'In Memoriam': Lena Horne honored at Academy Awards

The iconic singer and actress's career spanned six decades, helping to break down racial barriers for women of color in Hollywood.
Compiled by Ian Saleh
Washington Post Staff
Monday, February 28, 2011; 3:32 PM

Lena Horne was honored during the 'In Memoriam' section of the Academy Awards. As Hank Stuever explained:

There was a particularly populated In Memoriam reel, for which there were 233 dearly departed candidates jockeying for five minutes of reflection time. Was anyone left out? Tweeters demanded to know and mustered a wan outrage at the absence of '80s teen star Corey Haim.

I'm strangely at peace with that omission - they got Dennis Hopper, Lynn Redgrave, Blake Edwards and "The Empire Strikes Back" director Irvin Kershner, so we're good. And Lena Horne got a little something special, thanks to former Best Actress winner Halle Berry.

Lena Horne will be remembered for altering Hollywood's image of black women. As Adam Bernstein remembered:

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.

Video: Singer Lena Horne dies at 92

Eugene Robinson gave his own tribute to the legacy of Lena Horne:

Horne, who died Sunday at 92, was an infiltrator. She strode confidently through doors that had been closed to African American entertainers, and she was able to do so because white audiences found her not just beautiful and talented but also non-threatening. Late in her life, she gave a sense of how difficult that role had been to play.

"My identity is very clear to me now," she said when she was 80. "I am a black woman. I'm free. I no longer have to be a 'credit.' I don't have to be a symbol to anybody; I don't have to be a first to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."

Indeed, she was different. She was light-skinned, with just enough tan in her complexion to make it evident that she wasn't white. Her nose was narrow, almost turned-up; her hair, in the fashion of the times, was always straightened. She was, by any standard, gorgeous. But she knew that the racial ambiguity of her looks allowed her to attain a level of stardom that was inaccessible to singers and actors who conformed more closely to white America's image of "black."

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