Among the more subversive aspects of 1970s cinema is a string of melodramas so campy, so overzealously feminized, and so preoccupied with glamour that they feel like paeans to gay nightclub culture, even if the filmmakers involved originally had something more butch in mind. Like the equally absurd 1977 potboiler The Other Side of Midnight, this flamboyant Diana Ross star vehicle concerns a woman who drives remarkable men wild with desire even as she fascinates women with her beguiling mystique. And while the notion of the lovely Miss Ross as a supermodel isn’t hard to accept—she’s certainly bone-thin enough—other aspects of the movie occupy the realm of the ridiculous.
Conceived and written in the mode of a 1930s “women’s picture,” Mahogany depicts the adventures of Tracy (Ross), a wannabe fashion designer struggling to make ends meet in Chicago by working in the display department of a high-fashion store. Right from the beginning, Tracy is portrayed as a self-confident superwoman—in one especially ludicrous scene, Tracy intimidates a would-be mugger into leaving her alone simply by mouthing off to him. Therefore, when Tracy meets bleeding-heart politician Brian (Billy Dee Williams), she makes it clear that her career is a bigger priority than romance. He accepts her terms, more or less, and they become a couple. Meanwhile, Tracy attempts to peddle her designs to potential buyers, and she inadvertently catches the eye of bitchy fashion photographer Sean (Anthony Perkins). Taken by her look, Sean encourages Tracy to become a model, eventually inviting her to Rome, where he believes she’ll become an international celebrity. Predictably, this juncture leads to a falling-out with Brian, so Tracy leaves Chicago for a jet-set lifestyle in Europe. The story then entangles Tracy in a romantic quadrangle comprising Tracy, Brian, Sean, and European millionaire Christian (Jean-Pierre Aumont).
Although shot quite attractively by cinematographer David Watkin, Mahogany goes over the top so many times it nearly becomes a comedy. At one point, for instance, a delirious Tracy entertains guests by dripping hot wax all over her face and chest. Those crazy European parties! Other highlights: Brian and Sean literally wrestle with a gun in between them; Christian tries to buy Tracy’s sexual favors for 20 million lira; Tracy debuts an entire line of kabuki-inspired clothing; and so on. Tying all of this together is the pretty tune “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” which plays, either instrumentally or with Ross’ memorable vocal performance, about five zillion times. FYI, Mahogany was the first and last movie directed by Motown founder—and perennial Ross champion—Berry Gordy, who reportedly took over the film after firing original helmer Tony Richardson. The world is not poorer for Berry’s decision to leave directing to others.