Dorothy Dandrige, a popular nightclub singer in the 50s and 60s, earned a distinction of being the first African American movie star. Her role in the movie, Carmen Jones, earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1954, the first for an African American.
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born November 9, 1922 in Cleveland Ohio. At a young age, her mother, Ruby, an aspiring actress, left Dorothy's father and moved in with a friend, Geneva. Geneva was instrumental in teaching Dorothy and her sister singing and piano. Soon the sisters were touring the south as the "Wonder Kids" with their mother managing them after they moved to Nashville and were signed with the National Baptist Convention to tour churches throughout the southern states.
The Great Depression put a halt to progress and moved to Hollywood where Ruby found small, but steady parts in radio and film. Dorothy and her sister, now known as The Dandridge Sisters, received an unaccredited cameo in the film The Big Broadcast of 1936.
Dorothy's first screen appearance was a small part in a 1936 Our Gang movie.
In 1937, she appeared in the Marx Brother's feature film, A Day at the Races.
In 1940, she played a murdered woman in Four Shall Die. She also starred in "soundies" (film clips designed to be displayed on juke boxes). While all of the parts stereotyped African Americans, she stood out due to her singing ability and presence at nightclubs nationwide.
The sisters tried vaudeville and were booked in venues such as the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club where they were a hit and soon toured Europe.
The sisters returned to Hollywood, but they eventually split up due in part to Dorothy's increasing desire to have a solo career. In 1942, she married Harold Nicholas, a daughter; Lynn was born a year later. By the time Lynn was two, she noticed that Lynn was not acting normally; soon diagnosed as disabled. Harold was often on the road touring and he did not offer much solace. In 1949, they divorced. Ruby and Geneva looked after Lynn while Dorothy tried to re-establish her career.
In 1944, she recorded a duet with Louis Armstrong. She recorded other songs through at least 1961.
She did not relish the thought of returning to nightclubs, especially in Las Vegas where racism was almost a bad as in the south. The reviews were very good and that would help her get film work at The Mocambo in Hollywood and numerous guest television appearances. She also did minor movie roles in a series of low-budget movies including "Tarzan's Perils."
When Dorothy heard that an all Black production of Carmen Jones was being planned, she knew this was the role she had dreamed of. MGM offered and Dorothy enthusiastically accepted a role an all black drama called Bright Road. The project, with Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, and Brock Peters, was the mastermind of Austrian director Otto Preminger. Carmen Jones was a resounding success and Dorothy was the first Black woman to be nominated in the category of Best Actress for an Academy Award in 1955. Dorothy lost the Academy Award to Grace Kelly for her role in The Country Girl. Dorothy did present the Academy Award for Film Editing during the awards ceremony to Gene Milford for his work on "On the Waterfront."
In 1956, she was also nominated for a Best Foreign Actress for her Carmen Jones role for a BAFTA Film Award.
In the film Porgy and Bess with Sidney Poitier, she reluctantly accepted the role, but the entire shoot was to be an unhappy one and the reviews were mediocre. However, she was nominated for Best Motion Picture Actress - Musical/Comedy for a Golden Globe in 1960. Also in 1960, she was nominated Top Female Musical Performance for a Golden Laurel award for her role.
With her beauty and poise, she was considered a role model. Yet, in Hollywood, in spite of her beauty and sex appeal, the racial biases of the time limited her roles to those of supporting actress instead of starring roles. Dorothy's life seemed to unravel after being swindled out of at least $150,000. In 1963, she declared bankruptcy, began to drink heavily. She was given a prescription antidepressant drug that seemed to lift her spirits. . Earl Mills, her agent, started arranging her comeback when Dorothy succumbed to an accidental overdose of Imipramine (the prescribed antidepressant) September 8, 1965.
In 1999, she was the subject of the HBO biopic, "Introducing Dorothy Dandrige." She is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
She is remembered for her accomplishments and her determination to succeed despite the color barriers, which have inspired many African American entertainers, including Halle Berry who portrayed her in the HBO biopic. Other entertainers who acknowledge Dorothy's contributions include Cicely Tyson, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Angela Bassett. When Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Monster's Ball, she dedicated the moment to Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll.
Two books have been written about Dorothy. Her long time manager, Earl Mills, depicts Dorothy as "a sensitive, complex soul struggling to deal with many hurts in her life." Film historian, Donald Bogle, reflects on Dorothy's art and society that both revered her and held her back. "Both books are revealing looks into the life of a timeless and enduring entertainment legend." Dorothy wrote her own autobiography, "Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy." All three books are available through PINES.
Other films include: Teacher's Beau, The Big Broadcast of 1936, East to Take, It Can't Last Forever, Going Places, Snow Gets in Your Eyes, Irene, Bahama Passage, Sundown, Sun Valley Serendade, Lady from Louisiana, Lucky Jordan, Night in New Orleans, The Night Before the Divorce, Ride 'Em Cowboy, Drums of the Congo, Hit Parade of 1943, Happy Go Lucky, Since You Went Away, Atlantic City, The Harlem Globetrotters, Tarzan's Peril, Bright Road, Island in the Sun, The Decsk Rand Red, Ramango, Moment of Danger, The Murder Men, Cavalcade of Stars, Colgate Comedy Hour, and Cain's Hundred (1962).
Stage work includes: Swingin' the Dream (Broadway), Meet the People, Jump for Joy, Sweet 'n' Hot, Crazy Girls, West Side Story, Show Boat (1965).
Compiled from: http://claytoncountylibrary.wordpress.com/2008/03/26/dorothy-dandridge/, Wikipedia, and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0199268/awards.
For information about Dorothy Dandridge's friendship with Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner, http://panachereport.com/channels/old_school_update/MMDD.htm.