Two Versions of One Woman: Billie Holiday

“There’s no damn business-like show business – you have to smile to keep from throwing up.” ~ Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday’s life was complicated with great extremes, and she lived it on her terms. Andra Day, who plays Billie in the new movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday, shows us extremes in a way we have not seen. The film takes a more in-depth look at Billie’s life’s complexity, focusing on the last decades of her life with a depth and richness lacking from the earlier 1972 movie Lady Sings The Blues. That version of Billie’s life starring Diana Ross, and the contrast between the two films are as striking as the complexity that was Billie’s life.

There are some similarities between the films. Both were the first major roles for both Ross and Day and both focus on Billie’s drug addiction and feature some of her music. But that’s where the similarities end. The 1972 film paints Louis McKay as the love of Billie’s life trying to save her, when in reality, he was abusive, controlling, and set her up.

This film’s focus is the Fed’s relentless pursuit of Billie because of the perceived threat she posed by singing Strange Fruit. This blatant fear and racism are masked under the guise of trying to “save” her from the perils of her addiction. To achieve the real goal of silencing her singing Strange Fruit, the Fed’s lured others into setting Billie up by planting narcotics, including her last husband, Louis McKay. While not depicted in the film, it is interesting to note that Talullah Bankhead, played by Natasha Lyon, wrote a letter to the FBI director and family friend J. Edgar Hoover, pleading for Billie’s release when she was arrested. The 1972 film doesn’t explain how she came to be arrested; it only uses the scene to start the movie.

Like many female performers before her, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Billie was openly bisexual and was rumored to have had a notable affair with Tallulah Bankhead, amongst others. Although the film touches to a small degree, it contrasts with her relationships with men and women. Being that Bankhead was white, we also see the subjugation Billie faced as a woman and as a black woman in different scenes. There is an obvious, if not subtle, hierarchy both racially and by gender absent from the 1972 film.

The 1972 film was a huge success, but it does not hold up regarding authenticity or show Billie as a multifaceted woman. Ross’s performance was good, most notably the singing and her acting in the early part of the film, but it ends up being somewhat of a caricature representation of how history has painted Billie as a victim, a view through the very narrow lense. It also neglects many aspects of Billie’s life, including her love of women as well as men. Albeit that representation would have been inconceivable in 1972, and you have to wonder if Ross would have even touched the subject given the time and her newly minted solo career.

As has been reported in various articles and interviews, Holiday and Bankhead (whom she called “Banky”) had an intense, stormy relationship that lasted a few years. “Bankhead seemed obsessed by her,” according to John Szwed, who wrote a biography of Billie, The Musician, and the Myth. Szwed argued that the autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (1956) is a generally accurate account of her life; however, co-writer Dufty was pressured to water down or suppress material by the threat of legal action.

The sexuality of Billie and other famous individuals is widely known. Still, it is only recently that we have begun to see an acceptance of bi-sexuality and positive representation of it in projects and performances like Adra Day. Considering that Director Lee Daniels is openly gay, it would d surprising if Billie’s sexuality didn’t make it into the film. Daniels is well known for including LGBTQ characters and actors in other projects. Lee Daniels brings a visual and emotional richness to this film missing from the 1972 film. Daniels and Day not only show us who Billie was but what made her that way. Beyond their incredible talents, this new film was made when we can openly and honestly see a complete Billie Holiday that includes aspects of her life that either would not or could not be shown; that alone sets the two films apart.

The United States versus Billie Holiday is available on Hulu.