Lena Horne, 92
Lena Horne dies at 92; performer altered Hollywood's image of black women
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Lena Horne, 92, an electrifying performer who shattered racial boundaries by changing the way Hollywood presented black women and who enjoyed a six-decade singing career on stage, television and in films, died of a heart ailment May 9 at a hospital in New York.
Ms. Horne, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, came to the attention of Hollywood in 1942. She was the first black woman to sign a meaningful long-term contract with a major studio, a contract that said she would never have to play a maid.
"What people tend not to fully comprehend today is what Lena Horne did to transform the image of the African American woman in Hollywood," said Donald Bogle, a film historian.
"Movies are a powerful medium and always depicted African American women before Lena Horne as hefty, mammy-like maids who were ditzy and giggling," Bogle said. "Lena Horne becomes the first one the studios begin to look at differently. . . . Really just by being there, being composed and onscreen with her dignity intact, paved the way for a new day" for black actresses.
He said Ms. Horne's influence was apparent within a few years of her leaving Hollywood, starting with actress Dorothy Dandridge's movie work in the 1950s. Later, Halle Berry, who won the 2001 Best Actress Oscar for "Monster's Ball," called Ms. Horne an inspiration.
Ms. Horne's reputation in Hollywood rested on a handful of musical films. Among the best were two all-black musicals from 1943: "Cabin in the Sky," as a small-town temptress who pursues Eddie "Rochester" Anderson; and "Stormy Weather," in which she played a career-obsessed singer opposite Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
In other films, she shared billing with white entertainers such as Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Mickey Rooney and Red Skelton but was segregated onscreen so producers could clip out her singing when the movies ran in the South.
"Mississippi wanted its movies without me," she told the New York Times in 1957. "So no one bothered to put me in a movie where I talked to anybody, where some thread of the story might be broken if I were cut." In Hollywood, she received previously unheard-of star treatment for a black actor. Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios featured Ms. Horne in movies and advertisements as glamorously as were white beauties including Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable.
Nevertheless, Ms. Horne was frustrated by infrequent movie work and feeling limited in her development as an actress. She confronted studio officials about roles she thought demeaning, a decision that eventually hurt her.
James Gavin, a historian of cabaret acts who has written a biography of Ms. Horne, said: "Given the horrible restrictions of the time, MGM bent over backward to do everything they could. After MGM, she was an international star, and that made her later career possible, made her a superstar."
Ms. Horne appeared on television and at major concert halls in New York, London and Paris. She starred on Broadway twice, and her 1981 revue, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," set the standard for the one-person musical show, reviewers said. The performance also netted her a special Tony Award and two Grammy Awards.
Gavin said Ms. Horne cultivated a "ferocious" singing personality through her flashing eyes and teeth.