All cliches are true, including the chestnut that truth is stranger than fiction. No screenwriter would dare invent the drama Dorothy Dandridge lived, so Dickensian are its details.
A forgotten Hollywood star of the ‘50s, her tale begins with a little girl being raised by her mother’s lesbian lover, who physically and sexually abuses her. She grows to be a charismatic beauty, finds work as a singer and actress, then marries a womanizing dancer. Their only child, a daughter, is born severely retarded.
Divorced at 27, she begins a series of unhappy love affairs with powerful men, one of whom, a producer and director, gives her the role of her life. It earns her the first nomination for a best actress Oscar ever given an African American, but parts for a black leading lady prove hard to come by.
She marries an abusive con man who squanders her money, and financial ruin forces her to make her daughter a ward of the state. Depressed and dependent on pills and alcohol, she dies at 42 of a prescription drug overdose. There is $2.14 in her bank account.
Halle Berry, despite enjoying considerable success in Hollywood, believed Dandridge could be the role of her life. For five years, she tried to interest studio after studio in a Dandridge biopic. Although Dandridge was a contemporary of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, her name is virtually unknown to today’s movie audience. If that didn’t make for a tough enough sale, Berry was pitching a woman’s story that, even worse, in a commercial sense, centered on a black woman. It wasn’t the kind of thing that makes a studio executive’s day. Berry recalls, “Everyone said it’s a great story and a terrific part, but it will never make any money. They told me, ‘This would make a lot of sense for you, but no sense for us.’ ”
She finally found acceptance at HBO. “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” which Berry executive produced and stars in, premieres on the cable network tonight at 9.
While there was no bidding war among studios to produce a Dandridge movie, the competition to play her was hot. Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Angela Bassett, Jasmine Guy and Jada Pinkett all expressed interest.
In 1996, Berry acquired a biography written by Dandridge’s longtime, love-smitten manager, Earl Mills, played in the HBO movie by Brent Spiner. By 1997, when film historian Donald Bogle’s definitive Dandridge biography was published, Berry still hadn’t secured a deal, so Houston bought the rights to the Bogle book.
That so many actresses were eager to play Dandridge reflected both their respect for her and the sad circumstance that not much had changed since her heyday. There was still a shortage of leading roles for black actresses. And, with apologies to Whoopi Goldberg, especially for stunning, sultry ones who get to kiss the boy, be he black or white.
Berry thought Houston had more box-office clout than she. But Berry had a few strengths of her own, including great persistence and flexibility. She was savvy enough to understand that high-quality movies were being made for cable television that were reaching larger audiences than many theatrical releases.
Dandridge a ‘Hero to the Black Community’
Still, perhaps not all cliches are true. Both Berry and Dandridge know what it’s like to be underestimated by those who believe that beautiful women are dumb. The two actresses seemed to have a lot in common. Berry was 32 when the HBO film was in production, the same age Dandridge was when she earned her Oscar nomination. They were both born in Cleveland and grew up with absent fathers. Their obvious genetic blessings didn’t necessarily make either of them lucky in love.
“I could relate to Dorothy and her struggle,” Berry says. “There’s still no spot carved out for a black leading lady. I’m still banging on those doors.”
Director Martha Coolidge identified a subtle difference. She says: “Dorothy’s face was so expressive. All the complex thoughts and ideas showed on it at every moment. . . . [Halle’s] a much more serene, less tortured person. So the first goal we set up for her in her performance was showing that vulnerability that Dorothy couldn’t disguise.”
To realize her dream of both playing a glamorous leading role and acknowledging Dandridge’s contribution as an African American battling racism, Berry, as producer, had to confront the question at the core of every filmed biography that aims to be more than a series of vignettes: Which tale to tell? Is it the story of a betrayed child constantly searching for love; the insecure, masochistic man magnet with an abundance of looks, talent and ambition yet little common sense; or the dazzling screen goddess with the courage to insist on first-class treatment?
“She was a pioneer, and a hero to the black community,” Berry says. “She helped open doors and pave the way for all of us, not just in the film industry but in society. I wanted her to be remembered for how she lived and the contribution that she made, not for being hit by one bad thing after another. So we left a lot of that stuff out.”
Dandridge’s professional achievements easily could have been overshadowed by the prejudice and self-destructiveness that were the locomotives of her downfall. And portraying her as a martyr would have distorted the truth. In fact, biographer Bogle has said that in the 1950s, black Americans saw Dorothy Dandridge in much the same way as baseball’s Jackie Robinson, as a trailblazer who was changing the mainstream perception of what blacks could and couldn’t do.
In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, they could entertain white audiences, but they couldn’t use the same toilets, hotel rooms or drinking fountains. Dandridge fought such restrictions. When she was told she couldn’t swim in the pool of the Las Vegas hotel where she was performing because it would have to be drained if she did, she looked the manager in the eye as she stuck one pretty toe in the water.
“Carmen Jones,” a retelling of the Bizet opera with an all-black cast and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, brought Dandridge a nomination for the 1954 Oscars and a portrait on the cover of Life magazine, where no black woman had yet appeared. Her Carmen was the classic femme fatale transplanted to a Florida factory during World War II. After “Carmen Jones” became a hit, she was offered a three-picture deal at 20th Century Fox. With the coaching of her director and lover, Otto Preminger, she negotiated a salary that matched Ava Gardner’s.
Geri Branton was Dandridge’s best friend and sometime sister-in-law (they were married to tap-dancing kings Fayard and Harold Nicholas, respectively). She is a frail 77 now and lives in a stately old house in Los Angeles. Her memories of Dandridge are vivid.
“We had a saying in those days,” Branton says, “that the only free people in the world were a good-looking brown-skinned woman and a white man. Even in the South, they had privileges. Ella Fitzgerald was a much better singer than Dottie, but she wasn’t allowed to sing in some of the clubs where Dottie worked. Dottie was so very pretty, and that opened doors.”
Berry matches Dandridge’s incandescence when she played Carmen Jones, Bess in “Porgy & Bess” and the Caribbean temptress who entrances a British diplomat in “Island in the Sun.” Talking about the spell Dandridge cast, Berry describes it as “that ‘it’ thing. That thing you can’t explain. You just want to look at her. You’re captivated.”
Dandridge’s attributes were balanced by enough personal turmoil to place her story in the popular Sufferings of the Gorgeous, Rich and Famous genre. She felt guilty for being better-looking than her sister, who was also an actress; blamed herself for her daughter’s retardation; and was too permanently scarred in childhood to ever enjoy sex.
Male Directors Wanted to Focus on Love Life
Opinions vary on whether her death was an accident or a suicide, but Branton says Dandridge tried to kill herself as early as the ‘40s, and began seeing psychiatrists while still in her 20s.
“There were good men who wanted Dottie,” Branton says. “But she’d make the bad choice every time.”
“The male directors I talked to wanted the movie to be all about Dorothy’s love life, and I felt that if the story didn’t get in the right hands, a man could have made her out to be just a tramp,” Berry says.
Harry Belafonte, Dandridge’s frequent co-star who played opposite her in “Carmen Jones,” summed up Dandridge’s problem as: “Right person, right place, wrong time.” HBO tweaked his judgment and used the line in its promotion for the film as “Right woman, right place, wrong time.”
That one-word change reflected director Coolidge’s view of Dandridge’s life. “To me, this was the classic beautiful woman in Hollywood story,” she says. “Dorothy’s problem was worse, because she was black, but she was a woman who was used up by the system and then thrown away. You couldn’t even put in a movie all the pressures those women were up against.”
Perhaps it was the wrong time for a lot of women (and of course it’s the tragic heroines whose myths endure). Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland succumbed to drugs and alcohol. Veronica Lake died alone and penniless.
“In Hollywood then, men ran the studios. Men ran everything. Women had no power. Dorothy could never have produced her own movie, the way I’ve been able to,” Berry says. “Living Dorothy’s life and making that movie has made me realize that I can’t complain, because people who came before me had to overcome a lot more than I’ve had to face. The problem with Dorothy was even when she triumphed, it wasn’t enough. When she got to the top, the view wasn’t what she thought it would be.”
* “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” premieres on HBO tonight at 9. The network has rated it TV-MA-VL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with special advisories for violence and coarse language).