Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965) was the first African American woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for best actress for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones. Her glamorous image and turbulent life have inspired many to compare her to another equally tragic Hollywood figure, Marilyn Monroe.
One of the most strikingly beautiful and charismatic stars ever to grace Hollywood, Dorothy Dandridge blazed a number of significant trails during her short but noteworthy career as the first African American actress to achieve leading-role status. Yet hers was also a deeply troubled life, marked by the scars of a miserable childhood, a string of failed personal relationships, numerous career setbacks, and ongoing struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. Racism was also one of the demons with which she had to contend, for Dandridge came of age in an era when the entertainment world was rife with demeaning racial stereotypes.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born in 1922 to Ruby Dandridge and her estranged husband, Cyril. As children, Dorothy and her older sister, Vivian, traveled to schools and churches around the country performing in song-and-dance skits scripted by their mother, who longed for a career in show business. By 1930, Ruby Dandridge had left Cleveland with her daughters to seek her fortune in Hollywood. There the family survived on what Ruby could earn playing bit parts in the movies or on radio, usually as a domestic servant-the kind of character role typically offered to black actors and actresses at that time. Meanwhile, Dorothy was subjected to years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother's female lover.
Around 1934, Dorothy and Vivian teamed up with another singer named Etta Jones and, billed as the Dandridge Sisters, began touring with a popular band. Their talents eventually landed them a regular spot at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, New York where white audiences flocked to see a wide variety of black performers. Dorothy went on to make her Hollywood debut in 1937 with a bit part in the classic Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races, followed a couple of years later by an appearance of the Dandridge Sisters with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong in Going Places. By 1940, however, the trio had disbanded, and Dorothy set out on her own.
In 1941 and 1942, Dandridge worked in several musical film shorts and Hollywood features before marrying Harold Nicholas of the celebrated Nicholas Brothers dance duo. While he pursued a film career, she temporarily set aside her ambitions to await the arrival of their first child in 1943. However the marriage was an unhappy one almost from the start, due to Nicholas's philandering. The couple's difficulties were compounded when their daughter, Harolyn (known as Lynn), was diagnosed as being severely mentally retarded due to brain damage suffered at birth. She was eventually institutionalized. For the rest of her life, Dandridge blamed herself for Lynn's condition.
Dandridge and her husband finally divorced in 1949. Deeply depressed over what she perceived as her failure as a wife and as a mother, she decided that the best way to cope with her sad situation was to keep busy. She took singing, acting, and dance lessons to regain her confidence and soon hit the road with a nightclub act that eventually took her all over the world. In 1951, she became the first African American to perform in the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. That same year, she also broke attendance records at the Mocambo in Hollywood. Despite her success, Dandridge constantly battled insecurities about her looks and her talent and such anxiety often left her feeling physically ill before, during, or after a performance. Additionaly, she absolutely detested the cigarette smoke, the drinking, and the often obnoxious male patrons she had to endure on the nightclub circuit.
Before long, however, Dandridge's film career began to blossom. In addition to some bit parts, she played an African princess in the 1951 movie Tarzan's Peril and a teacher in 1953's Bright Road. In 1954, she won the lead role in the movie that would make her a star-Carmen Jones, a lavish musical based on the nineteenth-century French opera Carmen by Georges Bizet that tells the story of a beautiful but fickle gypsy girl whose seductive ways lead to tragedy. In director Otto Preminger's updated version, set in Florida during World War II, Bizet's gypsy girl is transformed into a sultry black factory worker who corrupts a young black soldier, betrays him, and then pays the ultimate price for her actions. Featuring an all-black cast that, in addition to Dandridge, included Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, and Diahann Carroll, Carmen Jones proved to be a critical and commercial success. It not only established Dandridge as a bona fide sex symbol, it also earned her the honor of being the first African American to receive a best actor or actress Academy Award nomination.
Dandridge almost did not get to play Carmen Jones. When she first auditioned for Preminger, she struck him as being far too elegant and ladylike for the part. She, however, was determined to become a movie star, so she acquired an authentic-sounding southern accent, put on a tight skirt and low-cut blouse, applied heavy eye makeup and tousled her hair, and headed off for a second audition. This time, Dandridge electrified Preminger with her grasp of the character and won the part on the spot. She also captivated the director personally, but their liaison was an unfortunate one that caused Dandridge a great deal of sorrow.
Although Dandridge did not win the Oscar for Carmen Jones, which went to Grace Kelly for her role in The Country Girl, she still became the toast of Hollywood. Reporters and photographers trailed in her wake. Articles about her appeared in black as well as white publications, including a cover story in Life magazine that described her as one of the most beautiful women in America. Even the foreign press lavished her with attention. For a while, it looked as if Dandridge would be the one to force the movie industry to acknowledge the reality of racial integration.
Despite receiving such acclaim, Dandridge waited in vain for more demanding film roles to come her way. Instead, she was usually offered parts that were little more than variations on the Carmen Jones character-that is, lusty young women of dubious morality who meet with tragic ends. It was a frustrating turn of events for Dandridge, who took pride in working hard at her craft only to see herself locked into a racial stereotype. Sadly, studio bosses believed that white moviegoers would not accept African American actresses in roles other than that of the domestic servant or the trampy seductress.
As a result, three years passed before Dandridge starred in another film. This one, too, generated headlines, but not just for her performance. Island in the Sun (1957) was a daring foray into interracial romance that paired Dandridge with a white leading man. It was the first time a major American film had depicted such a relationship, and some audiences reacted with shock despite its extremely cautious approach to the subject matter. In the wake of the controversy, a number of theaters (mostly in the South) refused to show Island in the Sun. Nevertheless, it was a hit at the box office, and Dandridge went on to make several other movies dealing with the same theme, including The Decks Ran Red in 1958, Tamango in 1960 (a French production that could not obtain distribution in the United States), and Malaga in 1961.
Dandridge's final film triumph came in 1959 in the all-black musical Porgy and Bess, which many consider her finest performance. For her skillful portrayal of Bess (oppo-site Sidney Poitier as Porgy), Dandridge received a Golden Globe Award nomination for best actress in a musical.
With the dramatic roles she wanted to play in short supply, Dandridge resumed her singing career after Porgy and Bess was released. It was while she was on tour in Las Vegas that she met white restaurateur Jack Denison, who, in 1959 became her second husband. Much like her first marriage, this one was a failure almost from the very beginning. Always fearful of poverty, Dandridge had saved much of the money she had earned as an actress, but soon lost everything after making a series of bad investments in her husband's business. Denison then took off, leaving her alone, broke, and depressed; she divorced him in 1962 and was forced to declare bankruptcy the following year. An attempt to revive her acting career went nowhere, and before long Dandridge had turned to pills and alcohol to ease her despair, which took a heavy toll on both her mental and physical well-being.
For a brief period in early 1965, it seemed that Dandridge might succeed in getting her life back in order. She left Hollywood for Mexico, where she checked into a health spa and worked at getting in shape. Several deals were in the works, including starring roles in a couple of new movies. However, on September 8, 1965, just a few days after returning to Hollywood, the forty-two-year-old Dandridge was found dead in her apartment of an overdose of antidepressant medication. Authorities could not determine whether it was an accident or suicide.
In January 1984, Dandridge finally received the recognition she had long deserved when her gold star was unveiled on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame. A crowd of fans of all ages attended the ceremony, joined by a number of prominent black actors and actresses, including her former co-stars Belafonte and Poitier. As her biographer, Donald Bogle, noted in Essence, they had gathered there to honor "a pioneer" who "cleared a path for so many to follow" with her determination to make something more of herself than society was ready to accept. "After all these years," concludes Bogle, "there still has never been another woman in American motion pictures quite like Dorothy Dandridge."
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