She was truly the first black leading lady in films.
Lena Horne, five years her senior, had a much longer and variegated career but Dorothy Dandridge was a best actress Oscar nominee, a status Horne never approached (although she was nominated for Emmy Awards twice.) Of course, Dorothy died early at 42, while Horne remained with us for a half century after that.
The general impression of Dandridge today is of a somewhat fragile but immensely talented performer — born at the wrong time. No question with her looks, acting skills and impressive vocal abilities, Dandridge would have been HUGE today.
Born in Cleveland in 1922, she was raised in a proper, middle-class black family (her father was a minister) which encouraged her talents. The family moved to Los Angeles during the Great Depression, and Dorothy managed to land a bit part in the 1937 Marx Brothers comedy, A Day At The Races.
From there it was a gradual professional climb upward. Dandridge’s looks and talents could not be denied. In her short life she racked up 36 screen credits.
The apex of her nearly 25-year career was, of course, her starring role in Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II’s modernization of the Georges Bizet opera which Otto Preminger turned into a big, brassy (in Cinemascope, no less) A-list movie in 1954.
As the title character — an irresistibly alluring seductress at an all-black military encampment — Dandridge creates all manner of personal mayhem ending, as in the Bizet opera, badly. Dorothy plays a parachute factory worker while her costar (Harry Belafonte) is an upright GI. (The fine cast also includes Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters and Diahann Carroll.)
The role catapulted Dorothy into top rank Hollywood stardom, and widespread notice, earning her a coveted spot on the cover of Life Magazine, then a national tastemaker. She was the first Afro-American to make Life’s cover. (She looks great.)
Offscreen, Dandridge’s life was a mess.
She was terrible with her finances, dicey with her marital choices — Dorothy wed twice in her 42 years (the first time to Harold Nicholas, one half of the dancing duo, the Nicholas Brothers; her second husband ran through virtually all her money). She and director Preminger conducted a multi-year affair that ended in an abortion, and may well have misdirected her career.
Her one and only child, born when Dorothy was only 20, was a brain-injured daughter by Nicholas (who we profiled yesterday with his brother, Fayard). She died in 1965, broke and in debt, living alone in a small West Hollywood flat. It was caused by an accidental overdose of a an anti-depressant or a rare blood clot, take your pick.
Certainly Dandridge paved the way for such actresses as sister Ohioan Halle Berry, who dedicated her best actress Oscar for 2001’s Monster’s Ball to Dorothy’s memory. Two years earlier, Berry took the leading role in HBO’s movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.