In the 1970s, Diana Ross began her movie career with a bang by starring as Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues. She snagged an Oscar-nomination as the drug-addled blues legend. That was 1972. In 1975, Mahogany was released. What a difference a few years can make. The following contains spoilers.
The film begins with "Mahogany" presenting the "kabuki finale" part of her fashion collection. For some reason, people clap wildly even though the fashions look like a nightmare one has after eating too much at Beni Hana's and falling asleep to a rerun of Star Trek. But in the movie these fashions are supposed to be fabulous so we'll go along with that. Anyhow, "Mahogany" appears and takes a bow.
As she retreats backstage she is congratulated by friend/colleague Carlotta (Marisa Mell) who proclaims the show a success and how happy she is that they're sharing it with Mahogany. Suddenly, the happiness fades from Mahogany's face.
In flashback begins the story of Tracy Chambers, a working girl (not that kind!) in Chicago with dreams of getting out of the ghetto. By day, she toils as a secretary for Miss Evans (Nina Foch), but by night she attends fashion design school where she never follows the instructions of the teacher. Tracy is so very creative, you know.
One evening after a long day, she comes across Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams) attempting to rally the neighborhood into saving their buildings and preventing projects from being erected. She's tired and cranky, and they get into a small argument. Some people a few stories up pour a drink on Tracy and then Brian and the crowd have a good laugh on her. So, the next time Tracy sees Brian, she decides to get some revenge. When he puts his bullhorn down, she pours milk into it. Unfortunately, Brian blames some heckling construction workers for it and gets into a fight. Tracy bails him out of jail and confesses what she did. Brian tries to hit on her, but she rebuffs him. He owes her $100 for the bail and even if he carries it in nickels on his back, she's not interested in him. She tells him to slip the money in her mailbox.
Tracy shows up late at the fancy department store where she works. Her boss Miss Evans reprimands her, making it clear she is not very supportive of Tracy's ambitions. She thinks Tracy should be happy creating displays for the department store. Miss Evans also drops the news that Sean McEvoy is going to be doing some work for the store. Tracy is quite excited to hear this.
Another day. Sean McEvoy turns out to be a fashion photographer played by Anthony Perkins. We see Sean shooting a group of models. Well, actually we hear him as he gives directions like "Wet your lips" and "It's too horny, honey". He's exasperated with this last model. She just can't give him what he wants. As he takes a break, Miss Evans and Tracy arrive. Suddenly, Sean gets excited. He thinks Tracy is a model and he pulls her into the shoot. He says if he could get six more like her, they could really get started. Miss Evans is very amused and informs him that Tracy is her secretary. Tracy tries to gush how much she admires Sean, but Miss Evans sends her for coffee. Sean gets a pensive look on his face.
Tracy is working on one of her designs at her apartment. There's a clinking noise at the door. She gets up to investigate and when she opens her door slot to take a gander, a flood of nickels pours down. She opens the door to find Brian standing there. He says he carried the nickels there on his back. He invites her to lunch and she's delighted to accept.
Cut to a spirited game of air hockey. I have a flashback to the many happy hours I spent playing air hockey in our family's basement. As they play, Tracy grills Brian about his life. He used to work at a law firm, but he gave that up. She wants to know what he does now for a living. As the game ends, he tells her that if she's really interested in what he's about, he'll show her.
Tracy and Brian stroll along a street. He points out "his constituency". "But there's no one here," she says. He replies, "Not anymore." It used to be a neighborhood--in fact, Brian grew up there. Tracy wants to know what happened. "The same thing that's happening to yours--it got all its guts sucked out of it." He tells her that something is happening here. That only a few years ago it looked like everything was going to be better for the downtrodden. Tracy admits that she can't wait until she gets out of there. She wants a better life. Brian understands, but most people there don't have a chance to get out, so someone has to make a better place to live for them. And that someone is Brian. He's just too noble for words. As he and Tracy walk out of the frame, the camera shows us a pile of garbage. It's very meaningful.
Tracy is dressed in a rainbow-themed dress as Sean takes her picture. She thinks making like a clothes-hanger is a silly way to make a living. She proudly tells him that she made the dress herself with the help of her Aunt Florence (Beah Richards). Sean claims to be impressed. [Note: As I understand it, all the clothes that are created by Tracy were designed by Diana Ross--all I can say is that she's lucky she can sing] Sean asks if she's going to sell her fashions in Chicago and Aunt Florence wants to know what's wrong with Chicago. Sean thinks Tracy would love Rome. Rome would treat her right. He gets Tracy to dance for him as he snaps pictures. She weaves in and out of a group of naked mannequins. She spins wildly. "Whee!' Miss Evans walks in and demands to know what's going on. Sean informs her that Tracy is the perfect model for the job. Miss Evans says that they're dealing with a conservative agency, so Tracy can't be the model. Sean says to Aunt Florence, "And you still don't know what's wrong with Chicago?".
On location at a slum, Tracy is assisting Sean as he shoots pictures of fancily-dressed models. Brian arrives and observes along with a small crowd. Tracy goes up to Brian and says it should only be a few minutes more. Brian asks if Sean is the guy she was telling him about. She says yes and notes admiringly how he moves like a dancer. She reveals that Sean used to be a combat photographer. Sean calls Tracy over to him while Brian looks sad. Sean has Tracy recruit a woman from the crowd. Tracy rejoins Brian who asks how much the models are making. Tracy says sixty dollars an hour. Brian wants to know how much the woman will be paid. Tracy says she doesn't know, but this is fashion, not politics. "Everything's politics," Brian says. Then Brian observes that Sean seems pretty fond of Tracy. "Has he offered to show you his darkroom, yet?" Sean calls for Tracy. Time's a-wasting and he has a plane to catch that night. Brian maligns the fashion world, saying it means nothing to the people around here. Tracy says it means something to her. He puts down her ambition, worried that she's forgetting where she comes from, which makes her angry. Sean calls for her. Brian says "Goodbye, Tracy." and walks away.
Sean and Tracy say goodbye. He tells her that she's coming to Rome. She doesn't think so. He assures that he never lets an obsession slip through his fingers and she'll be hearing from him. Then, he kisses her before hopping into a waiting cab. Tracy looks depressed as the taxi cab drives away.
Next, we see Tracy trying to sell her designs. The man tells her that he can see how good they are, but "this is Chicago, not Paris". The camera makes sure we see Tracy's sketchbook left behind on a sofa. Cut to Tracy working on a store display. Miss Evans strolls up and asks what the doctor said. After Tracy says the doctor said everything was fine, Miss Evans informs her that "the doctor" called and said that Tracy left behind her sketchbook. Miss Evans fires Tracy.
Tracy tries to sell her designs to someone else. He can't use them, but offers her a job as a secretary. "Mister, I'm a designer." Another attempt to sell her designs, but this fellow can't appreciate them.
At the unemployment office, Brian is politicking at the exact same moment that Tracy is there to collect her unemployment check. Brian isn't having much success connecting with the crowd until Tracy starts putting on a act and drawing all sorts of attention. I have no desire to transcribe this scene. Suffice it to say that Tracy makes everyone laugh and that she and Brian are reunited.
Now, we see some scenes of Tracy and Brian growing closer, kissing, and working together on his campaign for Alderman. Tracy seems to be putting aside her own dream in order to help Brian with his. She skips her design class to be at his side for an important dinner, for example.
Tracy finishes working the phones at Brian's campaign office. She prepares to leave just as Brian arrives. She tells him she has an appointment downtown and she has to get her dress from Aunt Florence. He says he'll see her later at the dinner. She begs off because she needs to get ready for a design class show. Brian thinks she has plenty of time, but she says she has to make everything perfect because every designer in town will be there. Brian reminds her that none of them has liked her work so far. What a sweetheart. He tries to apologize, but winds up saying that now she's involved in something really meaningful. "Yeah," she says, "your career. Somehow, you seem to be forgetting about mine." He says a person can't forget what never existed and she should face facts. She heads for the door. He reminds her that the dinner is at six o'clock and says "Please". She pauses a moment and then angrily leaves.
Tracy enters her apartment, frustrated and unhappy. As she starts to gather some sketches, the phone rings. It's a call from Italy. Sean asks "Do you have a fear of flying?". Tracy goes to campaign headquarters, but Brian isn't there. He left already for the dinner and expects Tracy to meet him there. She informs the campaign manager that she has other plans. Tracy is going to Rome. She tells him to say her goodbye to Brian. "Do you love him?" "What do you think?" "I think that's what I'll tell him." Tracy gets into her cab and is off to the airport.
The theme song plays as Tracy takes a taxi through Rome. The song is the best part of the movie. Tracy takes in an awful lot of scenery for someone who isn't actually on a tour. The taxi finally pulls up to the building where Sean lives. "You did take me serious," Sean says.
Inside Sean's apartment, Tracy admires photographs of Crystal, who is a big-time model. "My Last Duchess," Sean remarks. An appropriate Browning reference. Sean is actually the only interesting character in this movie and this scene makes it apparent that he has some issues. Crystal was Sean's obsession before Tracy. She slept with most of his friends and now, Sean passes the time throwing darts at her image. Sean asks Tracy to undo her top button and Tracy wonders, "You want to compare me to her?". "Not to her," Sean says, "To it. Crystal. I give all my creations the names of inanimate objects." Tracy wants to know what he plans on calling her. "There's only one word that describes rich, dark, beautiful, and rare. I'm going to call you--Mahogany." Yeah. Anyhow, Sean makes preparations for "Mahogany's" career, but she reminds him that she really wants to be a designer. He assures her that someday she will be, but "let's not try to run before we learn to stroll down a walkway".
Tracy goes to an interview for, I think, an ad agency that is in charge of the Princess Galitzine perfume account. She is forced to pose for a panel of male executives and one female. The men make comments about her body, including the fact that she has no breasts. It becomes too much for Tracy, so she tells them off. She says all they want is "a couple of basketballs that smile". Even the lady sitting there could that, Tracy declares. Turns out that the lady is the one in charge (it's Carlotta from the opening scene) and she hires Tracy on the spot. I guess she liked her spunk.
Now, a very special part of our movie. We are treated to a montage of Mahogany modeling as Sean photographs her. This goes on for three minutes. Three minutes of Mahogany undulating, spinning, laughing. Sometimes, Sean also laughs. It's all so much fun. I really dig the pink afro, but the blue one was nice, too. But, my favorite has to be when Mahogany dresses up as an amoeba. I can't do justice to this bizarre outfit here. This is also the moment when we remember that Anthony Perkins was Norman Bates. He looks a little nuts and a little sad at the same time. The point of all this is to show that Mahogany is becoming a top model and she and Sean are getting closer.
Back in Chicago, Brian is in his campaign van. One of the workers passes him a Newsweek that has an ad featuring Tracy. He looks wistful.
In Rome, Sean playfully pushes Mahogany into a fountain to get some great pictures. One of these winds up on a billboard for Revlon.
At Sean's apartment, Sean and Tracy look over some proofs of Mahogany. Sean kisses her hand. He's looking at "the gleam of Mahogany". Tracy wishes he wouldn't call her Mahogany. Everyone one else can, but she wants him to call her Tracy. He wonders if she's granting him a privilege or denying him one. She tells him she owes him everything. Suddenly, Sean makes a pass at Tracy. I'm not sure, but I think he gnaws on her ear. She shakes her head and says that this isn't "us". He pulls away.
""I don't want to hurt you. It's just not necessary to prove anything." Tracy really needs to learn when to shut up.
Sean gets angry. "To what?" he demands to know. He guesses that Tracy has been hearing gossip from Carlotta. He insists, "I understand the needs of a woman." Well, if a woman needs a man to rub his head all over her chest, then maybe Sean does know. But Tracy doesn't look too thrilled.
Back in Chicago again where Brian is trying to speak to a crowd, but people throw food at him. He tries to control his temper, but fails. Another fight breaks out.
Cut to Rome where Tracy and Sean lay in bed together. "It doesn't matter, Sean," says Tracy. Apparently, Sean just wasn't up to the job. Tracy keeps talking. "It's not the only thing in the world." Sean stares blankly into the camera.
Another photo shoot. When Tracy shows up wearing her own creation rather than what was selected for her, Sean gets mad. She says she wants the exposure and so he tears off part of her costume. She slaps him and storms off.
Now, we're at a fashion show. It's actually a charity auction for the generically named "Foundation of Orphan Children". Rich people bid on the gowns being modeled. Sean is in the audience. Backstage, Tracy is thanked by Princess Galitzine for participating. After she leaves, Tracy turns to Carlotta and asks if she's doing the right thing.
Christian Rosetti (Jean-Pierre Aumont) arrives and tries to brush off the gaggle of photographers snapping his picture. We see a few tasteful gowns paraded down the runway intercut with scenes from the audience, most notably of Sean who is seated next to a creepy matron with a face-powdering fetish.
And now, we come to the last gown of the evening. Want to guess who's wearing that? Carlotta sits in the audience chewing her thumb nervously while Rosetti looks bored. The gown is described as being a white silk jersey dress of classic simplicity modeled by the beautiful Mahogany. Tracy strolls out wearing a hideous, uh, fabulous design of her own. It kind of looks like something Bob Mackie might have made for Cher on an off-day. The crowd gasps. Rosetti perks up a little. Sean seems amused. The auctioneer asks for an opening bid while Tracy does some awkward posing that might be supposed to evoke Japan, but just looks stupid. Sean calls out a bid of 500 lire, which is probably like fifty cents in U.S. money. The auctioneer is sure he must mean 500,000 lire, but Sean repeats the bid. Everyone laughs and Sean is quite pleased. Tracy soldiers on, but it's getting difficult as the mocking laughter continues. Just as she's about to retreat in humiliation, Count Rosetti, visibly upset at how the audience is behaving, shouts out "Twenty million lire!". Tracy gratefully returns and bows. Everyone claps. Tracy shoots Sean a nasty look.
At some sort of after-show reception, Tracy is carrying her creation while searching for Rosetti. Sean calls to her, but she ignores him. She walks up to Rosetti and Carlotta introduces the two of them. Tracy hands him the gown he won and he asks Carlotta to take care of it for him. Rosetti asks if Tracy would like to throw a drink with him into the bargain. She says she's been waiting a long time for this night and it's her first sale, so Rosetti can have whatever he wants. Sounds good to him, but he'll settle for a drink at the moment. Tracy and Rosetti sip champagne while Sean observes petulantly. As Rosetti and Tracy chit-chat, Sean intrudes. He wants to talk to Tracy, but she says she's busy. Rosetti says it's all right. He kisses Tracy's hand. "I know we'll meet again." He departs and Sean cracks, "It'd better be no later than this weekend. He's not exactly a kid.". Then, Sean apologizes to Tracy and asks if he can drive her home and show her how sorry he can be. Tracy tells him she doesn't want to see him sorry--she doesn't want to see him at all. "How about the party?" he asks. "You are the guest of honor." She says she'll be at the party, but she's had enough him right now. He smiles and nods, but when she's gone, he gets an ominous look on his face as he drinks his champagne.
The next day and Tracy is chatting on the phone with Carlotta. Apparently, Rosetti was very impressed by Tracy. There's a chinging sound (nickels, remember?) at the door and Tracy puts the phone down to check it out. She starts smiling knowingly and runs to the door. She flings it open and rushes into Brian's arms.
Later, Tracy pours drinks for herself and Brian and they enjoy the view from her window. "Isn't that beautiful? The ancient ruins of Rome." Never one to simply enjoy a moment, Brian replies: "Here they call them ruins, back home they call them slums." Tracy chuckles. "Right. In Chicago, we tear them down and here we pay to see them. Too much." I think if the slums were two thousand years old, they probably wouldn't tear them down, but nobody cares what I think. Tracy asks about the election and Brian tells her he lost. He's not sorry, though, because now he can run for Congressman due to his support (which couldn't get him elected Alderman!). But, he needs Tracy's help to win. Will she help him? She doesn't give an answer; they sip champagne.
Tracy takes Brian clothes-shopping. They mention the party that's happening that night. She tries to impress him by ordering lunch in Italian. They laugh.
At Sean's party that night: Brian is noticeably uncomfortable around the colorful denizens of Rome. Sean approaches Brian and Tracy. Brian says Sean has quite a zoo. Sean remarks that Brian is unhappy with his surroundings. Tracy says she loves Brian because he's never happy with his surroundings--he wants to make things better. Some stupid double-entendre dialogue ensues which leads to Sean inviting Brian to see a collection he has. Brian follows Sean warily. Tracy dances. Incidentally, she's dressed in some type of karate outfit. Maybe she was Japanese in another life.
Upstairs, Sean shows Brian his inner sanctum. As Brian vaguely looks around, Sean closes the door for privacy. Sean asks if Brian has ever been in a war. "Not a declared one." "You look like a passionate man...A passionate man has certainly said 'I love you" to someone." Brian wonders if that's Sean's idea of a war. Sean says his ideas aren't so complicated. He pulls out a gun. Guns are straightforward. Brian nervously agrees. Sean continues with his gun philosophy saying that people deceive, but guns are true. The gun is pointing at Brian. Brian grabs the gun barrel. Sean laughs and Brian and he begin to struggle with each other over the gun. "Look at the birdie," Sean grunts as the barrel points at Brian. They continue to struggle. Finally, Brian manages to get on top and the gun barrel is in Sean's mouth. Brian pulls the trigger, but the gun isn't loaded. "What are you trying to do?" asks Sean. "Kill me?' He starts laughing. "Bye-bye, fella."
A weary Brian goes back to the party and tells Tracy he has to leave. She gets upset, but he leaves anyhow because it's her world, not his. As people dance around her and clap, Tracy pulls off her wig and takes off her clothes. She takes a lit candle and drips wax onto her body. Fun!
Tracy arrives back at her apartment. Brian is sitting there waiting. He's been waiting for her for hours, but now he's waiting for a cab. "Good!' she snaps. She asks why he even came to Rome. He says it was to see Tracy Chambers, but he found someone else. She says he found a success and he just can't stand it. She calls him a loser and dumps champagne on him. He grabs her and she tells him she's going to be an even bigger success. And now, Brian imparts the moral lesson of Mahogany and tells Tracy to never forget it: "Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with." He tells her that if she ever becomes Tracy Chambers again, she knows where to find him. She screams at him and tells him she hates him. He leaves and she weeps as she clutches the blazer she bought him.
Another shoot. Tracy is in a car. Sean barks orders at her, but she's just not up to it. "Can't we finish this without talking?" Sean wonders if she's referring to the commercial or their relationship. He tells her to move over because he's coming in. Sean drives the car away for a bit and then stops. He tells her she looks like death warmed over and he takes a few pictures. She wants to know if they can do this another time because she'd like to cool it today. Sean thinks she'd like to cool it with him forever and run off with Brian. He continues to take pictures. Tracy notices that the car is moving, but Sean is unconcerned. "What's the matter with you?' Tracy cries out. "Are you crazy?" She tries to grab the steering wheel as the car speeds wildly along the road. "Let's see Death!" Sean commands, clicking away with his camera. He pushes Tracy away from the wheel. She decides to distract him by complying with his request to pose. This is one of the most ridiculous scenes ever. I especially like the face Tracy makes when trying to distract the crazed Sean. Tracy then attempts to grab the keys from the ignition, but fails. The steering wheel locks and the car runs up and over a mound of dirt, crashing to the ground. Fade to black
Fade in on the photographs from Mr. Sean's Wild Ride. "He wanted to see death and that's what he saw," Tracy says. Carlotta says, "He's better off dead." Seems like Sean didn't survive the crash. Tracy is in bed, her head is bandaged and she wears a neck brace. She's recuperating at Christian Rosetti's villa.
Eventually, the bandages are off and Christian is pushing Tracy's wheelchair through the gardens. They arrive at an outbuilding where a buzz of activity is occurring. Christian reveals that he is starting a fashion house just for her. At last, Tracy can create her very own collection! She's thrilled.
Some time later, Tracy is shown yelling at a supplier on the phone and then berating a seamstress. Christian tries to get her to chill out. She snaps that "she's paying them to work" and Christian reminds her that he is the one paying.
Now, it's time for the big premiere. After seeing Tracy, Christian, and Carlotta greeted by the press, we cut back to where we started: It's backstage after the "kabuki finale". Carlotta mentions that Tracy is a big success. Tracy looks dazed. She walks out onto the runway and numbly observes the people clapping and cheering for her. Suddenly, Brian's voice echoes in her head : "Nothing!" She freaks out a little. Isn't this just a memory and not an actual hallucination? Relax, Tracy. "Don't you ever forget it. Nothing!" Shut up, Brian. Tracy composes herself and returns backstage where more people congratulate her on her success. Tracy tells Christian she wants to go home. Carlotta protests since there are buyers Tracy needs to meet, but Christian thinks it might be a good idea to go home.
Back at the villa, Tracy collapses into a chair. "It leaves you limp, doesn't it?" says Christian. "All that heat it took to make it and now you're cold." He informs her that he's been cold for weeks waiting for her to slip into his room and warm him. Tonight, Christian makes sure Tracy winds up in his room. He pours two drinks. She gulps hers before allowing him to begin undressing her. He tries kissing her passionately, but she's not really into it, which Christian realizes. He moves away from her. "You would do it, wouldn't you?" he says. She replies, "A deal is a deal. It's time for me to pay up, right?" Christian wants to know where she wants to go from here. She says that when she said she wanted to go home, she meant Chicago. Christian guesses he'll have to make arrangements for a ticket for her. Relieved, Tracy thanks him. Since it seems likely that Tracy could buy her own ticket, I suppose her relief is due to the fact that Christian isn't going to "collect" on the debt she owes him. Tracy pulls her dress back on and cries.
The scene shifts to Chicago where Brian is giving yet another speech. This time he's running for Congress. He's way behind in the polls, but he tells the crowd that he's not worried. "Polls don't elect people. People elect people." As always, the crowd yells at him, making demands. In the midst of this a woman's voice calls out, "I'm a widow from the South Side. My old man left me with six kids. He hasn't been home for weeks and they all got the flu." Argh. It's the scene I didn't want to transcribe all over again. Brian wants to know who's saying this. He asks that the lady who said that step forward. Tracy appears. He smiles.
The final scene plays out.
Brian: "Do you want me to help you with your landlord, lady?"
Tracy: "Hell, no! I want you to get me my old man back."
Brian: "Madam, if you really want your old man back, are you prepared to stand by him when the going's getting rough?
Brian: "Madam, would you be willing to put your imagination to work on behalf of the cause he's fighting for?"
Brian: "Madam, would you love and cherish him for the rest of your life?"
Brian: "If you're willing to do all that, I guarantee you I'll get you your old man back."
Tracy: "Then, mister, you've got my vote."
Tracy and Brian embrace and kiss. The crowd cheers.
Roll credits as theme song plays.
Hard to believe this movie was made and set in the 1970s as the women's movement raged. What's the message? A woman should give up her dreams to support her "man" because her life will be nothing without him? Hm. Brian says that "Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with", but he never stops pursuing his dream even without Tracy by his side. Of course, he's not very successful ("You a loser!"), but he certainly wants to be. Won't his success be nothing without Tracy? Brian justifies his behavior by belittling Tracy's dream because it's unimportant compared to his work fighting against social injustices. Brian is not a very likeable character. But what does it matter? This film might make a few guilty pleasures lists, but it will never pass for a good movie.