Saturday, August 22, 2009

Round Table Discussion: GEORGIA, GEORGIA

The late stage and screen star Diana Sands would've turned 75 today had she not succumbed to leiomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, on September 21st, 1973. Best known for her portrayal of Beneatha Younger in both the original Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959-1960) and the 1961 film adaptation, Sands was a two-time Tony nominated actress -- "Best Featured Actress in a Play" for Blues for Mister Charlie in 1964 and "Best Actress in a Play" for The Owl in the Pussycat in 1965 (opposite Alan Alda in Broadway's first instance of "colorblind" interracial casting) -- who was just beginning to get leading film roles of substance when her life was tragically cut short at the age of 39.

A few weeks ago I invited Don Guarisco of Allmovie, Hal Horn of The Horn Section and Arbogast of Arbogast on Film to join me in a round table discussion of GEORGIA, GEORGIA (1972), one of Sands' few star vehicles and the only one she was alive to see released (WILLIE DYNAMITE and HONEYBABY, HONEYBABY arrived in theaters in 1974, months after her passing). I ended up more of a moderator than an active participant thanks to my hectic work schedule, but these tremendously talented writers and film enthusiasts had plenty to talk about, as you'll soon find out.


If you haven't seen the movie, you may not want to read the following discussion.


Georgia Martin (Diana Sands) - Internationally famous African-American pop singer and smart-mouthed, prima donna pain in the ass who is visiting Stockholm to perform a concert

Michael Winters (Dirk Benedict) - A white American expatriate photographer living in Stockholm who falls in love with Georgia, and she with him

Alberta Anderson (Minnie Gentry) - Georgia's meddlesome maid-companion (or "hired mother"), whose seething hatred for whites has eroded her sanity

Herbert Thompson (Roger Furman) - Georgia's black homosexual manager

Bobo (Terry Whitmore) - A black American military deserter who wants Georgia to use her fame and influence to help raise awareness back home for the struggle of the black Vietnam war "defectors" living in Sweden

Desk Clerk (Lars-Erik Berenett) - A white man having a homosexual relationship with Herbert

CHRIS POGGIALI: My first impression of GEORGIA, GEORGIA is that that the producers, Quentin Kelly and Jack Jordan (GANJA AND HESS, HONEYBABY HONEYBABY), went in with good intentions but may have shot themselves in the foot by not allowing Maya Angelou to direct her own script. She didn’t have experience, but at least she had an investment in the material. Stig Björkman was a poor choice. For evidence, look no further than the opening scene, a press conference that is terribly directed and clumsily acted, as if Björkman thought it would be a good idea to shoot the movie in sequence without rehearsals.

DON GUARISCO: Does anybody know how Björkman got the gig to direct this film?

CHRIS: At the time, Kelly-Jordan claimed they “wanted a man who could bring a new perspective to Americans and an American problem.” As Peter Bailey of Ebony magazine pointed out, that’s the equivalent of hiring a black American to direct a film on the reasons behind Sweden’s high suicide rate.

HAL HORN: I agree that the direction needed work, especially in that opening scene. About the only thing it does, really, is make Georgia Martin seem vapid and obnoxious. Maya Angelou didn't actually direct one of her own scripts until 1998's DOWN IN THE DELTA, which also had a number of flaws despite a typically great performance from Alfre Woodard. Michael Schultz was tapped for the next Kelly-Jordan film with Sands, HONEYBABY, but his inexperience at the time really showed. HONEYBABY was even more technically crude than GEORGIA, GEORGIA.

CHRIS: I think Kelly-Jordan tried to work beyond their budgets on the two Sands projects. Schultz was hired to direct his first film (TOGETHER FOR DAYS) because of his Tony and Obie nominated stage work; HONEYBABY, his second feature, is an international adventure, and some would say that a film of that type was still beyond his scope a decade later when he directed THE LAST DRAGON. Angelou was slated to direct a film version of her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for Kelly-Jordan (to star Abbey Lincoln and Robert Hooks) soon after this, and she even took an intensive directing/cinematography course while she was in Sweden.

DON: Björkman’s direction really does hamper GEORGIA, GEORGIA from the get-go. Not only does his work lack a personal touch, it's also disappointingly crude from a technical standpoint. The visuals and editing are perfunctory at best, with little thought expended towards creating a mood or using these tools to enhance the drama. The only time it seems like Björkman is comfortable with his material is when it involves travelogue-style moments that allow him to hang back: his best bit of directing might be a simple moment where Dirk Benedict wanders through what appears to be a counterculture festival. I found that more convincing and atmospheric than the stagy melodrama that drives the film.

And the direction of the Swedish extras and bit players is TERRIBLE.

ARBOGAST: It seems like GEORGIA, GEORGIA was going for a verite style and I can't fault that as a choice. I didn't have any trouble with the style of the press conference because it emphasizes the awkwardness, the unnatural-ness, the canned quality of those kinds of exchanges where the questions become more and more surreal and impossible to answer. (By way of example, check out the press conference near the beginning of Michael Apted's BRING ON THE NIGHT)

That style does, however, hobble Diana Sands, whose first entrance feels muffed, with the camera cutting away too quickly, as if Sands is working a camera that doesn't have the time for her. Or... was that the point. Was the point to rob Georgia's artiface of royalty of its power, to deglamorize her? Because that sure is the result. Sands looks horrible throughout.

HAL: You're led to believe that you're watching a film about Georgia Martin, perhaps with a pompous, vapid "have" getting her comeuppance from the "have nots". But at the end, in my opinion, this film was really about Alberta, and her descent from resentment and bitterness into pure insanity. And the character you spend about half the film disliking becomes vulnerable, human, even sympathetic after she lets her guard down with the photographer...then abruptly tragic.

You see how one thing -- a scenario, a person, an identity -- becomes another, changes, evolves or even mutates when it passes through the prism of experience, which makes the deflected direction of GEORGIA, GEORGIA feel less like a sideshow switcheroo than an understanding of the mutability of what we naively call self.

ARBOGAST: Its race issues aside, GEORGIA, GEORGIA belongs to that genre of narratives (plays, movies, songs) about how hard it is to be an entertainer. In that scene where Diana Sands is looking in the mirror after having woken up in the middle of the night, I was reminded of that horrible, maudlin song "Mr. Funnyman" that Anthony Newley sang ("Make 'em laugh, Mr. Funnyman... Autograph, Mr. Funnyman...") back in the late 70s or early 80s.

CHRIS: GEORGIA, GEORGIA does recover from that sloppy opening, but this stumble right out of the gate defeats what should be a strong ironic first image: the plane carrying Georgia landing in neutral Sweden while "you're my bird of paradise" is sung on the soundtrack, as if she's visiting Stockholm only to serve the cause of the black American war deserters...

...all of whom are played in the movie by real deserters, most notably Terry Whitmore in the role of Bobo.

ARBOGAST: He was pretty famous for going AWOL from the Marines and denouncing the Vietnam war with several other American GIs in Moscow before relocating to Stockholm. He pops up in Peter Watkins' THE GLADIATORS, too.

CHRIS: He also wrote a controversial book (Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Autobiography of a Black American Exile) and was the subject of the 1969 documentary TERRY WHITMORE, FOR EXAMPLE.

ARBOGAST: The sub-theme of GEORGIA, GEORGIA is about lineage. I loved the counterpoint between the scenes of Georgia and Michael in the museum commenting on French monarchy with Alberta telling Bobo how her late husband had been castrated by a mob in Biloxi, his ability to procreate nullified by intolerance. Being a showbiz movie, GEORGIA, GEORGIA is very wise about the medicinal properties of appearance in the western world, where bringing it always trumps being it. Georgia seals her own doom when she tells Alberta, whose maternal instincts have been excited by meeting the black American deserters, "A hired mother can be fired." Alberta hates whites but Georgia (who has had interracial relationships in the past) only crosses the line when she threatens the sanctity of Alberta's illusion of family, solidarity and permanence.

CHRIS: "A hired mother can be fired."

HAL: Oh, man -- thinking back to that line now it's hard not to have Selena and Yolanda Saldivar flash in your mind. The chilling moment to me was "She must not dishonor her race!" Even on first viewing I was thinking "Uh oh...honor killing?"

DON: These thoughts from Arbogast and Hal lead me into one of my biggest problems with the film -- I had a hard time buying the relationship between Alberta and Georgia. Even though Georgia says she keeps Alberta around to remind her of what she “escaped,” she seems too sensitive about being judged or hemmed in by someone else's provincial attitudes to tolerate Alberta's judgments for long (especially on the subject of those who desire to escape their own race). As for Alberta, it seems that someone so rigid and traditionalist in her thinking would quickly lose patience with someone like Georgia, who frequently and loudly disdains fellow African-Americans for acting 'too black.'

HAL: I think while the relationship had seen better days, Georgia also likes to antagonize Alberta with the constant teases about her romantic interests and the constant digs. She's done in by her own self-absorption and arrogance. Self-absorption because she's way too focused on herself to notice Alberta is slowly becoming a walking time bomb, and arrogance because even if she did suspect Alberta was capable of violence, she'd never expect that violence to be aimed at "the goose that lays golden eggs," as she refers to herself.

DON: It just smacks of writer's convenience, as if Angelou was so eager to communicate her themes and social critiques that she couldn't wait long enough to work out a more plausible relationship - or at least a more compelling reason for these two diametrically opposed mindsets to be thrown together.

HAL: It might not seem likely that Georgia would keep Alberta around, but hey, a diva needs someone to snap at who won't snap back, right? She thinks, anyway. And of course Michael Jackson, Elvis, the aforementioned Selena, etc. all made pretty questionable decisions on who to let into the "inner circle."

Alberta's motivation for sticking around? Twofold: her husband gone, and with no children, Georgia and Herbert are now her "family." Secondly, she thinks she can "change" Georgia's way of thinking. Naively, but she does, in her own delusional mind.

The tragedy at the end is that Georgia, in my opinion, didn't really mean that she'd literally fire Alberta; she was just sending a subtle reminder as to who the "golden goose" is. Unfortunately, teasing someone who is on the verge of an insane act is not a good idea.

DON: It's inevitable from their first few minutes together that Alberta and Georgia are headed towards a bad end, so the rest of the film became a game of 'waiting for the inevitable' to these eyes.

ARBOGAST: It wasn't inevitable to me. Although I wasn't expecting a particular resolution, if asked to guess how GEORGIA, GEORGIA would end I would have expected an IMITATION OF LIFE wrap-up where Alberta dies and Georgia is made to regret her cruelties and racial self-hatred, to become the mother to herself now that her surrogate is gone. I didn't have a problem with the relationship. It was obviously one that had degraded to being a (you should pardon the expression) shadow of its former self. It isn't any more head scratching to me that Alberta and Georgia stay together despite the acrimony than it was to watch Dorothy Stratten walking back into the arms of Paul Snider (in real life or the movie) and her death at his hands. Relationships often run on fumes of happy memories.

DON: As soon as Alberta opened her eyes wide at the mention of white people, I knew there was going to be some sort of big blowout at the end. I didn't know if it was going be violence or a knock-down, drag-out argument but I knew something was coming. The more Alberta began to seethe, the more the scales tipped towards tragedy for me. That said, I must admit I expected the explosion of rage to be aimed at Dirk Benedict instead of Diana Sands - he inspired so much animosity from so many of the other characters and seemed so indifferent to said hostility that I expected to see a large bullseye target painted on his back. Thus, I flinched when Angelou played her final narrative card.

CHRIS: I had a pretty good idea how it was going to end based solely on the promotional tag line, “They sacrificed Georgia to save her soul.” I don’t think I would’ve seen it coming otherwise. Like Don, I would’ve expected Michael to be the casualty.

DON: Don't get me wrong, gentlemen - I understand how the author intended for the diva/caretaker relationship to be perceived. Angelou does capture the bitchy interplay of the diva's inner circle nicely in her dialogue. It's just that the script leans on the incompatible qualities of Alberta and Georgia so hard that it feels likes the story is straining for tragedy to drive home its issues.

It doesn't help that Georgia's inner turmoil plays out more like the self-pity of a jaded star instead of the trauma of someone grappling with how she feels toward (and is perceived by) the people that she seems to have abandoned. Arbogast's comment on the Newley-esque qualities of her big "inner monologue" scene mirror my feelings toward the character of Georgia in general.

If there had been more time devoted to showing moments where Georgia counterbalanced her venom with moments of kindness and intimacy to keep Alberta appeased -- or at least more time to fleshing out their bond in some way – it would have played more smoothly for me and intensified the sadness of the finale. As it is in the finished film, the ending left me disturbed but not saddened.

I definitely give GEORGIA, GEORGIA credit for having the most chilling end credits sequence of anything I've seen in years.

ARBOGAST: Yeah, it’s Fassbinder-esque, isn’t it…poised between WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK and THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT.

HAL: One scene that didn't work for me at all was Georgia's concert. As brilliant and gifted an actress as Diana Sands was, one thing she wasn't was a singer, and the intended show stopping moment of the concert was really lukewarm at best.

ARBOGAST: Was that really Diana Sands singing? Watching it, I just assumed she was dubbed by somebody else.

CHRIS: I'm pretty sure that's her voice. I know she performed one of the songs on the Marlo Thomas & Friends album Free to Be, You and Me. Also, she was originally supposed to play Billie Holiday a couple of few years before Motown took over the project.

HAL: I hate to think this, because there's precious little of Sands on film as it is, but while I've always felt CLAUDINE would have been even better with Diana Sands, watching this film I wonder if GEORGIA, GEORGIA might have been more effective with Diahann Carroll in the lead. Carroll's always been able to play a great diva, and she likely would have welcomed playing a character like Georgia after three years as goody-two-shoes Julia on TV. And Carroll, with her singing ability and years of nightclub experience, could have knocked the concert scene out of the park.

CHRIS: I agree that Carroll would've been very good in the part, although that concert scene would still be a tough one to sell, considering the venue looks smaller than the average McDonalds!

DON: I wasn't crazy about this scene either but, funny enough, it wasn't Sands' performance that bothered me. She might have lacked the vocal range but she had the right diva attitude and charisma.

My big problem was, again, Björkman 's weak direction of the scene. He does try for a little visual drama in his staging of the song but fails to create much of a nightclub atmosphere and doesn't get decent coverage of the nightclub itself. He also wasn't savvy enough as a filmmaker to make that closet of a club look bigger than it actually was.

I also thought the choice of song was odd. Though I liked the Angelou-penned song itself, it felt unfinished - as if it were the buildup section of a bigger, more show-stopping number that you would expect from a personality like Georgia.

ARBOGAST: Did anybody else wonder if Georgia was patterned after an actual singer? I thought Shirley Bassey, who is actually half-white on her mother's side. I think both her husbands were white, too. Bassey's upbringing was similar to the backstory of privation provided Georgia.

CHRIS: What did you guys think of the way men were represented in this film? Herbert is homosexual, Michael is apparently impotent until he falls in love with Georgia, and Alberta's late husband was castrated. We can also include Bobo and the deserters, who are relying on Georgia to do a benefit concert for them.

HAL: And the hotel clerk, another homosexual. Herbert shares Georgia's preference for white men, apparently.

DON: I didn't have a problem with the way men were represented in the film. In general, GEORGIA, GEORGIA seemed to be more interested in racial concerns and the power politics involved in different types of one-on-one relationships than the battle of the sexes. That said, there are a few interesting observations about the intersection of masculinity with other concerns (race, sexual orientation, virility) in the film. Here are my thoughts on the men of GEORGIA, GEORGIA...

Herbert: I appreciated that the film didn't overdo the flamboyance of his character. Angelou managed to make him convincing without reducing him to the kind of gay stereotype common in this era of filmmaking.

That said, I did want to know more about how he dealt with the situation of being both gay and African-American - we get glimpses but no real exploration. I was also surprised that there was never a scene where Herbert had a confrontation with Bobo, who's very upfront about his dislike for homosexuals.

Michael: in a film where we often seem to be missing out on background information on our main characters, Michael might be the sketchiest of the lot.

The film was just begging for a scene where the cause of his impotence is addressed but the story seems to glide right by that to get to a rather pat "love solves all problems" type of solution.

Beyond that, I found Michael to be the most likeable person in the film because he could go toe-to-toe with the other characters without ever seeming petty or cruel about it and he also was the only one who tried to interact with Georgia without trying to (a) get something out of her or (b) force her into a behavioral mold.

Alberta's Husband: the scene where Alberta describes her relationship with her late husband and why they never had children was one of the best in the film - and one of the few where a backstory is used to give us insight into what drives a character. After thinking about the film, it's easy to see the link between Alberta's Husband and Michael - neither can act on their masculinity in a traditional way but they still have qualities that inspire love and devotion in their female partners.

Bobo and the other deserters: this is definitely where GEORGIA, GEORGIA presents it's most negative images of men. Bobo and the others are presented as boastful, manipulative, quick to judge others and disdainful of any man that doesn't fit their image of what a man should be.

In retrospect, it seems like Angelou might be using these characters to specifically critique the African-American male as she illustrates the qualities in these men that scare off a woman like Georgia. It's interesting that the one time Bobo lets down his guard - despite still trying to work a hustle - is when he interacts with Alberta.

The vulnerability he lets out in these scenes reminded me of John Singleton's BABY BOY, another film where an African-American man can only escape his "macho" image in front of his mother.

HAL: I didn't read anything into the representation of men, except that with the exception of Michael, every man in the film is very manipulative with the women. In particular, Bobo is really pushing Alberta's buttons in the park, saying “We think he's some kind of agent," for example, when we see earlier that he clearly knows Michael from the war.

ARBOGAST: One of the broad subjects the film deals with is authenticity. Georgia is viewed as an authentic sister by the black deserters but she hates her own kind, her hair is fake, her eyelashes are fake, and her enthusiasm for what she does is fake.

The deserters themselves are desperate for a measure of legitimacy, and they hope Georgia can help them find it. What I inferred from the deserter's treatment of Michael is that they read as impotent his inability to be a dog. Michael seems sensitive, respectful, and in awe of women (his character might easily have gone the route of a PEEPING TOM style serial killer) but because he's not a closer, he is derided by the deserters, or at least Bobo, who calls him "impotent."

Or maybe one of Michael's pick-ups told Bobo that nothing happened, so Bobo thinks of Michael as impotent or less than a man. And yet it is Michael who touches Georgia's heart, not Bobo.

The theme of authenticity is given complexity by Alberta's story of her husband, who was neutered before she even met him, yet she was a true man to her. I think Alberta's attachment to Georgia might be the projection that her custodianship of the younger black woman is the motherhood she was denied by racism. Herbert, on the other hand, is homosexual, so he cannot further the African bloodline, and as such is thought of (although no one uses the word) as inauthentic by Georgia. There's even a little exchange between Herbert and Georgia where he asks her - I'm forgetting the actual dialogue - does his love and devotion to her not count because he doesn't desire her sexually.

In the end, it seems the film is saying that love is the only authenticity, that everything else can be faked.

CHRIS: Wow, that sounds like the nail on the head to me -- not only what you’re saying about authenticity, but your observation that Alberta’s “attachment to Georgia might be the projection that her custodianship of the younger black woman is the motherhood she was denied by racism.”

HAL: Yes, great call! And going back to what we were discussing earlier, that exchange that precedes Alberta finding out about Georgia's activities from Bobo, where Alberta states that "a mother can not be hired" but Georgia reminds her that a hired one can be fired -- this is the first of the 1-2 punch that sends Alberta off the deep end. She seeks validation from Georgia that she is more than just an employee, and gets in return another cutting taunt.

"She shan't shame her race THIS time!" Well, Georgia's preference has been white men forever, it seems, so what makes this time different? This time, "Mother" picked out a "nice young man" for Georgia, who she rejected for "one of them." Alberta's been rejected twice by her "daughter" but more importantly her "daughter" has brought shame on the family. Honor killing.

Lost on the now completely delusional Alberta is the ironic fact that Bobo's shown NO romantic interest whatsoever in Georgia either. He simply wants to use her voice.

DON: Very interesting and thoughtful stuff here. After reading this, it seems to me that an interesting side-theme to go along with this theme of authenticity would be the idea that a person can doom their relationship with someone else when they try to force the other person to fit a rigid "role" of what they think that person should be. The reporters at the airport expect Georgia to be a cultural figurehead with all sorts of social and political ideas when she simply wants to be an entertainer.

HAL: On the flip side of that, Georgia expects a fluffy press conference full of softball questions in this neutral country and is extremely irritated when that expectation isn't met.

DON: She expects Herbert and Alberta to be dutiful, unquestioning servants and gets angry when they expect to be treated as partners. Bobo expects Michael - and later Georgia - to bend to his will and supply him with the connections/help he wants because of the social issues he represents... failing to realize how alienating his domineering personality can be. Most importantly, Alberta has very rigid ideas about how an African-American woman should act and who she should be with, dooming her to disappointment when Georgia refuses to play that role.

ARBOGAST: Not for nothing is the movie called GEORGIA, GEORGIA. As George Carlin put it, "No two ways about it, there are two sides to every story."

HAL: And in that penultimate scene in the hallway between Georgia and Herbert, he tells her that as proof of his love for her: "I have tried to become everything that you needed me to be."

ARBOGAST: Isn't that followed by the brief conversation between Herbert and the concierge, where the clerk says he has two more hours to go until he's free and Herbert says "Until then. I'm Mr. Thompson" or something like that?

HAL: That’s actually earlier, right before Georgia arrives. In my opinion, Herbert gets snippy with the concierge (after they sleep together also) partly because of his deferred anger at always being Georgia's verbal punching bag all the time. But in that second scene with the concierge there's the added irritation that his authority has been usurped by Michael, who didn't have to go through him to get to Georgia, and in fact pulled a trick on him the day before -- with Georgia's approval -- to be alone with her.

After Georgia’s afternoon of love with Michael, we expect her to be in a much better mood. She is -- until she reaches the hotel. Once she's talking to Herbert, she's right back to being condescending and snapping at him. And once inside her room she's right back to taunting Alberta, knowing full well how she'd feel about her afternoon with Michael. We expect love to make Georgia easier to deal with, but the second Michael's gone her hard shell grows back immediately.

ARBOGAST: It's fascinating the way people cubby hole their lives, being one person here, another there, having different rules for different situations, depending on whom they are with. In all the places GEORGIA, GEORGIA fails or seems contrived, I think this is where it's most satisfying. It's not the first movie to point out this kind of schizo dynamic but I still think it's all well-observed.

CHRIS: Great job, guys! This was a ton of fun and extremely educational for me. Arbogast, Don, Hal -- thanks so much for participating.

(August 22, 1934 - September 21, 1973)


Amanda By Night said...

Hey guys,

Thank you for this. I did only "browse" the roundtable discussion because I have not seen the film but it looks incredible (by browse I mean, I read as much as possible without feeling like I was reading too much!). I have to admit I was not familiar with the actress either. THANK YOU for calling attention to her. How sad she died so young, and before she saw most of her work released. What a nice tribute you have done.

Tom said...

Great post. I'd love to see this movie. Thanks for sharing, and for posting all the great photos.

Tom said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing!

Robert Plante said...

Hey, Sands was born on my birthday.

Steve said...

GEORGIA, GEORGIA will be released on DVD by Scorpion Releasing in the not too distant future. There will be an audio commentary by director Stig Bjorkman and actor Dirk Benedict, and possibly some other features. Chris, thanks for sending me the film on DVD not once but twice. I appreciate your help...

cniambi said...

Thank you for this wonderful article-- Still relevant-- Still viable as a lesson and a tool. Now that it is 2012-- any possibility that you could turn this into a "SHARE"-- thousands of young people STILL don't even know about this movie OR Diana Sands...

Mike White said...

Did that Scorpion release ever happen? I have yet to find it on DVD in any way shape or form.

Temple of Schlock said...

It was released.