I'm reading a biography of Lena Horne at the moment, marveling at the enormous strength of character it must have taken to have made for herself the life that she did, faced as she was at every turn by the most unpromising circumstances you can imagine, from a spectacularly unhelpful family background to the seemingly insuperable walls of racism into which she ran at every turn.
Most remarkable, so far (I'm just about halfway through) is how entirely she had to create herself, the public image that became Miss Lena Horne. She was at the beginning a gawky, unmusical chorus girl, with early observers at a loss trying to figure out why it was that audiences were drawn to her. It's as if she started with the star quality, and only on top of that built the craft that helped it shine through. It seems impossible to believe, but many, early on, were deeply unimpressed by her singing, ridiculing her too-careful diction and, in the beginning, her inability to connect on an emotional level with the lyrics she sang.
Well, she certainly took care of that, turning her early limitations into her greatest assets, selling the numbers she sang by crisply putting over the words while finding ways to subtly make even the blandest arrangements bluesy and insinuating.
We see her here in the era that must have been for her the most infuriating of her professional life, even as it brought her the mass audiences on which she built the subsequent decades of her long and distinguished career. Her contract with MGM at first seemed like an amazing breakthrough, the first time an African-American performer made it to the top in the movies without kowtowing to demeaning and degrading stereotypes. The problem was that, without those stereotypes, even L.B. Mayer - her greatest partisan - didn't really know what to do with her. Instead of becoming a genuine leading lady, she found herself dropped into film after film as a specialty number, as disposable as the kinds of novelty acts that lesser studios like Fox threw into their comparatively ramshackle musicals. She even found herself resented by other black performers, particularly the ones who had built successful careers on the very roles - servants, mammies, comic buffoons - she repudiated.
Here she briefly takes center stage in Words and Music, the 1948 attempt to dramatize (and sanitize) the life and work of Rodgers and Hart. She puts over "The Lady is a Tramp" like nobody's business, looks sensational in her Helen Rose costume, and turns the artificial conventions of being an MGM girl singer (the stylized gestures and what she would later call "pretty mouth singing") into something that only highlights the arch and genially racy nature of the song (her little moué at being "all alone when I lower my lamp" is worth the price of admission).
Horne seems to have been a complicated lady, one whose public image - all dignified achievement, ladylike glamour, and slighty haughty intelligence - masked a lot of anger, resentment, and even bitterness. Never mind. The best of her shines through in even her most perfunctory movie appearances, and later on she found ways to channel her demons into performances - on Broadway and beyond - full of fire and self-mockery. Personally, I can't think of anybody I rather have on hand for a trip to Hobohemia, can you?