Sunday, March 18, 2012

Remember Diana Sands

This exceptional African-American actress is someone who should be remembered.  You need to see her work.
The first film Hal Ashby directed finally made it to DVD a couple of years ago.  In 1970, Beau Bridges played The Landlord.  The social satire is set in Brooklyn.  Bridges, early in his film career with his young surfer dude-like handsomeness, plays the Long Island trust-fund baby who has a depressed Brooklyn building in his sights for gentrification.  That means the working class black people living in it will be evicted so he can fix it up and raise the rent.  Ashby followed this socio-economic comedy with Harold and Maude, The Last Detail starring Jack Nicholson, Shampoo with Warren Beatty, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and he got a brilliant performance out of Peter Sellers in the political satire, Being There.  I highly recommend renting The Landlord.  You must experience the performance by the late Diana Sands.  She's absolutely luminous as Francine, the married hairdresser who is trying to make ends meet in the landlord's building.
Sands was an outstanding and greatly respected stage actress.  She originated the role of Beneatha Younger in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and repeated her role in the 1961 film version along with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and, as the family matriarch, Claudia McNeil.  
Onstage, Sands did Shakespeare.  She did Shaw.  She did lots of TV ranging from guest appearances on prime time dramatic shows to playing a character on the groundbreaking sitcom, Julia, starring Diahann Carroll.  For her television work, she earned an Emmy nomination.
For her theatrical performances, actress Diana Sands was a 2-time Tony Award nominee.
In Hal Ashby's The Landlord, Diana Sands portrays the kind of wonderfully complicated woman Barbara Stanwyck excelled at playing.  Francine is an ambitious woman.  She's often the smartest one in the room, pulling a fast one over on the guy or the guys.  But she also works hard to not get tripped up on her own game and reveal the vulnerability she's determined to hide.  She's playing two emotional registers at the same time while telling herself that her ultimate goal is a big step up to financial relief.  Think of Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, Meet John Doe and Double Indemnity.  Watching Francine perform a reverse emotional gentrification on the new landlord is a beautiful thing.  She bounces wealthy Elgar down to her level as she manipulates the underlying racial tensions.  A revival movie theater should put this on a double bill with Capra's It's A Wonderful Life.  Elgar Enders is quite the opposite of George Bailey who, like his father, is committed to help working class folks of all colors own their own home.
Lee Grant got a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for playing Elgar's scared-of-the-ghetto mother who visits his building and winds up gettin' stoned and gettin' funky with the building's toughest tenant,  Marge (Pearl Bailey in perhaps the best screen role of her career).
But the richer performance is the one delivered by Diana Sands.  It's tough.  It's tender.  It's funny.  It's a revelation.  Sands had talent.  She had big screen charisma.  She should have also been in that Best Supporting Actress Oscar category.  To me, her work tops that of the actress who took home the gold for 1970.  Helen Hayes won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for playing a "cute old lady" con artist who flies free in Airport.  Hayes was a Broadway legend.  That was her second Oscar win. She was Best Actress of 1931.  Diana Sands was never nominated for an Oscar.  I believe that, had she lived, she would've been.  She played African American women.  A Raisin in the Sun and The Landlord are examples.  At the same time, Sands refused to be stereotyped.  She sought roles not typically given to black actresses in a time when the entertainment industry was still timid about color.  Patricia Neal won the 1963 Best Actress Oscar for her solid work as the wise-to-life housekeeper in Hud, starring Paul Newman.  In the book, Alma the housekeeper was a black woman.
If top Hollywood studios had not still been nervous about inter-racial casting and physical contact, Diana Sands would have been perfect to star opposite Newman in that Martin Ritt classic.  You'll know what I mean after you've seen The Landlord.  1963 was still a good year for breaking racial barriers.  Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Academy Award for that year's big hit indie feel-good movie, Lilies of the Field.  Did you ever see Barbra Streisand as Doris, the motor-mouth wannabe actress/part-time hooker in the comedy, The Owl and the Pussycat?  That movie was based on a Broadway hit.
Barbra Streisand and George Segal did the roles onscreen that were originated on Broadway by Diana Sands and Alan Alda.  No, Doris was not originally written as a black woman.  Sands was hired for her acting skills and what she brought to the role.  Her race was unimportant.
That was a major achievement and a supreme example of a personal point Diana Sands wanted to prove about not limiting actors because of their race.  The point is still relevant today in light of the recent controversy about Hollywood still offering African American women, such as Oscar nominees Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, roles as maids.  African American actors overall have had difficulty getting script offers and good roles, some after having earned Oscar nominations.  Actors like Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett Jr., Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Diana Ross and Diahann Carroll.  Diana Sands was scheduled to star opposite James Earl Jones as a single working welfare mother in Harlem who unexpectedly falls in love with a city employee.  Sands was diagnosed with cancer. Her friend, Diahann Carroll, replaced her in the urban comedy, Claudine.  The film brought Carroll an Oscar nomination for Best Actress of 1974.
Claudine, a 20th Century Fox release, got a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen.  The cancer claimed Diana Sands' life in 1973.  She was only 39.  That gifted actress left a great light behind in her work.  As I wrote earlier, she's absolutely luminous in Hal Ashby's The Landlord.  She died too soon.  I interviewed Beau Bridges on my old VH1 talk show.  If I get the opportunity to interview him again, I will most certainly ask him about working with Diana Sands and director Hal Ashby on this fierce and funny film.
The Landlord is now available on DVD.


  1. Bobby, great article and wonderful comments on my late Aunt Diana Sands!
    Gary Thomas

    1. There is some work being done by a relative on reviving her name. If you want to contact me I can be reached at: (I'll provide a phone number thereafter).

  2. Great article and comments about this forgotten actress. By the way wikipedia did not mention, she played in Ensign Pulmer starring Robert Walker. I saw her tonight on TCM. She would have been great and probably gotten an academy award had she lived longer.

  3. I really like your writing style. Such a nice Post, Can’t wait for the next one.
    Dell Laptops


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