Andra Day stars in the USA VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY from Paramount Pictures. Photo credit: Takashi Seida.
Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend of diving into adjacent queer and queer past titles worth watching or revisiting.
The Best Actress category at this year’s Oscars could go a number of ways as titan actors Viola Davis, Frances McDormand and Carey Mulligan battle for the finish line. Perhaps most amazing of all, a woman with no acting experience seems to keep pace with them: Andra Day.
Let Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels create a film as daring and savage as The United States vs. Billie Holiday. The film chronicles bisexual singer Billie Holiday’s final years as she battles heroin and sex addiction … not to mention a decades-long vendetta of racist American anti-drug tsar Harry Anslinger (Garett Hedlund). As his anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” becomes a rallying point for the emerging civil rights movement, Anslinger works to destroy Holiday in hopes of quashing the pressure for equality.
Overall, we agree that the US versus Billie Holiday is uneven. The direction of Lee Daniels reminds us of the late Marlon Brando, especially in his period of the last days. After around 1970, Brando refused to memorize his lines, preferring to improvise or have scripts hidden on set. He also became known for his weird character traits, like carrying a fruit basket on his head (seriously). When it worked – like with Apocalypse Now or Last Tango in Paris – Brando did an electrifying job. When it didn’t, like on Dr. Moreau’s Island, it was ridiculously hideous.
As a director, Daniels follows a similar pattern: he knows no fear and never resists a chance to show his daring. When not, good lord. But when it does, it’s absolutely spellbinding. The United States vs. Billie Holiday features Daniels in both modes: his staging shines in a mind-boggling scene of a lynching that unfolds for several excruciating minutes without a cut. Other scenes, on the other hand, look like a low-rent TV movie.
Still, in the title role, Day gives one of the best performances of the year, a feat made all the more impressive as she does all her own vocals, and sounds a perfect double for Ms. Holiday. His work will go down in history as one of the most auspicious beginnings in cinematic history. Daniels also links Holiday’s plight with a larger and still-ongoing narrative of racism in the United States – something other Holiday biopics haven’t had the courage to address.
Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne and Leslie Jordan all do a great job of supporting here, although the United States against Billie Holiday is owned by Andra Day. His performance paints a vibrant image of a stubborn and self-defeating queer legend. It will also remind viewers that activism comes in all its forms … even in a song. Will Academy voters listen to her siren cry? The odds are stacked against her, even though we can’t count this diva just yet.
Streams on Hulu.