Sunday, December 3, 2017

Oscar Nominee Dorothy Dandridge

I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, a child during the turbulent and rewarding Civil Rights era.  My parents were in awe of Dorothy Dandridge.  They were in awe of her and they were angry at they way racial inequality crippled her film career after her groundbreaking leap over Hollywood color barriers.  Lena Horne often respectfully referred to Dorothy Dandridge as "our Marilyn Monroe."
She starting getting speaking roles in the films in the 1940s when most Black actresses were assigned credited and non-credited screen roles as maids.  In the early 1950s, she went after a role unlike any she'd ever played.  Not only that, it was a lead role.  This kind of opportunity was rare for a Black woman in Hollywood at that time.
For her dazzling performance in 1954's dramatic screen musical, CARMEN JONES, Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American woman to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress.
A supporting player in the all-Black cast is Diahann Carroll.  Carroll would go on to become the first African American woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Broadway musical (1962's NO STRINGS).  She'd also follow Dorothy Dandridge as one of the few Black women to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress (1974's CLAUDINE).
Pearl Bailey was also in the cast which included Harry Belafonte, Brock Peters and Roy Glenn (seen later as the father to Sidney Poitier's character in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER).
Cable's TCM is showing CARMEN JONES on Sunday night, Dec. 3rd.  If you get a chance to see it or if you rent it at another time, I bet you'll also be amazed at how Dandridge makes the screen sizzle as the doomed vamp.  The story of a modern reworking of the Bizet opera, CARMEN, with modern lyrics added to Bizet's music.  Dandridge could sing -- and did in movies -- but she didn't have an operatic voice.  Her operatic singing was dubbed by Marilyn Horne.

Dandridge was serious about her craft.  She studied.  So did her sister.  And she was a screen veteran, if you will, by the time she got the plum role in Otto Preminger's 1954 Fox musical.  The Dandridge Sisters, Dorothy and Vivian, are seen singing in a 1937 MGM musical number.  The movie is A DAY AT THE RACES starring The Marx Brothers.  Dorothy and Vivian Dandridge are in the "All God's Chillun (Children) Got Rhythm" number, a swing dance number with the Marx Brothers characters with the residents in the Black section of town.  In the 1941 Fox musical, SUN VALLEY SERENADE, she sings and dances the "Chattanooga Choo Choo" number with the Nicholas Brothers.  She marry one of them.  In the 1941 desert war drama, SUNDOWN, pretty Dorothy Dandridge plays an African princess opposite screen beauty Gene Tierney.  Like most other black actress at that time, Dandridge played her share of maids in bit parts.  The 1950s were better for her, script-wise, and they should have been great for her after her Oscar nomination.  She was gorgeous and a good actress with musical skills. But she was Black.
The Oscar race for Best Actress of 1954 was one of the hottest in Hollywood history.  It's still legendary.  The favorite was Judy Garland for her spectacular screen comeback in the 1954 musical drama remake of A STAR IS BORN.  Her main competition was the popular new star, Grace Kelly for the drama, THE COUNTRY GIRL.  See for yourself that Dorothy Dandridge as CARMEN JONES was a serious Oscar contender.
Grace Kelly won.

When you watch CARMEN JONES, you will see Dorothy Dandridge's charisma and talent.  She commands the screen.  She's also a very strong actress.  In A STAR IS BORN, Garland introduces the torch sing, "The Man That Got Away."  Hers is a dynamic rendition of a number than runs about 4 and a half minutes in screen time.  Her number is shot in one continuous take.  No cuts, no edits.  Cukor said that it takes a very strong actress to pull that off -- and Judy pulled it off.

Notice how long the takes are in CARMEN JONES.  Not just in Dandridge's numbers but in leading man Harry Belafonte's numbers too.  Dorothy Dandridge can handle the long takes because she's a strong actress.  In the case of this production, limitations due to it having an all-Black cast probably also played a part in the long takes.  They may have been denied the budget and time for other takes and movie star close-ups there on the Fox lot.  There's where the movie was shot.  Let me explain using other musicals as examples:  When you see Mitzi Gaynor sing in SOUTH PACIFIC, Deborah Kerr sing in THE KING AND I and Shirley Jones sing in OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL -- all of those films being Fox musicals of the 1950s -- they get lovely close-ups in their numbers. A glamour shot, if you will.  Dorothy Dandridge, as lovely as she was, gets no glamorous close-ups.  The camera stays on a one-shot when she sings.  She was most deserving of glamorous close-ups.  Our loss that she didn't get them.  CARMEN JONES also led to another breakthrough for Dandridge.  The film role made her the first African American woman to grace the cover of prestigious LIFE Magazine.
Dandridge and Belafonte had worked together before and worked in a film after CARMEN JONES.  1957's ISLAND IN THE SUN was set in Carribean and had several British stars.  James Mason, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie, Stephen Boyd and Joan Fontaine headed the cast.  It was shot on location and there were interracial romances in the storylines.  Reportedly, Joan Fontaine received racial hate mail for playing the elegant woman who falls for a young doctor played by Harry Belafonte. Dandridge had a supporting role in the 1957 film.  It was her first role after her 1954 breakthrough success as a leading lady.

Dandridge did not get another major Hollywood studio opportunity until Goldwyn's 1959 adaptation of the famous Broadway musical drama PORGY AND BESS.  She was captivating as Bess -- as charismatic and glamorous as ever.  Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis, Jr. were her co-stars.  Just imagine would could have been after CARMEN JONES if Hollywood had been open to diversity and equal opportunities. 1959's PORGY AND BESS was the late Dorothy Dandridge's last Hollywood screen opportunity due to racial discrimination.

This is a huge reason why the diversity and inclusion issues are still important and why we performers of color raise our voices about the issues today.  1954's CARMEN JONES is available on DVD.

Halle Berry won a Best Actress Emmy for playing the late trailblazer in the HBO biopic, INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE (1999).  Halle Berry made Hollywood history as the first and, as of now, only Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress.  She won for MONSTER'S BALL in 2002.

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