Monday, May 10, 2010

Lena Horne (1917-2010)

Jazz singer, actor, and civil rights activist Lena Horne died today at the age of 92. During the first part of her career, Horne was, like other African American musicians and entertainers, allowed to entertain white audiences she was barred from socializing with. According to wikipedia, both sides of Horne's family belonged to the "Talented Tenth," and her mother was an actress with a black theater troupe that traveled extensively. Her career began in 1933, in the chorus line of the Cotton Club. Horne mostly worked in nightclubs, though she also spent some time in Hollywood, which must have been an incredibly frustrating experience. Here's a part of wikipedia's description:
She made her debut with MGM in Panama Hattie (1942) and performed the title song of Stormy Weather (1943), which she made at 20th Century Fox, on loan from MGM. She appeared in a number of MGM musicals, most notably Cabin in the Sky (also 1943), but was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited for showing in states where theaters could not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne's film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline; a notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, although one number was cut because it was considered too suggestive by the censors. "Ain't it the Truth" was the song (and scene) cut before the release of the film Cabin in the Sky. It featured Horne singing "Ain't it the Truth", while taking a bubble bath (considered too "risqué" by the film's executives). This scene and song are featured in the film That's Entertainment! III (1994) which also featured commentary from Horne on why the scene was deleted prior to the film's release.

In Ziegfeld Follies (1946) she performs "Love" by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Horne wanted to be considered for the role of Julie LaVerne in MGM's 1951 version of Show Boat (having already played the role when a segment of Show Boat was performed in Till the Clouds Roll By) but lost the part to Ava Gardner, a personal friend in real life, due to the Production Code's ban on interracial relationships in films.
Verena Dobnik writes in her obituary of Horne for the Huffington Post:
Horne was perpetually frustrated with racism.

"I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn't work for places that kept us out. ... It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world," she said in Brian Lanker's book "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America."

While at MGM, Horne starred in the all-black "Cabin in the Sky," but in most movies, she appeared only in musical numbers that could be cut when shown in the South and she was denied major roles and speaking parts. Horne, who had appeared in the role of Julie in a "Show Boat" scene in a 1946 movie about Jerome Kern, seemed a logical choice for the 1951 movie, but the part went to a white actress, Ava Gardner, who did not sing.

"Metro's cowardice deprived the musical (genre) of one of the great singing actresses," film historian John Kobal wrote.

"She was a very angry woman," said film critic-author-documentarian Richard Schickel, who worked with Horne on her 1965 autobiography.

"It's something that shaped her life to a very high degree. She was a woman who had a very powerful desire to lead her own life, to not be cautious and to speak out. And she was a woman, also, who felt in her career that she had been held back by the issue of race. So she had a lot of anger and disappointment about that."

Early in her career, Horne cultivated an aloof style out of self-preservation. Later, she embraced activism, breaking loose as a voice for civil rights and as an artist. In the last decades of her life, she rode a new wave of popularity as a revered icon of American popular music.
About Horne's activism, Dobkin writes:
Horne was only 2 when her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, enrolled her in the NAACP. But she avoided activism until 1945 when she was entertaining at an Army base and saw German prisoners of war sitting up front while black American soldiers were consigned to the rear.

That pivotal moment channeled her anger into something useful.

She got involved in various social and political organizations and, partly because of a friendship with singer-actor-activist Paul Robeson, was blacklisted during the red-hunting McCarthy era.

By the 1960s, Horne was one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement, once throwing a lamp at a customer who made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant and, in 1963, joining 250,000 others in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Horne also spoke at a rally that year with another civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, just days before his assassination.

The next decade brought her first to a low point, then to a fresh burst of artistry. She appeared in her last movie in 1978, playing Glinda the Good in "The Wiz," directed by her son-in-law, Sidney Lumet.
Horne won four Grammys and was nominated for four more. Among her many other honors was a Special Citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, another Special Citation from the Tony Awards, and the ASCAP Pied Piper Award (for "significant contributions to words and music).

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