Saturday, April 04, 2009

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

The late, great Diana Sands in real life, and...
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 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 Georgia Martin, an American songstress who has 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).
...performing in Angelou's "Georgia, Georgia" (1972)
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 want to enlist Georgia as a spokesperson - "to talk up for the black deserter community."

It's all compulsively fascinating as both Georgia and the film surrounding her refuses to do what we 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.

8 comments:

Steve 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 cammand she had of her craft.

I have been researching the life and career of Diana Sands for over two years. I received an appointment as a Scholar in Residence at New York University, to further my study on Sands and begin writing a one-woman play about her.

Other works about Diana Sands are in development including a biography as well as a web site devoted to her. 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 phenomenal and they continue to serve as inspiration to contemporaty students and young artists.

joe baltake said...

Steve--

I'm heartened to hear that someone is finally doing a work on Diana Sands and her film output. I hope/assume that you will include something on "An Affair of the Skin," a little-seen 1963 indie that she made with Lee Grant (her co-star in "The Landlord"), Kevin McCarthy and Viveca Lindfors.

FYI. I interviewed Diana when she came to Philly to promote the excreable "Doctor's Wives," a film clearly beneath her. We spent most of our time together commiserating about how so many critics at the time had misunderstood "The Landlord" (especially Judith Crist and Gene Shalit, both of whom severely panned it). We both loved that film. Luckily, time has corrected matters. It is now well-regarded, arugably the best race-relations film ever made. (Wouldn't it make a great stage musical?)

In person, Diana was even more beautiful than on screen. Not only a great actress, but a wonderful person.

Thanks again for sharing.

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!

jbryant 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...

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

joe baltake said...

Jay-

Actually, Sands was more deserving of an Oscar nomination for "The Landlord" than Lee Grant. But then Grant had all the film's funny lines.

Daryl Chin said...

Both a story and a comment. In terms of a comment: on one of those cinephile websites, there's a game about the Oscars: who shouldn't have won an Oscar, and who should. But every time a non-white person actually won an Oscar, this person is always denigrated and derided. The writers (who, from their names, seem to be a bunch of white guys) don't seem to realize just how racist they are being. But to a nonwhite person (which i am), the blatant racism is particularly stinging, because it's coached in their sense of critical entitlement. (The Oscars, which i think are bunk, nevertheless represent Hollywood's view of itself, and Hollywood wants to see itself as a place of tolerance; there is a historical context as to why certain people win at certain times, and to deny that context is ridiculous.)

In terms of a story: Diana Sands was always someone who rarely got the breaks.

But perhaps one of the biggest disappointments of her career happened in 1960: she had done some astonishing work on the NY stage by that point (RAISIN IN THE SUN) and a friend of hers had written a script. The friend was Robert Thom, the script was THE SUBTERRANEANS (based on Jack Kerouac's novel) and Sands was his choice for the female lead. But MGM bought the script, and decided that an interracial romance just was too much for audiences to handle, and the part went to... Leslie Caron? (I guess to MGM in 1960, Black, French, what's the difference?) Of course, Robert Thom didn't do too badly, since the production of THE SUBTERRANEANS introduced him to his first wife, Janice Rule (even if the marriage lasted less than a year).