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Dorothy Dandridge

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Before Halle Berry, Alfre Woodard, and Angela Bassett, there was Dorothy Dandridge, a remarkably talented actress/singer whose own life story may have paralleled, if not exceeded, many of the movies in which she starred in terms of drama and heartache. As a struggling black entertainer in a predominantly white world, shy Dorothy would be seen in her day as a pioneer, breaking color barriers in Vegas nightclubs and within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Sadly, for every rung she climbed there seemed to be a greater force pushing her further back down, eventually into bankruptcy and an untimely demise, but thankfully these same forces have not been able to erase her legacy completely.

Never heard of Dorothy Dandridge? What a shame, especially considering that her friend and colleague Marilyn Monroe, whose own life and death were very similar to that of "Dottie D's", is revered today as some ethereal glamour icon. Indeed, I have even heard Dandridge referred to as the "black Marilyn", bringing to mind exceptional beauty that masked years of career disappointment and failed romances. Reading Donald Bogle's detailed biography, simply titled Dorothy Dandridge, I know that nickname is false. Dorothy was not the "black" anybody, she was Dorothy Dandridge: unique and forever beautiful.

Jewelry by Barbara Snyderman

Jewelry
by Barbara Snyderman
A noted historian of African-Americans in film, Donald Bogle certainly did his homework in researching the forty-one years of one of Black America's first screen goddesses. Interviews with fellow actors, close friends and even people minutely involved in Dorothy's poverty-stricken Cleveland childhood provide the backbone for this enthusiastic and informative portrait. Bogle's story takes us through young Dorothy's first steps in show business with sister Vivian in a vaudevillian act called the Wonder Girls, which played to delighted black audiences packed in Baptist churches and other small venues. Pressed on by her starstruck yet cold mother, Ruby (an actress in her own right), the act moved to Hollywood and evolved into the singing Dandridge Sisters, securing chorus and bit parts in the rare all-black musicals (on stage and film) produced during the 1930s-1940s.

Fame for Dottie D. seemed to take forever to come, and unlike Hollywood legends where fair-skinned damsels are catapulted into stardom after being discovered in drugstores, Dorothy had to literally sing for her supper, touring the U.S. and abroad with a nightclub act she sometimes felt was beneath her talents as a performer, most times singing in clubs and hotels that would not accept black guests, sometimes in clubs where Dorothy was not even allowed to visit the tables of those who had come to hear her sing, despite numerous requests to meet her.

Following a string of bit roles in motion pictures, her celebrity reached an apex in this country with the release of Carmen Jones, an all-black version of Bizet's Carmen. For her performance, Dorothy made history by becoming the first black actress to win an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Though such clout won her the admiration of her peers (and the love of the film's director), the nomination should have won her a better choice of film roles. As Bogle reveals, even the glitter of Oscar gold could not change Dorothy's skin color; pitting a black love interest with an A-list white actor in the 1950s was a risky venture, too risky for film companies who wanted their products to turn profits, particularly in the southern United States. By no fault of her own, Dorothy could only watch helplessly as her career, probably the only true constant in her life, slowly declined.

If you have heard of Dorothy Dandridge and are familiar with her as an entertainer, your perception will be enriched by the portrait of the personal Dorothy that Bogle offers. If it were not enough that Dorothy had to struggle to maintain a career, there was also the heartbreak of two failed marriages, dalliances with a variety of male entertainers, black and white, (some of whom would not be seen in public with her lest their own careers be threatened), and her difficult relationships with her mother and daughter.

Recently I found on the Internet the news that Whitney Houston is trying to bring Dorothy's life to the screen, while Halle Berry is negotiating to star as the actress in a separate HBO project; Donald Bogle suggested that whoever would portray the greatest black actress of the first half of this century would be the greatest black actress of this half. Until the day comes when either film is released, read Dorothy Dandridge. A two-hour film could not possibly contain every moment in such a life, and Dorothy's is certainly a life worth remembering.

Kathryn Lively works for Atlanta-based Cox Interactive Media as a marketing specialist. She currently lives in Virginia and is at work on her first novel.

Also in Song and Story:
Family Treasures    Untangling Roots    Dynamic Range   
Mrs. Lambert    When They Take Your Breasts Away
From the Kitchen Window    Reflections

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