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Case Number 11301: Small Claims Court

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Mahogany

Paramount // 1975 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // May 1st, 2007

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All Rise...

Judge Brett Cullum warns you that your retinas will be scarred for life.

The Charge

Do you know where you're going to?

The Case

Mahogany inspired millions of drag queens, influenced thousands of budding fashion designers, and ruined a handful of acting careers. This delectable tripe was misguided from the start. Casting music legend Diana Ross in a non-singing role is the same deluded thinking that led the producers of The Bodyguard to place Whitney Houston in the role of an Academy Award-winning actress. Ross shined in Lady Sings the Blues, but here she's reduced to nothing more than a shrill harpy who aspires to make it as a "clothes hanger." The movie attempts to revive the genre Joan Crawford made famous: the women's melodrama where a heroine rises from nothing to be something. Berry Gordy was severely criticized for its seemingly sexist "dump your dreams and stand by your man" message when the movie debuted at the height of the Women's Movement of the '70s, but no worries now. We can finally see the film for what it really is—a pansexual ode to the artistry of the female illusionist. This is true kitsch, a fine piece of frippery that should come with a warning that your retinas will be scarred for life thanks to the '70s glam fugly fashions you will be subjected to watching. It's hard to believe Mahogany hasn't surfaced on DVD until now, and harder still to swallow that it arrives without any special features. Seems Paramount wanted to release this one without fanfare, even though the supporters of this camp classic will be dancing in the aisles of their local stores once they see it on the shelf. Expect a riot of sequins, kabuki get-ups, and blue afro wigs to occur once this one slips out into the world one more time. Diana Ross is probably balled up in a corner quivering in fear as this reminder of her derailed acting career resurfaces. Or maybe Miss Ross is planning to triumphantly embrace her own badness and even talk about a sequel. Whatever the outcome, Mahogany is finally here, for better or for worse, on a digital disc.

Mahogany is an absolute mess, a train wreck with the signature of modern, infamous titles such as Showgirls or Basic Instinct 2. Nothing in the plot makes sense as we see a struggling secretary from Chicago's South Side named Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross) rise from fashion model to designer. Along the way she gets involved with two men: a community activist with political aspirations (Billy Dee Williams, The Empire Strikes Back), and a sexually ambiguous photographer with a death wish (Anthony Perkins, Psycho). Tracy ends up flipping between Chicago and Rome in pursuit of her dreams, but we're never sure exactly why we should root for her to make it when her world seems so ridiculous and hollow. This is probably the world's first fashion horror movie, as it provides chills with its extreme looks and hilarious production design. Rumor has it Diana Ross really did design a few of her own outfits, and that should serve as a cautionary warning for all aspiring singer-stars who think they can sew. Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears, please start taking notes now.

Berry Gordy of Motown fame directed Mahogany, and it's hard evidence that his talents stopped at producing great music. He can't raise this project from soap operatic Valley of the Dolls territory into the forward-thinking material he and Ross wanted. The film highlights the female lead's ambitions to become a worldwide success while suggesting her true place is back home in Chicago with her community where she can do the most good. By the time a glow-in-the-dark, Kabuki-inspired fashion show provides the climax, nobody's sure what the hell the movie is saying anymore. Tracy has become as freakish as the omnisexual perverts she has befriended in Rome, and one wonders if her old hood in Chicago will ever accept her again. This mishandled element made the movie less of a blaxpoitation hit and more of an iconic, sequined, gay favorite. Ironically, the first dress Tracy produces on her own looks like a rainbow flag turned into a cocktail outfit. Who's she kidding? She'll be the grand marshall of a Chicago Pride Parade before she'll be named the hero of the projects. Hell, even the mega-gay star Bruce Villanch makes a cameo as a Chicago designer who says her outfits are too fabulous even for him.

Ross turns in a silly, shrill performance that would make Elizabth Berkley (Showgirls) look like an Oscar contender. She screeches most of the time, sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium, accusing the men of being "losers"—as if that is how to empower a female character. In a split second she offers herself sexually to any of the male characters, but only one takes her up on it. Meanwhile she berates them as if they were mere pawns in her grand game of gay dress-up.

The men deserve any mistreatment Tracy can inflict since they're all dullards. Billy Dee Williams was a great romantic interest for Ross in the sublime Lady Sings the Blues, but here he looks out of place as the brother with plans to be an alderman. He's the hero of the movie, yet he does nothing but make ridiculous speeches about saving the integrity of the projects in Chicago by preserving them "graffiti and all." He fights urban renewal with no question of how that could actually improve the lives of his constituents. He's patently against progress. Meanwhile, Anthony Perkins delivers his traditional "I'm crazy" role as the only significant white character in the movie. He seems gay, as it is revealed he is completely impotent when he tries to sleep with Tracy. Yet when he wrestles with Billy Dee Williams over a gun in his house, Perkins lights up and sparks fly between the two men. All that is missing is a tent and some strangely haunting music, and this could be a scene right out of Brokeback Mountain. It is the most effective scene in the movie, and the two men should have eliminated Diana and carried on together. That would have made the movie into an important statement.

As bad as Mahogany is, it's still a lot of loopy-ass fun. There's nothing like watching great actors flail their way through lines like "I'm the one who turned your trumpet into a horn of plenty!" The production is glitzy and over the top, and the soundtrack is pretty damn good. If you can't hum the theme from Mahogany in its entirety, one viewing will remedy this. It's a riot for all the wrong reasons, but I certainly can see why some cherish the tawdry experience. Diana Ross plays a ridiculous monster, but you can't help but sit there slack-jawed when she earnestly steps out in an orange kimono adorned with blue sequins and demands applause. This is a fantasy world where the incredulous is sublime, and you will hoot in appreciation at the absurd moments. When the fashion design teacher warns Tracy "No sequins, no rhinestones, and no ostrich feathers" you finally realize the true battle cry of the movie. Mahogany even celebrates the now-unpopular and politically incorrect concept of the "ho." Tracy uses it as defense against a possible mugger/rapist on the streets of Chicago. And any movie where Billy Dee Williams tries to seduce a woman over a game of air hockey has classic stamped all over it. Mahogany's most memorable sequence is a hideous fashion montage where Tracy becomes Mahogany, the super model of the world.

Unfortunately Paramount's DVD treatment of this camp classic leaves a lot to be desired. While the box claims the widescreen transfer is "enhanced" for televisions, on my widescreen set it appeared non-anamorphic. Worse still, it has barely been touched by technicians to clean it up for DVD. Colors flickered, scenes looked washed out, and edge enhancement cropped up periodically. The monaural soundtrack was tinny to boot. Mahogany looks bad and sounds bad for home theatres. It's a real shame because fashion and music are the high points of the film. Want some special features? There is only a photo gallery. The menu is static with no accompaniment from the familiar theme. Did they get someone from the Moral Majority to design this package? Paramount has really lowered the bar with this release, and they will surely find a pack of angry female impersonators outside their corporate office as a result. This brand of trashy-fabulous deserves a hell of a lot better.

The release of Mahogany should have been an event, and it could have sat right next to the collector's editions of Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest if done properly. Yet still, this is a DVD to own if you love bad cinema. I can't think of a more strange project to add to your collection, and one you'll probably trot out when you've had too much wine after a night at the disco. If you don't like the things life is showing you, try Mahogany for a dose of the patently bizarre and twisted. Just please, don't try these clothes at home.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 65

Perp Profile

Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Genres:
• Blaxploitation
• Cult
• Gay
• Romance

Distinguishing Marks

• Photo Gallery

Accomplices

• IMDb








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