"Introducing Dorothy Dandridge"
A Movie review by Linda Lopez McAlister
The Women's Show, WMNF-FM 88.5 Tampa, FL
Saturday, August 21, 1999
Today's review is a bit of a departure for me. Instead of reviewing a
theatrical release I'm reviewing a made-for-Television film that will be
shown tonight (and probably at other times during the coming week) on
HBO. I want to thank Eric Deggens, tv critic for the St. Petersburg
Times for alerting me to this film and sharing his preview copy with me.
The film is called "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge." The driving force
behind the film is actress Halle Berry who both produced it and stars in
it as Dorothy Dandridge. I suspect many listeners may not know who
Dorothy Dandridge is. That's why it was so important to Halle Berry to
make this film, and to Eric Deggins who called to tell me about it. I'm
at least old enough to remember Dorothy Dandridge, the first Black woman
ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress back in 1954.
This film tells the story of her life in what seems to be a respectful
and reasonably accurate manner-as far as biopics go.
When I was brushing up on the facts of Dandridge's life myself before I
saw the film, I couldn't help thinking of Cheryl Dunye's film
"Watermelon Woman," which some of you know, I'm sure. In it Cheryl
investigates the life of a Black actress/singer who aspired to stardom
in Hollywood in the 1930s when the only parts open to her were mammies,
exotic jungle queens, and tiny bit parts. It's as if Dorothy
Dandridge's life story and that of her mother, who was also an actress,
are the real-life version of Cheryl Dunye's fictional Faye Richards,
except that Dandridge got further in Hollywood than Faye did, and ended
up paying a dear price for her success.
Dandridge started out in vaudeville with her sisters in a singing act
and gained enough acclaim to be booked into the Cotton Club in Harlem in
the 1930s. There she met the famous tap dancing Nicholas brothers and
she ended up marrying Harold Nicholas. Her Hollywood "debut" was a
bit part in the Marx Brothers' epic "A Day at the Races" In 1937. And
she continued in small parts in rotten movies for several years, though
not, apparently, having to play the kind of Mammy roles that her mother
got. An agent named Earl Mills (Brett Spiner) got her engagements as a
singer while she was awaiting her "big break" in films along with other
starlets of her era such as Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. That break
came with the decision of famed director Otto Preminger to make a film
with an all Black cast of a contemporary version of Bizet's opera
"Carmen" to be called "Carmen Jones" with new lyrics by Oscar
Hammerstein II. Prim and proper Dorothy went with Earl to see
Preminger (played by the wonderful veteran Austrian actor Klaus Maria
Brandauer) and he immediately saw her as the sweet, demure ingenue
rather than as Carmen. The next time she saw him, she read Michaela's
words but in Carmen's hot, sexy character and Otto succumbed, both to
her desire to play Carmen and to her charms. (She had long been
divorced from Harold Nicholas who didn't want anything to do with being
father to their retarded daughter and split).
The rest of the picture chronicles the height of her fame and the steady
decline she went into after the affair with Preminger ended. Her only
further starring role in a major picture was as Bess in "Porgy and
Bess." What the film is very clear about are the indignities that a
talented Black actress in the 1940s and '50s had to put up with.
Of course the real problem was that Hollywood didn't know what to do
with a sexy Black star. She could sing a la Lena Horne in musicals; she
could be sexual but only with Black men and in all Black pictures, but
she could not be cast opposite a white leading man. It was at least 10
years more before that subject could even be raised in a Hollywood film
("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" in 1967) and 30 years before Hollywood
could cast a Black romantic leading woman (Whitney Houston) with a white
romantic leading man (Kevin Costner) in 1992's "The Bodyguard." And it
still doesn't happen just as a matter of course. Most Hollywood Black
leads are still playing opposite other Black people or are asexual and
helping out white people. "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" showing
Dorothy's relationships with white men, could not have been made during
her lifetime. Darryl Zanuck had a plan for Dorothy that would have
overcome this problem, but, under Preminger's influence she turned it
down and, in effect, killed her career holding out for leading roles
that did not materialize.
I need to mention that this film was directed by the well respected
woman director Martha Coolidge (though personally I wish it had been
Julie Dash who proved in her short film "Illusions" that she knows how
to direct a film about Blacks in Hollywood in the 1940s. This is a good
film, far better than most TV movie fare. If you have HBO you'll want
to see it. If you don't, find a friend who does and go visit. I assume
that eventually this will also be released on video; I hope so.
"Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" is a film that needed to be made and we
are indebted to Halle Berry for making it happen and for giving a fine
performance in it.
For the WMNF Women's Show this is Linda Lopez McAlister on Women and