“How Many of You Will Remember Me, Dorothy Dandridge?”

It’s the evening of March 30, 1955. It’s the night of the 27th Academy Awards in Hollywood California. The celebrities are arriving in their limousines, and emerging from one of these, herded with blinding flashing lights, is a star. This star, from Cleveland, Ohio, is living out her dream. She has been nominated for the Best Actress award. Tonight, she’s making history. This woman is Dorothy Dandridge, and just for her being nominated, she is making history. Dorothy is the first African-American woman ever to be nominated for this award. And this nomination changed the way Americans thought, at least for that night. That Oscar would look so befitting in her hands. Her photo holding that Oscar from that night would be on every cover of every magazine in the country by the morning. Unfortunately, we never got to see that photo, because Dorothy did not win that night.

Dorothy Dandridge arriving at the Academy Awards | Photo taken from Pinterest.com

Dorothy Dandridge, born on November 9, 1922, first began her start in show business with her sister and another young woman in a musical trio. Once they gathered enough attention, they began performing at the Cotton Club during the 1930s.1 The famed Cotton Club was the dance club based in Harlem, New York where the most popular black singers and dancers performed, such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, and it was where Dorothy Dandridge met her future husband. Here, Dorothy and her trio became so popular that they decided to take their show on tour to England. She finally married her husband, Harold Nicholas, of the Nicholas Brothers. The Nicholas Brothers were a duet who sang and tap danced together. Dorothy and Harold married on September 6, 1942. Dorothy’s marriage to Harold, however, was an unhealthy one, because her trio was receiving more fame than the Harold Brothers, causing tensions between them, and because Harold was also having affairs. But shortly after her marriage, Dorothy became pregnant and gave birth on September 2, 1943, and her baby girl was born brain damaged, due to a lack of oxygen. For the best for the child, Dorothy put her daughter in a private care agency. And after a number of years struggling with Harold and his infidelity, she finally divorced him in 1949.2

Determined to get back on her feet following the divorce, Dorothy decided to begin a solo career as a singer. It is as a singer that she gathered many fans and attention. But Dorothy always had a strong interest in acting. In 1948, when things in her marriage were rocky, she enrolled in The Actor’s Lab, which was the prestigious training school for actors in Los Angeles, California. During the 1940s, The Actor’s Lab trained many future Hollywood stars, including Marilyn Monroe. But during this period in cinematic history, it was hard for a black person to get leading roles on the big screen, especially roles that would change how black people were seen in society in general. In spite of her training at The Actor’s Lab, Dorothy would not get the opportunity to play black characters with strong, complex roles.3

As a black woman at this time in American history, if one wanted to act, one would not be given intelligent or self-respecting roles. The roles black women were given were highly stereotypical, but if acting was ones dream, as it was for Dorothy, she would take those stock roles anyway. After leaving The Actor’s Lab, Dorothy became one of those women who was offered those stock, degrading roles. Her first roles were those that had always been derogatory for black women, such as playing the role of a mistress.4 Such was the case in her films Tamango and Island in the Sun. Those roles were certainly easy for a black woman to portray. And Dorothy would receive roles like this until, finally, she landed a role alongside Harry Belafonte. Dorothy became the lead actress in the 1953 film Bright Road, in which she portrays a school teacher helping the principal, Harry Belafonte, tame their problem students. Her role in the film became a success, and it put Dorothy on the map, and brought her acclaim as an actress. But Dorothy wanted a bigger role. She sought out the lead role as Carmen in the 1954 film Carmen Jones. It was hard for black women to receive self-respecting roles in films, but ironically, in order to get such roles, one must first put on the act of not being self-respecting.5

Dorothy graces the cover of Life Magazine | Image courtesy of Pinterest.com

At first, Dorothy was declined the role of Carmen Jones, and it was only after walking into the audition appearing promiscuous that she was given the role. Carmen Jones is a Broadway musical, but it was turned into a musical film starring an all-black cast, with the likes of Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey, and directed by Otto Preminger. Known for bringing any character she portrayed to life with her beauty, charisma, and flirtatious style, the role of Carmen Jones solidified Dorothy’s nomination. Shortly, after getting the role, she was put on the cover of Life Magazine in the same attire she auditioned in. Here Dorothy made history. Dorothy became the first African-American woman to grace the cover of Life. This role also got Dorothy Dandridge an Oscar nomination, becoming the first African-American woman nominated for the Best Actress Award. In 1955, it was hard for a black woman, or black man, to get the respect they deserved from the elite Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, much less be nominated for one of the most prestigious awards any actor can receive. This nomination was important not only for Dorothy, but for the millions of black men and boys, women and girls, who had the opportunity of watching history unfold, and being given a sense of hope and belief in themselves that they may not have had before those awards began.6

That night was important for America, for the black community, and for Dorothy, even though she did not win. She held her own going against some of the most iconic figures in film that night. The other nominees for the award were Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Jane Wyman, and Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly was the winner of the award for her performance in The Country Girl.7

Dorothy (left) and her sister Vivian (right) in conversation at the Academy Awards | Courtesy of Pinterest.com

In Hollywood in 1955, Dorothy Dandridge was a double threat: she was a woman and she was black. Because of this, many opportunities passed her by. She was quoted as saying, “If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world.” Betty Grable was an American singer, dancer, and actress prominent throughout the 1930s and 1940s. This much was true. Dorothy had much to offer, and it seems absurd today that such a minuscule thing such as race could keep someone from practicing their dream, but this is just what kept Dorothy and others’ dreams undermined. Unlike many, Dorothy Dandridge tackled this arbitrary system of discrimination head on, and she became a star. But she was not allowed to shine as brightly as many of her colleagues.8

Dorothy Dandridge and Alain Delon, Belgrade, (1962) | Wikipedia Commons
Dorothy in her first television role in “Cain’s Hundred” (1962) | Image via Wikipedia Commons

After her nomination, Dorothy signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, entitling her to three more films. She was established as one of the biggest stars of the time. Unfortunately, Dorothy’s last role was in Preminger’s musical Porgy and Bess. On September 8, 1965 a star had truly fallen. Dorothy’s deceased body was found in her apartment. Decades later she would be reincarnated by Halle Berry in the film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.9

Newspaper Account of Dorothy Dandridge’s Death | Courtesy of Pinterest

Plagued by the segregation, sexism, and racism of the times, Dorothy Dandridge could not handle it and succumbed to demise. Hollywood throughout the forties and to the sixties reflected America and its racial tensions. Given the racial inequities of the era, Hollywood was not ready to have many leading roles for black women, and this showed through Dorothy’s career. Dorothy Dandridge inspired many, especially after her death. She broke many barriers for aspiring young black actors internationally. She had a dream, but because of her pigmentation, she was treated differently. Despite these odds, Dorothy was a still a formidable and respected actress. Dorothy was finally noticed as the prolific star she was, by being given an honorary star on the walk of fame on January 18, 1983, in Los Angeles, California.10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. African American Eras: Segregation to Civil Rights Times, 2011, s.v. “Dandridge, Dorothy” (1922–1965).
  2. Rogers Patrick & Lyndon Stambler, “Overdue notice,” People 48, no. 4 (1997): 89.
  3. Marguerite H. Rippy, “Exhuming Dorothy Dandridge: the black sex goddess and classic Hollywood cinema,” CineAction, no. 44 (1997): 21.
  4. Louie Robinson, “The Private World of Dorothy Dandridge,” Ebony 17, no. 8 (1962): 116.
  5. Cynthia Gorney, “The Fragile Flame of Dorothy Dandridge,” The Washington Post, February 09, 1988.
  6. Walter Leavy, “The mystery and real-life tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge,” Ebony 49, no. 2 (December 1993): 36.
  7. Robert K. Lightning, “Dorothy Dandridge: ruminations on black stardom,” CineAction, no. 44 (1997): 31.
  8. Encyclopaedia Britannica, May 2017, s.v. “Dorothy Dandridge.”
  9.  Erin Anderson, “Dorothy Dandridge: Singer & Actress,” Booklist (2011), 71.
  10. Ed Guerrero,  “Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography,” Cineaste, Vol. 23 Issue 4 (1998): 60.
More from Aaiyanna Johnson

81 Comments

  • I never heard of the actress Dorothy Dandridge. It is unfortunate she was way ahead of her time and for that she had to pay the consequences. She deserved a lot better. Despite all the racism, she was able to make a huge impact in the community and able to set the path for the rest of the black actresses. She may not have gotten her award however, she was able to inspire many others and also gain the respect of many.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.