In 1980, Lena Horne was already a legend on both the screen and on broadway. Yet she still had the drive to work and prove herself further after years of being used as a token black woman in films. During the 1940’s Lena was used as a poster girl alongside Rita Hayworth, but Lena was meant to be ogled by black soldiers. Lena was the first woman at a major studio (MGM, if were wondering) to actually be made up like a star, and not just play a maid on screen. Lena did her own singing and starred in several films that highlighted black performers, including 1943’s Cabin in the Sky.
Her first love was always singing, and everything else came after that. So when Hollywood blacklisted her and deemed her unworthy of stardom, she started singing again. By now, it was the 60’s, the civil rights era. She sang in night clubs and was successful, she was once the opening act to Tony Bennett. Yet her focus during this time was helping black people receive the rights long overdue to them.
Her career revival came in the form of The Wiz from 1978 when she starred as Glinda the good witch alongside an all-black cast, including Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. In case you haven’t seen it yet, this film is focused on highlighting black culture using the classic story The Wizard of Oz which is usually told from a caucasian lens. This gave Lena the confidence and idea to get back into what she does best, performing in front of audiences.
Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music was Horne’s crowning achievement in her career, and it came in 1981 when she was 65 years old. In the show, Lena tells stories of her time in Hollywood and the racism she experienced. During the 1950s when a film telling a story about a biracial woman was being made, instead of casting Lena who is an actual black woman, the studio cast Ava Gardner instead. MGM put Lena’s black makeup on Ava Gardner and thought this was a better option because Lena was too dark for white audiences to relate to. Yet, in her Broadway show, Lena talks about this story in a humorous way and does not hate Gardner, which just goes to show that love trumps hate.
The music was the highlight of Lena’s one-woman show. It is what she was best at, and what she was most comfortable doing. While watching clips on YouTube, this fact became apparent as she is clearly happy and in her element. Because of Lena’s dedication to her singing and her storytelling abilities, she received such high praise from all critics when her show premiered in 1981.
Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music won Lena several awards in 1982. She received a special Tony award for her show as they did not know how to categorize the show, critics knew she needed to be recognized for how special her show was. Lena Horne received a standing ovation from the crowd during the Tony award ceremony. She was also awarded two Grammy awards that year for the soundtrack to the show alongside Quincy Jones, who was the album’s producer.
For most of her career, Lena Horne was typecast as token black girl who white audiences could tolerate. Instead of being upset by this fact, she used it to her advantage and could use it to write her own narrative. In her first film Cabin in the Sky back in 1943, Horne sang the famous Billie Holiday song Stormy Weather. The film producers didn’t want her to sing it, yet she insisted, and it would become her signature song which she sang at every performance for the rest of her career.
Like many other black performers, Lena had to pave her own way despite others trying to push her to do certain things. She had to fight to keep her integrity and fight for roles that often went to white women. When this didn’t happen, she created a new path for herself. A path that would be more beneficial and successful. For the ability to know her own self-worth, we salute Lena Horne, the actress, model, the civil rights activist, the lady, and her music.
Suppose you are interested in learning more about Lena Horne and her life. In that case, I highly suggest listening to the podcast You Must Remember This. Host Karina Longworth dedicated a whole episode to her life. The episode was my biggest source for this article.
- Sources hyperlinked in article.