It's always tricky attributing private motives to public entertainment, but Diana Ross and Berry Gordy seemed to be working through weird personal issues in the 1975 melodrama Mahogany. How else to interpret the odd spectacle of notorious control freak Gordy directing a film in which Ross must wriggle free of the golden handcuffs of two controlling older Svengalis in order to find fulfillment? Mahogany echoes the mythology surrounding Ross' rise to fame closely enough to serve as a companion film to Dreamgirls, which makes the no-frills nature of its DVD release all the more puzzling.

Ross stars as a plucky Chicago gal discovered by dashing intercontinental photographer Anthony Perkins, a jet-setter who's one-third Austin Powers, one-third Gordy surrogate, and one-third Norman Bates. If Gordy could have licensed Bernard Herrmann's theme from Psycho, he probably would have splashed it across Perkins' entire performance. The sexually tormented Perkins helps make Ross a pop icon, but he keeps her in a state of upscale quasi-bondage. Billy Dee Williams co-stars as Ross' knight with a bullhorn, a too-slick politician whose earthy values stand in sharp contrast to the flighty excess of the European jet-set life.


As a first-time director, Gordy is intent on giving audiences what he imagines they want: Ross being glamorous, Williams being debonair, and Perkins acting crazy. Ross showed enormous promise in Lady Sings The Blues, but she's defeated here by a character who careens crazily from round-the-way girl to abusive, out-of-control diva. The scene in which Ross drunkenly bawls Williams out for being a loser is her gift to drag queens and camp-lovers everywhere. But where Mahogany fails as a melodrama, it succeeds in imbedding its ubiquitous "Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)" in the viewers' consciousness through constant repetition. Like a true pop-music guru, Gordy made sure that "Theme From Mahogany" would linger in the audience's mind long after the tawdry little potboiler it accompanied had been forgotten.

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