MAHOGANY: In The Valley Of Camp, The Diva Is Queen

It was inevitable that Mahogany would become a camp classic.  Though ostensibly a serious drama, it revels in a mixture of trash and glitz  that pushes it deeply and irretrievably into camp territory.  As a result, it is usually shrugged off as a mere failed vanity project by most critics, an attempt by director/Motown-mogul/svengali Berry Gordy to hustle his way into the film business while continuing his push to make Diana Ross a bankable movie star.  However, such an assessment fails to take its entertainment value into account – regardless of its aspirations, this is one deliriously entertaining journey into Hollywood excess.

Mahogany chronicles the triumphs and travails of Tracy (Diana Ross), an inner-city girl who dreams of becoming a fashion designer.  As she struggles to catch a break, her head is turned by a dashing would-be politico named Brian (Billy Dee Williams).  However, their budding partnership is set on its head when Tracy attracts the attentions of Sean (Anthony Perkins), a jetsetting fashion photographer who promises to make Tracy a star.  He whisks her away to Rome, where she becomes an iconic model.  She loses sight of her values as she struggles her manipulative and sexually dysfunctional paramour and rejects Brian’s attempts to call her home.  She later becomes involved industrialist Christian (Jean-Pierre Aumont), who finances her fashion-design dreams with one stipulation – that she become his lover.  Will she choose success over love?

As the above synopsis indicates, Mahogany is not the Oscar winner it aspires to be.  John Byrum’s trashy, oddly witty script emulates both the ‘woman’s pictures’ of the studio system era and the showbiz expose ushered in by the likes of Jacqueline Susann.  There are also a few superficial references to political corruption and the plight of the ghetto in an attempt to give it all a socially conscious gloss.  The first thirty minutes or so has an old-Hollywood feel to it but it gets wild and unpredictable when it moves to Rome.  The story goes further and further over the top as it continues, with the capper being a ridiculous message-oriented finale that ironically represents “selling out” of a different kind.

One of the most interesting aspects of Mahogany is that it was directed by Motown founder Berry Gordy in his first and last gig as a cine-auteur.  Despite zero experience behind the camera, he took over from original director Tony Richardson when he didn’t like the initial rushes and dove into the deep end head first.  He’s no Douglas Sirk but his work has a technical competence on a par with the journeyman filmmakers who usually helmed these sorts of films.  However, he’s totally in over his head from the artistic perspective: like all directors of camp epics, he applies a straight-faced seriousness to the story that makes its dramatic excesses all the more surreal.

And then there’s the performances:  Diana Ross gives her diva persona full vent before the camera.  She’s too old for the character she is playing but shows a nice flair for light comedy and an undeniable charisma in her early scenes.  However, she make a Jekyll & Hyde transformation into a camp goddess once the script starts making dramatic demands on her: she rants, she bares her teeth and displays the kind of hyperbolic emotionalism associated with silent film actresses or late-period Joan Crawford.

Elsewhere, Billy Dee Williams lays on the old-school movie charm.  He’s not convincing as a serious politician, especially with the hokey speeches he’s given, but his sense of cool gets him through.  Aumont gets to do little besides stand around looking suave and European but he acquits himself nicely.  However, the big scene stealer is Perkins as the mad photog.  He’s the only one who seems to grasp the movie’s inherent campiness and has an obvious blast giving a bombastically quirky and hilarious performance.

For the reasons above, a lot of critics and viewers dismiss Mahogany as another Hollywood misfire.  In fairness, the film’s overripe style isn’t for all tastes but those who shrug it off for falling short of its intended mark are missing the point.  If Mahogany had worked as a serious film, would be forgettable.  It’s the mixture of misguided ambitions and excess that make it fascinating.

Indeed, the film is packed with go-for-broke highlights that will leave camp fanatics with their jaws on the floor: an overblown montage depicting Ross’s rise to fashion-model fame, a scuffle between Williams and Perkins that plays out in a bizarre S&M/homoerotic fashion, an unforgettable rant that Ross unleashes on Williams late in the film and a final scene between Ross and Perkins that you might not believe even after you’ve seen it.

Moments like the ones listed above make this film is hysterically entertaining for those of us who love high-budgeted Hollywood trash.  If you are a viewer of this persuasion, Mahogany deserves a space on your DVD shelf – preferably between Valley Of The Dolls and Mommie Dearest.

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