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Lena Horne, 1917 - 2010

The Auteurs Daily

"Lena Horne, the silky-voiced singing legend who shattered Hollywood stereotypes of African Americans on screen in the 1940s as a symbol of glamour whose signature song was 'Stormy Weather,' died Sunday in New York City," reports Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times. "She was 92.... Beginning as a 16-year-old chorus girl at the fabled Cotton Club in Harlem in 1933, Horne launched a more than six-decade career that spanned films, radio, television, recording, nightclubs, concert halls and Broadway. As a singer, Horne had a voice that jazz critic Don Heckman described in a 1997 profile in the Times as 'smooth, almost caressing, with its warm timbre and seductive drawl — honey and bourbon with a teasing trace of lemon.'"

"In the 1940s, she was one of the first black singers with a major white band, the first to perform at the famous Copacabana nightclub, and the first to sign a long-term Hollywood contract," writes Matthew Weaver in the Guardian. "She later became an active campaigner for civil rights and was a powerful voice of the movement." More from John Fordham, who has more biographical detail in the paper's obituary.

In 1943, she was lent to 20th Century Fox for Stormy Weather, "one of those show business musicals with almost no plot but lots of singing and dancing, Ms Horne did both triumphantly, ending with the sultry, aching sadness of the title number, which would become one of her signature songs." Aljean Jarmetz in the New York Times: "In MGM's Cabin in the Sky, the first film directed by Vincente Minnelli, she was the brazen, sexy handmaiden of the Devil.... 'The whole thing that made me a star was the war,' Ms Horne said in the 1990 interview. 'Of course the black guys couldn't put Betty Grable's picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.'"

"Many of her movie appearances in the 1940s and 1950s were relegated to songs that had no bearing on the plot and could easily be edited out for showings in the South, where white audiences might protest against the appearance of a black actress," write Sophie Tedmanson and Joanna Sugden in the London Times. "Her first substantial movie role did not come until 1969 when she was a brothel madam and Richard Widmark's lover in Death of a Gunfighter. Her only other movie role after that was as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz, the all-black adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. 'I really hated Hollywood and I was very lonely,' Horne said in a Time magazine interview. 'The black stars felt uncomfortable out there.'"

David Wild at the Huffington Post: "To me, Lena Horne was one of the world's all-time class acts, a freedom fighter, an original, a radiant beauty, an enduring icon, a brave civil rights advocate and a great lady of standards. Early in her career, before she was blacklisted for her political views, Lena Horne was wrongly pressured to be something that she wasn't because of the strange racial politics of Hollywood. 'I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become,' Lena Horne once said. 'I'm me, and I'm like nobody else.'"

Catherine Grant is rounding up essays, video and more on Stormy Weather and Horne's "persona" at Film Studies for Free.

"[A]fter a while, it was obvious she was wasting her time trying to broaden the minds of movie studio executives," notes the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "Slimming her career down was her best move. Horne was one of those performers who got better, stronger with age. In front of a live audience, she was both theatrical (the staged belong only to her) and cinematic (Mr DeMille, she can make her own closeups, thank you)." And he's got several clips.


The Siren quotes from memoirs by Minnelli and Horne and points to "a beautiful tribute here, from Sheila O'Malley."

Nathaniel R: "I love this righteous quote: 'In my early days I was a sepia Hedy Lamarr. Now I'm black and a woman, singing my own way.'"

Horne "won a special Tony Award in 1981 for her Broadway revue Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," notes Erik Piepenburg for the NYT. David LeShay "was a press assistant at the time and was assigned to take photographs of the many celebrities who visited Ms Horne after the show." LeShay: "It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my career." And here's a slide show.

Time's Richard Corliss: "Horne might have been black America's first ambassador to the rest of the country — an artist with perfect features and a sultry sweetness, who'd teach the benighted to accept the glamour and talent, the full humanity, of an oppressed minority that had so profoundly enriched the official culture. But blacks in the 1940s were still second-class citizens at best, deprived of the water fountains, bus seats, voting rights and entertainment opportunities taken for granted by whites. So Horne, as determined as she was beautiful, went ahead and fashioned one of the 20th century's most exemplary and poignant show-business careers."

From the February 1944 issue of Esquire: "One critic explains it this way: 'She has just about everything that is artless and foolish and warm-hearted in a woman.' Others, leaving Lena's mellow singing late at night, came up with one word — effortless. But words don't come very close to describing the unique quality of this young screen find who has thrown her weight into eight Hollywood musical productions since Panama Hattie."

The Obamas have issued a statement and Ted Johnson has it.

Viewing (5'24") from Jahsonic: Santiago Álvarez's Now! (1965).

Updates, 5/11: The Daily Beast runs an excerpt from James Gavin's Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, the "story of when she attacked a racist man at a Beverly Hills restaurant."

"In an obituary there would be no need to say that I really doubt whether Lena Horne would have proved a great actor if she'd been given the opportunities," writes David Thomson in the Guardian. "And I suppose in a dark way that it was her destiny to be excluded, so that a part of the world needs always to feel shame over her. And I can believe that she was prickly, snooty, difficult and a pain in the ass over all those things for years and decades, and tend to believe the stories that she was a snob and inclined to be very socially superior. But then you have to recollect that in her time, great men like Louis Armstrong put on a kind of white black face for the white folks and took every humiliation there was in public, and kissed ass. And Lena Horne did not."

Listening: "Blues in the Night," a collection from Singer-Saints.

A Washington Post slide show, via @BarackObama. No, really.

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One of the great beauties of all time. I feel so blessed to have seen “Lena and her Music” when it came to SF. I’ll never forget her singing “Where or When”, describing her rise through Hollywood, how she was taught to stand still under a spotlight, lift her face, and smoulder!
such a wonderful life to celebrate

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