Wednesday, February 04, 2015

cinema obscura: Stig Björkman's "Georgia, Georgia" (1972)

Now is the time to praise the great Diana Sands, who died at age 39 of cancer way back in September of 1973, just as she was becoming that truly rare commodity - a major and majorly serious film actress. She left only a handful of film roles behind - ranging from Joshua Logan's delightfully frivolous "Ensign Pulver" (in which she and Al Freeman, Jr. are quite comic) to Hal Ashby's crucial race-relations comedy, ”The Landlord.”

But her best work came in a film that virtually disappeared almost immediately following its release in 1972.

Stig Björkman's "Georgia, Georgia," based on an original script by Maya Angelou, is a shockingly emotional and gaspingly original examination of a taboo topic - dealing with a back woman overtaken by "white fever."

Obviously, Angelou's screenplay is penetrating a very specific black psyche here, and much of its brilliance is directly related to Sands' nakedly brave performance as
American songstress Georgia Martin.

Georgia has developed something of a cult following in Europe - a status which Georgia's traveling companion/mother figure, Alberta (played with fierce intensity by Minnie Gentry), feels has compromised the singer's blackness in general and her heritage in particular.

Starting her concert tour in Sweden (where most of the movie was filmed), Georgia is clearly experiencing a crisis of identity and seems to be willfully drifting away from "her community," particuarly when she, well, drifts into an affair with a white man (Dirk Benedict, below with Sands).

Made at the height of the Vietnam war, "Georgia, Georgia" also manages to weave in some then-topical political asides, such as a group of black Vietnam deserters who hope to enlist Georgia as a convenient mouthpiece - a spokesperson "to talk up for the black deserter community." 

It's all compellingly fascinating as both Georgia and the film surrounding her refuse to do anything that we would expect of them.

Björkman, who directed "Georgia, Georgia," giving it a pulsing pace, was a former movie critic in Sweden before turning to filmmaking and, at one time, was considered one of Sweden's most promising and gifted young directors. But he seems to have inexplicably disappeared, along with this film, having produced very little output (all of it Swedish) since '72.

Diana Sands' last film was 1974's "Honeybaby, Honeybaby," for director Michael Schultz. She was about to appear in John Berry's "Claudine" (also a '74 film) when she died, replaced in the film by Diahann Carroll, who received an Oscar nomination for the role as a single mother struggling to raise her family in Harlem. James Earl Jones co-starred.


Jim MacIlroy said...

Great actress, Joe, and fascinating, if flawed film. I vaguely remember seeing it. Would like to see it again.

Jennifer said...

This film sounds fabulous. Why doesn't someone like Oprah ressurect it? I means, she's a huge Maya Angelou fan. C'mon Oprah!

joe baltake said...

That would be terrific, Jennifer. In addition to "Georgia, Georgia," there's another Sands film that's lost - "An Affair of the Skin," an obscure 1963 indie that she made with Lee Grant (her eventual co-star in "The Landlord"), Kevin McCarthy and Viveca Lindfors.

Lee said...

Thanks for celebrating one of the 20th century's most gifted actresses. Onstage, Diana Sands was a pioneer in non-traditional (sometimes called "colorblind") casting. While she only appeared in a handful of films (and most of them, sadly, somewhat obscure like "Georgia, Georgia"), each of her performances is evidence of the powerful command she had of her craft.

Actors of color still confront many of the same challenges today that Sands faced in the 60s and 70s. Her life, her talent, and her achievements were all phenomenal and they continue to serve as inspiration to contemporary students and young artists.

joe baltake said...

Regarding Lee's comment about the "colorblind" casting of Diana Sands, most people forget that she starred on stage in "The Own and the Pussycat" opposite Alan Alda, in the role that Barbra Streisand played on film.

A postscript: I interviewed Diana when she came to Philadelphia to promote the excreable "Doctor's Wives," a film clearly beneath her. We spent most of our time commiserating about how so many critics seemed to willfully misunderstand "The Landlord" (e.g., Judith Crist and Gene Shalit, both of whom panned it and put it on their 10 Worst lists for the year). Fortunately, time has corrected matters. "The Landlord" is now well-regarded, arguably the finest of race-relations films.

Diana was not only a great actress, but a wonderful person. In person, there was no disappointment.

Alex said...

Would love to see this. Sands was so good in The Landlord (thought she deserved a nomination just as much as the nominated Lee Grant). An Affair of the Skin sounds fascinating, too

joe baltake said...

Alex- Actually, Sands was more deserving of an Oscar nomination than Grant, but Grant had the showier role and funnier lines. Still, she's great in the film, absolutely great - as she always is. said...

yes, this film oprah should have open for after 45 years and shes also love Diana sands too. Georgia,georgia resembles my life as a willing upcoming director,dancer and singer as activist. thanks for showing my story.

a.n. said...

this can be a film about being in love but forgot whom they are. you know maya's main way of writing scripts was a sure proclaiming way that someone has to open a story just to be honest, olarifable and capable of a good natural real life dialouge. a drug addict once said from a play called straight from the womb-"don't know nothing if you know their story". in some cases the industry wants to anybody make a coonish watermelon man or Jackie brown just to say of speak. georgia martin may not be a hero like some of us but she respresents a character who can tell the world where to kiss it. im not a maya fan but Georgia, Georgia is a way a life suppose to happen. im a rae 'loose' for Diana sands. what a great actress and activist she was to be. im trying to get into directing and I know things will get a rwa change if this film relects my life- certainly wants to get out.