Monday, 10 May 2010

Standing Out: R.I.P. Lena Horne

Groundbreaking actress and singer Lena Horne, who died yesterday in her nineties. In the sequence above, from the movie Stormy Weather (dir. Andrew Stone, US, 1943), she sings the track for which she will always be remembered.
For more on this film, do read 'All cullud musical daily double: Stormy Weather', by Odienator at Big Media Vandalism, February 21, 2008. It is also discussed at length in a great, hour-long interview on Horne's career with Gail Buckley, the star's daughter (some other great links and video at this site).
Below are extracts from and links to a few, excellent scholarly studies of Horne's work and persona. David Hudson's round up of tributes to the actress is now online at The Auteurs Notebook
While the subject of Shane Vogel’s article “Lena Horne’s Impersona” could herself be described as a spectacular mulata musical performer, Vogel makes the case that Horne’s (in)famous “aloof” performing style has been “misunderstood . . . as a reflection of the demanding and narcissistic personality of the prima donna.” Instead, Vogel finds that, far from cultivating a Garboesque diva mask, Horne’s distant and distancing style “is a withholding of any persona at all”; its “negative affect” a “strategic mode of black [female] performance” that allowed Horne — and a number of other women—“to survive the psychic damage and physical danger of segregated cabaret performance.”
Alexander Doty, 'Introduction: The Good, the Bad, and the Fabulous; or, The Diva Issue Strikes Back', Camera Obscura 67, Volume 23, Number 1, 2008

[Lena Horne's] restraint on the cabaret stage found its cinematic counterpart in [her] film career. She appeared in more than a dozen Hollywood musicals, but primarily as what was sardonically termed a “pillar singer.” In films like Panama Hattie (dir. Norman Z. McLeod, US, 1942), I Dood It (dir. Vincente Minnelli, US, 1943), Thousands Cheer (dir. George Sidney, US, 1943), and Boogie-Woogie Dream (dir. Hans Burger, US, 1944), Horne was featured, usually propped against a marble column, in a musical number that was supplemental to the narrative of the film. This isolation from the story allowed her number to be easily deleted before distribution to southern theaters. “I looked good and I stood up against a wall and sang and sang. But I had no relationship with anybody else,” Horne recalled in 1957. “Mississippi wanted its movies without me. It was an accepted fact that any scene I did was going to be cut when the movie played the South. So no one bothered to put me in a movie where I talked to anybody, where some thread of the story might be broken if I were cut. I had no communication with anybody.” This filmic isolation contributed to Horne’s reputation for affective distance. Even in the three films in which she had starring roles—The Duke Is Tops (dir. William L. Nolte, US, 1938), Stormy Weather (dir. Andrew Stone, US, 1943), and Cabin in the Sky (dir. Vincente Minnelli, US, 1943) — her reserve and her refusal to inhabit the images available to her seemed to render her detached from the narrative. As James Haskins notes about her performance as the seductive vixen Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky, “Undoubtedly she infused the role with as much dignity as she could muster and managed to be the most aloof ‘bad girl’ ever seen in a film to date. She was not believable as a slut, and as such she was an enigmatic character who invited puzzled contemplation as much as sexual desire in the male members of the audience.”

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