is not what I consider a good film. I saw it in the theater and was more entertained by the sounds being made by the women in the theater (although there were a few men making similar sounds–another lesson learned courtesy of Mahogany), and watched it one other time when it was on television. But it was never a film that I felt compelled to revisit in my adult life.

Following the phenomenal success of Lady Sings the Blues, which marked the screen debut of Diana Roos, and paired her with the ultra smoove Billy Dee Willams, some sort of follow-up was inevitable. Ross stars as Tracy Chambers, an aspiring fashion designer who works at Chicago department store. Williams is Brian Walker, an idealistic lawyer who wants to change the world for poor people. Tracy and Brian are an unlikely couple when they first meet, and the fact that Ross and Williams fail to generate any heat or chemistry the way they did in Lady Sings the Blues, means that even as the relationship intensifies, it never becomes more compelling to watch.

When Tracy meets famed fashion photographer Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins), he is instantly taken by the chocolate goddess and must have her. Even though she has no interest in being a model, Tracy decides to take Sean up on his offer, seeing it as a means to launch her career as a fashion designer. This doesn’t sit well with Brian, but his feelings have little bearing as Tracy jets of to Rome, where in a relatively short time she becomes the most popular model in the world. Rechristened Mahogany by Sean–he has a thing for naming woman after inanimate objects–she begins a meteoric rise to superstardom. Meanwhile she must cope with Sean’s sexual advances, and even though she gives in to them, he is impotent. Eventually, Tracy decides to get her own fashion line going, which Sean tries to sabotage, only to be thwarted by Italian tycoon Christian Rosetti (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who wants to get Tracy in the sack. And while all this is going on, Brian shows in Rome to reclaim his woman, leading to a showdown with Tracy.

Mahogany is a poorly written film overflowing with sappy melodrama with a lead character at its axis that is lacking in charisma, not to mention just plain likeable qualities. As she is written in the script, Tracy is one step above being a whore. She reluctantly gives herself sexually to both Sean and Christian, and it is only because Sean can’t get it up and Christian senses her repulsion that she doesn’t have to have sex with either of them. Ultimately, this creates the illusion that Tracy has some sort of virtue that in reality she doesn’t possess. The truth is she was going to have sex with both men, but because of a poorly written script, and more likely than not the demands of director Berry Gordy, she dodges both bullets. But that never makes her likeable.

By and large, Mahogany never quite works as an overall film. The film is at its best for a few brief scenes when Brian arrives in Rome to profess his love to Tracy. First he has a tense confrontation with Sean, where the often pondered question of who would win in a fight, Lando Calrissian or Norman Bates, is finally answered. Then, sensing that his woman has degenerated into a booze-soaked tramp with no sense of morality, Brian decides to boogie out of Rome, but not before a final confrontation with Tracy. It was in this scene that I learned another great lesson from Mahogany about how to be a man. When your woman is drunk and out of control, and she pours a glass of champagne over your head and fucks up your process, you need to grab that broad by the shoulder, squeezing so hard she writhes in pain, raise your other hand like your going to knock the taste of her mouth, and then with your jaw clenched in anger, you smoovely say, “Let me tell you something and don’t you ever forget it. Success is NOTHING without someone you love to share it with.” Then you leave your woman to inhale the cloud of dust you kick up as you split the scene, and wait patiently for her to get her shit back together and come crawling back to you.

Despite the valuable things Mahogany taught me, there’s no denying the fact that the film simply isn’t that good. Owing its existence to the popularity and success of Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany comes across like nothing more than a failed vanity attempt. Motown impresario Berry Gordy, who produced Lady Sings the Blues, takes over the director’s reigns, in what feels like a sad attempt to have Diana Ross give Barbara Streisand a run for her box office money. In fact, more often than not, Mahogany feels like a film that Streisand passed on when it was called something like Ivory or Crystal, only to have it land on Ross’ lap.
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