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Mahogany: The Couture Edition DVD Review

Mahogany (1975) movie poster Mahogany

Theatrical Release: October 8, 1975 / Running Time: 109 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Berry Gordy / Writers: Toni Amber (story), John Byrum (screenplay)

Cast: Diana Ross (Tracy Chambers/Mahogany), Billy Dee Williams (Brian Walker), Anthony Perkins (Sean McAvoy), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Christian Rosetti), Beah Richards (Aunt Florence), Nina Foch (Miss Evans), Marisa Mell (Carlotta Gavina), Lenard Norris (Wil), Bruce Villanch (Dress Manufacturer)

Buy Mahogany: The Couture Edition DVD from Amazon.com

Today, when I think of 1970s American cinema, I think of the rises of Coppola, Scorsese, and Lucas, the world's introduction to Pacino, De Niro, and Travolta, the birth of the modern blockbuster, the death of the big movie musical, the golden age of the paranoid thriller,
Burt Reynolds, Robert Altman, Irwin Allen, Woody Allen, Dirty Harry, Jack Nicholson, and Mel Brooks. In addition to all of that, there was Diana Ross.

Extraordinarily successful as the lead singer of The Supremes, the hit-making, trail-blazing 1960s girl group, Ross transitioned to film acting in the '70s. She would end up making just three films in that decade, the only one to give her on-camera theatrical work. First came Lady Sings the Blues (1972), which cast Ross as Billie Holiday and earned her Best Actress nominations from the Oscars and Golden Globes. The era of Diana Ross the actress ended in 1978 with The Wiz, an adaptation of the Broadway musical which reimagined The Wizard of Oz with contemporary urban African Americans. In between those, Ross starred in Mahogany, a 1975 drama which after years out of print returned to DVD this month from Paramount in a new disc branded The Couture Edition.

The release is fairly curious because DVD sales have slowed, studios have moved away from bringing catalogue titles to general retail, and there is no concurrent Blu-ray edition. It's also curious because Mahogany does not appear to be particularly well-known or loved. True, the film turns 40 this year, but so do Jaws, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with no sign of their respective studios choosing to celebrate their ruby anniversaries.

Department store secretary Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross) shows off the colorful fashions that make her a star in the eyes of photography Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins).

Mahogany opens with Ross' protagonist -- Tracy Chambers of Chicago -- a famous and successful fashion designer. This is but a glimpse of the future that awaits Tracy, who right now is merely working as a secretary for a giant department store while attending fashion school at night. At work one day, Tracy catches the eye of important and in-demand photographer Sean McAvoy (Psycho's Anthony Perkins). McAvoy insists that Tracy join him in Rome, where he's convinced she could be the next big supermodel. (Back in Chicago, she makes agencies uncomfortable, presumably because she's black.)

Meanwhile, the street-smart Tracy starts up a relationship with Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams, better known as Lando Calrissian), a charismatic man at one with his run-down community. Walker is running for alderman of his ward and seems to know just what to say to provide hope of relief to his downtrodden fellow Chicagoans (particularly the black ones). Though she helps with his political campaign, Tracy takes off for Italy without even saying goodbye in person.

In Rome, McAvoy gives Tracy her new stage name: Mahogany. With her stick-thin physique, Mahogany does not impress Italian fashion industry figures, except for the most important one: Ms. Carlotta Gavina (Marisa Mell) herself, who hires her on the spot. With McAvoy shooting her, Mahogany makes it big, a fact largely conveyed in one scored montage. A former combat photographer, McAvoy tries to prove his manliness to the new star he helped make. It does not work, presumably because he's implied to be gay or impotent.

McAvoy and others scoff at Tracy's colorful fashion design ambitions and want no part in making that dream come true. A wealthy Italian man (French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont) does take a liking to Mahogany's vision, or simply to Mahogany. Either way, he becomes a benefactor and gives her a start in that realm. Meanwhile, fresh off his political defeat, Brian comes to Rome and finds success has changed Tracy Chambers (she drips hot wax over her body at a wild party full of cross-dressers!). There is, of course, zero doubt that he and Tracy will end up together. I mean, come on! It's 1975. He's black. She's black. Do you think the Italian or the increasingly reckless, flamboyant genius-madman McAvoy stand a chance?

Witness cinema's most awkward fight scene when Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams) and Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins) wrestle far too long over an unloaded gun.

Mahogany is not a very good movie, though I'm not sure even its fans would try to argue it is. It is melodramatic and outdated. Its depictions of careers and adulthood are about as simplistic as they might be to an overachieving junior high student. The chasing a dream narrative is formulaic and interchangeable with other generically-plotted quests for fame.
If you grew up with the movie, I can see you maintaining a certain fondness for it. There are movies from the 1980s that are pretty corny by today's standards that I can still enjoy thoroughly. Heck, I even like The Wiz. But it's almost impossible to defend this, especially in its worst moments, like the absurd, prolonged, vaguely homoerotic Williams-on-Perkins tussle.

The PG rating Mahogany earned in 1975 bears little resemblance to the same one frequently applied to new animated movies. Throwing around the four-letter s-word quite a bit, the film is clearly a PG-13 by today's MPAA measures.

Mahogany is the lone directing credit of Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, the Detroit-based record label that spawned not only Ross' Supremes, but also the Jackson 5 and, via subsidiary labels, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and others. Gordy had executive produced Lady Sings the Blues and was only supposed to do as much here. But evidently unpleased with the direction of Oscar-winning Tom Jones helmer Tony Richardson, Gordy took the helm himself.

Mahogany apparently performed well at the box office and, with some lobbying from Gordy, it received a Best Original Song nomination from the Academy Awards for "Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)", which is performed by Ross over the end credits. Three months after the film opened, that song topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart, occupying the #1 slot for a single week in between Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs" and the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster." Both Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez covered Ross' song in the late 1990s.

Mahogany: The Couture Edition DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby 2.0 Mono (English, French)
Subtitles: English
Closed Captioned
Release Date: May 5, 2015 (Disc originally released May 1, 2007)
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $15.99
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Previously released as DVD (May 1, 2007)

VIDEO and AUDIO

You don't expect as much from a DVD as a Blu-ray. You also don't expect as much from a major studio as a specialty label. Even with that in mind, Mahogany's 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is disappointing by 2015's standards. The simple reason for that may be that this is the exact same disc they previously released in 2007. The worn picture shows much less detail than you'd like. The element is plagued by sometimes heavy grain. Some of that is simply the product of being a 1970s film. That era does present restoration challenges, but this transfer is no great achievement in the field of DVD. You can hardly blame Paramount for not putting more effort into a release that seems unlikely to exceed 4-digit sales figures, especially since they'll have a chance to do better on the inevitable Blu-ray release.

Sound, offered in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, is also a bit lackluster. I suspect the recordings just aren't of the highest caliber. I made greater use of the yellow English SDH subtitles than I expected to only because it was either that or straining to make out the flat dialogue. Underscoring the lesser effort, the disc only includes a French dub and no foreign subtitles.

Billy Dee Williams makes a point to Diana Ross in this "Mahogany" photo gallery still. Mahogany has been rocking this colorful retro DVD main menu since 2007.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

This recycled DVD's only on-disc extra is a viewer-navigated photo gallery. It displays 41 color images, all of them publicity stills.
Many of the pictures could use some obvious clean-up work.

It is a bit surprising, but not out of character, that Paramount doesn't even include the film's original theatrical trailer, which should be readily available to them.

The standard black Eco-Box keepcase is housed in a glossy embossed cardboard slipcover featuring the same new purple-based artwork. One upside to the disc being recycled is that it sports a full-color label, as opposed to the plain gray ones the studio uses nowadays.

Inside, we find this release's one exclusive contribution: a sealed pack of five full-color, double-sided postcard-sized "fashion photography cards" featuring images of Ross and others in various ornate costumes plus some of her design sketches (which Ross herself, credited as costume designer, must have contributed to). Couture Edition indeed. Make some wall space!

The static, silent menu utilizes a colorful retro design. You'd think that Rome montage would have made for an easy animated menu.

Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams) isn't sure about the fashion world in which Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross) makes her living.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Unless it evokes personal nostalgia, Mahogany will strike you as a quaint, outdated piece of entertainment.
This 1970s drama holds up purely as a Diana Ross vanity vehicle, one that is easy to watch, but which may induce cringes with its fashions and cultural depictions. I appreciated it as a departure from the new and classic movies I frequently review, as this is absolutely neither new nor classic.

Paramount's "new" Couture Edition DVD puts the film back in print and adds some photo cards at about as low a price as you can expect. While it does seem odd for there not to be a Blu-ray edition released alongside this, that is not as odd as the fact that this being the only catalog disc Paramount has released themselves in ages.

Buy Mahogany: The Couture Edition DVD from Amazon.com

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Reviewed May 14, 2015



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