Monday, June 30, 2014

Notes on a Great Horne

Born this day in history:  Lena Horne, the very famous singer, actress and Civil Rights activist.
I grew up hearing the legend of this show business great from my parents.  Whenever Lena Horne was on television -- whether it was a network variety show, a network special, a sitcom like Sanford & Son or a part of a news telecast like her address and song at Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington -- it was required viewing in our South Central Los Angeles home.  My parents had Lena Horne records, a book about her and any magazine with a Lena Horne article.  I grew up learning the significance of her.  She made American film history with the 1943 Hollywood production, Cabin in the Sky.  First time director, Vincente Minnelli, guided her through a glamourous and sexy debut in a big screen, major studio production.  This was for MGM, the Tiffany of studios for movie musicals.  She lit up the screen with her beauty.

She lit up the screen with her fabulous singing.  This was the screen version of a Broadway hit.  Ethel Waters recreated her Broadway role.  Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, very popular as a regular on Jack Benny's hit radio show, and Lena were new to the project for the screen adaptation.  No young black actress had ever been given that glamorous a screen assignment in a major Hollywood film.  She was alluring and kittenish in this fantasy fable as the vamp trying to lead a married man astray from his church-going wife.  After that, Lena would be even more glamorous in her MGM screen numbers for other films.  But she usually had just featured numbers.  She didn't interact the film's white co-stars.  She did not have lines with Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Van Johnson or Esther Williams.  Her numbers were separate.  Lovely and sophisticated though she was, but she was not integrated into the main action with Caucasian MGM co-stars.  The actresses who played mammies and maids were integrated into the main action the Caucasian stars.  She only had dialogue and scenes with others actor in two 1940s films with an all-black cast.  At MGM, Lena was mostly a featured vocalist in musicals.  Never did she take on a servant role.
The oft-told tale of her numbers being shot separately so they could be cut out when the films played down in segregated South was more tale that fact as you learn when reading the excellent, painstakingly researched and extremely revealing biography Stormy Weather:  The Life of Lena Horne by James Gavin.  But she did have her color barriers and she challenged those barriers for her own sake and for the sake of others.  She entertained black troops in the segregated Armed Forces of World War 2 in segregated cities.  She spoke out for equality.  What a book by Jim Gavin! Her history in it goes from the 1940s and '50s when interracial marriage was still illegal in several American states to the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s to the new century with America on the brink of electing the first black man to the White House.

You will be fascinated at what you didn't know about her.  Horne's was a complicated, colorful and substantial life.  I've written before that her fame and her thorny relationship with her mother could inspire a Broadway musical story as strong as Gypsy.
In her MGM years, behind the scenes, she was also groundbreaking.  She had one of Hollywood's first and few interracial marriages.  Her husband, Lennie Hayton, was in the renowned Freed Unit at MGM.  He was a music director and composer who got Oscar nominations for scoring four MGM musicals -- two starred Judy Garland -- The Harvey Girls and The Pirate and two starred Gene Kelly -- On The Town and Singin' in the Rain.

Other Arthur Freed musical productions that boast Lennie Hayton's work are Meet Me in St. Louis, Good  News, Ziegfeld Follies, The Barkleys of Broadway,  Till the Clouds Roll By and Words and Music.  Those last two films include deluxe numbers by Mrs. Hayton, Lena Horne.
Another important figure behind the scenes at MGM was hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff.  He famously put bangs on Claudette Colbert.  Becoming part of the MGM family, he did the hair on A-list star lady heads and got his first onscreen credit in The Women.  He did Judy Garland's hair for The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Pirate.  After the MGM years, he put the streak in Anne Bancroft's hair for The Graduate, did Jane Fonda's hair in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and worked on Liza Minnelli in New York, New York.  He also did Lena Horne's hair in the 1940s at MGM and for her moving appearance in 1994's That's Entertainment! 3.  Her segment is one of the highlights of that documentary sequel.  She's honest about the sting of being racially limited in her days at MGM.  In those days, she could attend a special MGM luncheon, sit next to and chat with Katharine Hepburn.  She just couldn't play her friend and give her hug in an MGM movie scene.  People like Sydney Guilaroff knew of Lena's frustration.
Because of their friendship and his regard for Lena Horne, black hairdressers were able to get work on the lot.  The field of hairdressers and cosmeticians had been segregated in Hollywood.  Guilaroff helped change things and, in his autobiography, he gave the credit to Lena.

Lena starred in a Broadway musical with a fellow MGM veteran, Ricardo Montalban.  It had a score by Harold Arlen and E.Y., Harburg, the men who wrote all the songs for The Wizard of Oz.

They starred in 1957's tropical Broadway musical, Jamaica.

But several years later, she really came into her own in a one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne:  The Lady and Her Music.
In her 60s and gorgeous, her voice and her acting were better than ever.  She had really taken care of her instrument.  No, she didn't act out scenes in her one-woman show.  But, she gave each song an inner life.  She treated each song as a monologue.  This is what many young singers on TV audition shows don't do.  They give us vocal gymnastics and copy the renditions of songs they've heard by other singers but they're not giving the song a unique inner life.

For this hit Broadway show, Lena Horne was honored with a special 1981 Tony Award.

Larry Moss is a most highly-respected and highly-sought after acting coach.  He coached Michael Clarke Duncan to an Oscar nomination for The Green Mile, he coached Hilary Swank to two Oscar wins for Best Actress in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby and he did the same for Helen Hunt who won her Best Actress Oscar for As Good As It Gets.  He was so in demand that he put his lessons in book form.  In The Intent to Live: Achieving Your True Potential As An Actor, he writes about Lena Horne.  He places her one-woman Broadway show performance in a category with Marlon Brando's iconic work and Rudolf Nureyev's inimitable ballet dancing.  He urges new actors to buy the CD of that Lena Horne show, listen to the life she gives each song -- and use her one-woman show recording as a master class in acting.  Get his book and read all about it.
I saw that show and I totally agree with Mr. Moss.  Ms. Horne took her show on tour and it played about about a week in Milwaukee.  I saw it more than once.  The power in her voice was extraordinary.  She worked that stage for over two hours.  Brilliant.  She was getting well-deserved standing ovations in the middle of the show.  Lena Horne was triumphant and each performance was sold out.  My mother had moved to Milwaukee by then and saw the show with me.

I was part of a press conference held when Lena Horne arrived in Milwaukee.  She graciously acknowledged me, as she did all black people in the room.  This was a different time -- and Milwaukee -- so there were not many black entertainment reporters in the room.  In the early 1980s, I was the city's first and only black person who was doing weekly film reviews on local TV in addition to celebrity interviews.

Her manager contacted me via the TV station.

To make a long -- and wonderful -- story short, Lena Horne offered my mother a job when Horne was on the next stop of her tour.  To meet with Mom, she flew her out first class and put her in a nice room in the same hotel where she was staying.  She treated my mother well.

This was a major moment in our Rivers Family history.  I'm writing the rest of the story for a book project I'm pitching.

Lena Horne paid more attention to me and my work than some of my ex-broadcast agents did.  Wow.

Here's some movie trivia for you:  For years, her son-in-law was acclaimed movie director Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Group, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Wiz).

Check out those books by James Gavin and Larry Moss.  Learn more about the late, great Lena Horne.
Also, give a listen to the lady and her music.  She was truly legendary.

1 comment:


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