TBT: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

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Dorothy Dandridge is the first African American actor ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. This was for her performance of Carmen in Carmen Jones (1954). So it’s prescient and fitting that Halle Berry portrays Dandridge, as Berry later became the first African American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Monster’s Ball (2001).  She won a Primetime Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal here in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), which she co-produced as well.

1950s - Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge on stage in the 1950s.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

Halle Berry as Dorothy Dandridge.

1958 - Dorothy Dandridge - The Decks Ran Red promo

Dorothy Dandridge in a promo for the 1958 movie The Decks Ran Red.

This TV movie by HBO is told through flashback, and the main story starts in the 1940s when Dandridge has a song-and-dance act with her sister and another woman who are playing The Cotton Club. They meet a male African American tap-dancing act, the Nicholas Brothers, and Harold Nicholas starts flirting with Dorothy.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

The Dandridge Sisters in their stage outfits at The Cotton Club.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

Dorothy gets small parts in Hollywood films, like this one dancing with the Nicholas Brothers.

Dorothy Dandridge & the Nicholas Bros, Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

Actual still of Dorothy Dandridge & the Nicholas Brothers from Sun Valley Serenade (1941).

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

This will lead to her first marriage and her only child, a daughter born with some type of developmental disorder. Dandridge’s marriage crumbles but then her career takes off, once she meets manager, Earl Mills (played by Brent Spiner, Data from ST:TNG).

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

Sharp seaming on her suit & nifty buttons across the bust.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

Her suits are always properly accessorized with hats & gloves.

She wants to be a serious actress, but singing pays the bills, even though the nightclubs, hotels, casinos, and resorts who hire her make her enter through the kitchen, give her broom closets to dress in, make her use a Dixie cup as a toilet, and drain the pool if she dares to dip a toe in it.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

Running at 2 hours, this flick does tend to skim over parts of Dorothy Dandridge’s life, even though she died at 42. Her affair with director Otto Preminger is given a lot of screentime but her second marriage to Jack Denison is skimmed over. Her mother and older sister long outlived her but kind of disappear early in the film. Much of the story is framed by a phone call between Dorothy and a friend, Geri Branton-Nicholas, reminiscing about Dorothy’s past, but Geri is only briefly introduced once, so it’s hard to figure out just who she’s talking to and why. This is based on an actual event, they had a long phone call the night before Dandridge died.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

With her sister Vivian.

One background element that’s included is how Dorothy was sexually abused as a child by her mother’s lover, who stage-managed the girls’ song-and-dance act and they were forced to call “Auntie.” The affect this has on Dorothy’s sex life with her first husband and later lover is treated with exceptional sensitivity and an appropriate realism for the period. This was before people might talk openly about these things, so it’s all shown in reactions that feel believable and not re-traumatizing.

In all, the title of “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” feels accurate because this is just an introduction. A good, entertaining one, but it feels like scratching the surface. I can see her appeal as an actor and singer (now I want to watch Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess!), I’m interested in her life, but I don’t know much about how she got where she did and what happened in between other than some racism at performing venues. I suspect there’s more to her story.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

The filming of a key scene from Carmen Jones is recreated in this movie.

1954 - Dorothy Dandridge - Carmen Jones promo

A 1954 promo pic of Dorothy Dandridge for Carmen Jones.

 

 

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge can be streamed on HBO Max currently, so check it out!

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

9 Responses

  1. the StoryEnthusiast

    I just watched Carmen Jones for the first time and Dorothy Dandridge wowed me! I was speechless. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Interestingly, her singing was dubbed by a young Marilyn Horne, who would go on to become one of the Metropolitan Opera’s definitive Carmens.

      Reply
  2. Saraquill

    I remember a flutter of interest when the movie first came out. There was a one hour documentary on her life, and my grandmother picked up a biography of Dorothy’s. I didn’t see the movie itself as it was on cable, which we didn’t have. I’ll put it on my HBO Max queue.

    Reply
  3. Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

    Donald Bogle’s biography of Dorothy Dandridge is fantastic and well-researched. It will fill in those gaps that you were talking about.

    Reply
  4. Lil

    I have vague recollections of this from when it came out. I either didn’t watch it or had it playing in the background while I was doing something else. So, I’ll definitely pop over to HBO Max and check it out. Now, that I’m an older and an opera fan, I REALLY want to see and compare Carmen Jones with Carmen (one of the first operas I ever saw). Back in the day Beyonce was in another telling of Carmen, too, called Carmen: A Hip Hopera. I don’t think it was widely seen.

    Anyway, several months ago I watched an EXCELLENT 3-part documentary on Netflix called “They’ve Gotta Have Us” about Blacks in cinema–not only African-Americans, the filmmaker was British an interviewed Black Britons too. In one of the episodes Harry Belafonte said they had something ridiculous like 5 – 10 DAYS to shoot the ENTIRE Carmen Jones movie!! I want to know more about Dorothy Dandridge too. I think she and Peter Lawford (JFK’s brother in law) were lovers around the time she died. And I wonder if, like Halle Berry, she was biracial? Thanks for spotlighting this pic!!

    Reply
  5. M.E. Lawrence

    Does the movie include a scene of Dandridge’s stay at a hotel where non-whites were forbidden to use the pool? As the story, or legend, goes, D.D. took her time about strolling to a lounge chair, arranging her towels, removing her wrap, etc., then delicately dipped one or two toes in the water. And then she left.

    Reply

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