The Root Recasts ‘Lady Sings the Blues’

Mary J. Blige in Diana Ross' role? Here's our 40th-anniversary homage to the classic film.

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    Paramount Pictures; Christopher Polk/Getty Images

    Lady Sings the Blues, the film based on the tragic life of blues singer Billie Holiday, was released 40 years ago. The movie, starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, would go on to become a box-office success, earn five Oscar nominations and introduce a wider audience to Holiday’s music. We wondered, if the movie were made today, who would play the key roles? Here’s a look at the film’s original actors and the stars we’d cast in the remake.

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    Paramount Pictures

    The Original: Diana Ross as Billie Holiday

    When Ross was chosen to play Holiday, some critics had their doubts. Not only was Ross’ singing style different from Holiday’s, some felt she was a little too glamorous for Holiday’s hardscrabble life story. Not only did Ross pull off a soul-baring performance in her first movie role — nabbing an Academy Award nomination for best actress — she captured the essence of Holiday’s singing style, which led to a No. 1 album, Ross’ only No. 1 album as a solo artist.    

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    Christopher Polk/Getty Images

    The Remix: Mary J. Blige

    Who better to play Holiday than Blige, who’s known for channeling the pain and anguish of her life into her music, much like the blues singer herself. Blige was even linked to a Billie Holiday role back in 2001 (who knows what happened to that movie?). Recently, she was supposed to star as another iconic singer, Nina Simone. But she dropped out and was replaced by Zoe Saldana, which sparked a huge debate on colorism.

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    Paramount Pictures

    The Original: Billy Dee Williams as Louis McKay

    Williams, one of Hollywood’s leading men at the time and Ross’ love interest in the film, could make mothers, daughters and grandmothers swoon. The chemistry between Williams and Ross was immediately apparent, and they would score another hit with Mahogany in 1975. His career received a major boost in the ’80s when he starred as Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

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    Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

    The Remix: Terrence Howard

    Howard, the star of Hustle and Flow and Red Tails, may not be as suave as Billy Dee Williams but he would bring a bit more edginess to the role of Louis McKay, which would mesh well with what would surely be a gritty performance by Mary J. Blige.

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    Paramount Pictures

    The Original: Richard Pryor as Piano Man

    Pryor was relatively unknown when he was cast in the dramatic role of Piano Man, the person who helped Billie land a job as a singing showgirl at a nightclub. Two years later, Pryor released his breakout comedy album, That Nigger’s Crazy, and went on to become a comedy legend.


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    Alexandra Wyman/Getty Images

    The Remix: Jamie Foxx

    Like Pryor, Foxx started out as a comedian who wasn’t afraid to show a dramatic side, as he did in films such as Ray and Any Given Sunday. Plus, he actually can play the piano.


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    Crested Butte Records

    The Original: Paul Hampton as Harry

    Actor and songwriter Hampton, whose songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Sammy Davis Jr., played a minor role in the film but his character looms large — he is the one who introduces Holiday to heroin.

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    Jeff Vespa/Getty Images

    The Remix: Bradley Cooper

    Cooper possesses enough charm and smarminess — both on display in movies such as The Wedding Crashers and The Hangover flicks — to play the role of Harry. He’s also easy on the eyes.

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    John D. Kisch/Moviepix/Getty Images

    The Original: Virginia Capers as Mama Holiday

    Capers played Holiday’s mother, who works as a maid and gets her daughter a job cleaning a brothel. Mama Holiday’s death sends Billie on a drug bender that has major consequences. Caper’s career following Lady Sings the Blues included several film and TV roles. You may recognize her as Grandma Hattie from Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

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    Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

    The Remix: Loretta Devine

    Playing a maid these days can be a bit problematic, but Devine, who held her own in Waiting to Exhale, Boston Public and Grey’s Anatomy, has the gravitas to pull it off. Given Devine’s experience in musical theater — she played Lorrell Robinson in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls — perhaps the remake could include a scene with Devine as Mama Holiday singing to daughter Billie as a young child.

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