Quick! Choose between a career as an international fashion designer, or the love of Billy Dee Williams! It’s the 1970’s, so the clothes are hideous and Billy Dee is gorgeous! Choose! Choose now!
And that dilemma is the heart of today’s movie, the complicated time capsule that is Mahogany.
In 1975, Diana Ross had become more than the former lead singer of the Supremes. Her acting debut in Lady Sings the Blues, also co-starring Billy Dee Williams, had proven an unexpected triumph, and she was cementing her status as a cultural icon. (Did you know she was the first person in the history of Japan to be summoned to a private audience with the Empress Nagako? I just learned that while I was double checking production information and I think it’s neat.)
With a slew of international hits to her name, and an Academy Award nomination under her belt, it was time to pick her next film project. Mahogany appealed to her. It was, basically, a really really cynical retelling of 1957’s Funny Face. It was also about a black woman breaking into the upper echelon of the fashion industry as a designer, which is something they don’t even make movies about today, and it’s been forty years. Unfortunately, the film is… not what it could have been.
It’s still very enjoyable in that “I’m going to have bourbon with my popcorn tonight because YOLO” kind of way.
Ross plays Tracy Chambers, an aspiring designer who works at a department store to pay for her night courses. Her teacher tells her to quit dreaming and aspire to make plain bathing suits. He boss at the department store seriously tells her that window dressing should fulfill any of her creative urges and that she’s acting ungrateful. She’s not standing behind a counter for twelve hours, she’s not moping the floors after closing, why can’t she just be happy?
Then, one night, on her way home, a man yells at her through a megaphone about gentrification.
It would have been really obnoxious for him to have done that if he hadn’t been so smooth and charming. And also so, so handsome. He turns out to be Brian; complicated love interest and Billy Dee Williams. The 70’s was a weird time to be a black romantic hero, largely because it was a role that had never really existed before. Brian is a politically minded character who can be viewed a lot of different ways, and I’ve heard every single kind of opinion of him. It’s a prismatic performance. He’s kind of a Rorschach Test – is he romantic or selfish? Honest or cynical? Demanding or realistic?
Tracy, unfortunately, is a little more straightforward. She has big dreams and the unassuming beauty of someone who is naturally the model type. Through the department store’s winter advertising campaign, she meets Norman Bates. Well, it’s Anthony Perkins in a not-actually-very-Normany-at-all role, although the character does have some weird psychosexual issues. He is Sean: a fashion photographer who takes Tracy under his blighted, drug-fuelled wing, and invites her to come work for him in Rome. He knows lots of people who’d like to see her sketches.
“Has he invited you to his dark room yet?” Brian asks, watching Sean with disdain.
Sean is an uncomfortable character, not least because of how directly it parallels the Fred Astaire performance in Funny Face. Take the scene where Sean christens Tracy with her artistic stage name; his last muse had been called Crystal.
“I give all my creations the names of inanimate objects,” he explains. “There’s only one word that describes rich, dark, beautiful and rare. I’m going to call you Mahogany.”
So, Tracy relocates to Rome and becomes a fashion designer, and it’s pretty complicated with Brian after that. There are successes and failures, and wild parties, and montages – god, so many montages – and 70’s clothes and cosmetics like you would not believe.
Fake eyelashes, real eyelashes covered in mascara, purple eyeshadow, Cleopatra eyeliner, orange nail polish, ostrich feathers on hats, kaftans, polyester everything, rainbow chiffon, fur dyed magenta, donut sleeves and earnest discussion of the donut sleeves, statement earrings, everything. It’s ridiculous. I recommend it highly to fashion students, and anyone who wants to discuss that “kabuki collection” that Diana Ross actually helped design.
And in the end, the story boils down to Tracy choosing between living with the flaws of the man she loves, or the dark side of her lifelong ambition. Along the way, we learn more uncomfortable stuff about Sean and see the seedy underbelly of fashion in an era where seedy underbellies were particularly seedy.
The pacing is off, most of the characterizations are weird, and Diana Ross’s central performance is crippled by Tracy’s reliance on the men of the story. But it’s a worthwhile watch, if only to see what was going on for the trendsetters of the mid-70’s.