Remembering Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge Dorothy Dandridge, ca. 1950s

“Oh my God!” sobbed Halle Berry. Clutching her Oscar and shaking uncontrollably, the star fought to regain her composure. The first African American to win an Academy Award for best actress, in 2002, Berry was overwhelmed. She began her acceptance speech with “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge.” In 1954 Dandridge was the first African American to be nominated for an Oscar in a leading role. But like many pioneers, Dandridge didn’t ultimately benefit from the doors she opened. When she was found dead in her Los Angeles apartment, on September 8, 1965, she had $2.14 in her bank account. She was painfully aware that her career could have been very different if she had been white. Dandridge once wrote, “If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world.”

Director Otto Preminger, also known as Otto the Terrible and Otto the Ogre, was not initially impressed with Dandridge. When casting the title role of his 1954 film Carmen Jones, Preminger told Dandridge he saw Saks Fifth Avenue when he looked at her, while the character of Carmen was an “earthy girl.” He went in for the kill, suggesting Dandridge return to test for the supporting role of Cindy Lou, the good girl who loses her man to sexy Carmen. Dandridge did come back, but she turned the tables on Preminger. As her biographer Donald Bogle writes, “In she walked…with the tousled hair, the dark makeup, the tight skirt, the revealing blouse and the sexiest swing of hips in town. She did not even have to open her mouth. ‘My God,’ said Otto Preminger. ‘It’s Carmen!’”

CARMEN JONES, Dorothy Dandridge, 1954. TM & ©Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved./courtesy Everett Collection
Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones.

Carmen Jones is based on Oscar Hammerstein’s update of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen, using Bizet’s score and setting the story at an Army base during World War II. The film’s all-black cast includes Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters. Dandridge even appeared on the cover of Life magazine in her Carmen costume; already familiar to readers of Ebony, Jet and Sepia, Dandridge was the first African American woman to be featured in this prestigious spot. According to Bogle, “In the movie capital, and in the mythology of Hollywood, no magazine cover was so coveted or considered so great a status symbol as Life’s. Dorothy Dandridge at that very moment achieved true movie star/goddess status.” Dandridge may have lost the best actress Oscar to Grace Kelly (for The Country Girl), but she did make history twice that evening, when she presented the award for best film editing; she was the first African American woman to bestow an Oscar honor.

Dandridge claimed she wasn’t comfortable with her sex symbol image. She told a friend, “They keep saying I’m ‘sexy, sexy, sexy.’ But I don’t feel sexy. I just wish they’d stop.” She made her stage debut early, at the age of three, when she and her sister, Vivian, were billed as the Wonder Children; they appeared first on the Southern church circuit and later on the “chitlin circuit” of venues for African American performers. The girls added a friend and became the Dandridge Sisters, later appearing at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in New York City. “Somehow, people just like to look at me” was Dorothy’s bemused reaction to her popularity. As a testament to what lay behind this interest, during a solo appearance Dandridge made at Hollywood’s Mocambo nightclub, in 1953, the cigarette girls sold copies of a Kinsey report—Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.

At times, the racism Dandridge also experienced was too much for the young singer. She called the prejudice she faced “such a waste” and said she often felt “half alive” as a result. Dandridge learned she would never have the same opportunities as her friends, fellow rising stars Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe. “America was not geared to make me into a Liz Taylor, a Monroe, a Gardner,” she recalled. “My sex symbolism was as a wanton, a prostitute, not as a woman seeking love and a husband like other women.”

Dorothy Dandridge in Antibes, on set of TAMANGO, April 27, 1957 © AGIP/AD/Everett Collection (00194583)
Dorothy Dandridge in Antibes, on the set of Tamango, 1957.

But Twentieth Century-Fox production head Darryl F. Zanuck had great plans for Dandridge. He offered the rising star a nonexclusive three-year contract that could earn her as much as $125,000 a picture. He wanted Dandridge to appear in Fox’s soon-to-be legendary 1956 musical The King and I, as Tuptim, one of the king’s younger wives. But Preminger gave Dandridge what proved to be the worst advice of her life: Do not play a slave. During the filming of Carmen Jones, the star and the director had become lovers, and Dandridge foolishly thought Preminger would leave his wife to marry her. She turned down The King and I and didn’t star in another film for two years. Her momentum was lost. In her autobiography, Everything and Nothing, Dandridge fatalistically explained that such “a decline [was] inevitable for a Negro actress for whom there was no place to go, no higher or better role to play, no new story available, no chance to play roles meant for white only.”

Surprisingly for an old movie queen like myself, I saw Carmen Jones for the first time while researching this piece. Dandridge is a revelation! She grabs your attention and never lets go. Watching her as Carmen—so alive, so vibrant—it was painful to know that her life would end sadly at the age of 42, her early promise unfulfilled. Dandridge closes her autobiography with these haunting words: “The problem in America is not exactly race, but racism, which is hatred.”

All photos courtesy of Everett

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