Actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Who Was Dorothy Dandridge?
Actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge found early success in show business by performing with her sister, leading to her first appearances in film. Following her star turn in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones, she became the first African American to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. Dandridge found it difficult to replicate that success, and her final years were marred by personal and professional problems, until her death at age 42 in 1965.
Early Life and Show Business
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother, actress Ruby Dandridge, left her husband while she was pregnant, and as such Dorothy never knew her father. She later suffered at the hands of her mother’s girlfriend, Geneva Williams, a disciplinarian with a cruel side.
Pushed into show business at a young age by her mother, Dandridge performed with her sister, Vivian, as a song-and-dance team called the Wonder Children. The girls performed throughout the South, playing Black churches and other places.
Sister Act and Intro to Hollywood
Around 1930, Dandridge moved to Los Angeles, California, with her family. A few years later she found success with her new musical group, the Dandridge Sisters, which included sister Vivian and their friend Etta Jones. The group landed gigs at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem and performed with top acts such as the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and Cab Calloway. As an African American singer, Dandridge confronted early on the segregation and racism of the entertainment industry. She may have been allowed on stage, but in some venues, she couldn’t eat in the restaurant or use certain facilities because of the color of her skin.
As a teenager, Dandridge began earning small roles in a number of films. She and her sister appeared in the Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races (1937), as well as Going Places (1938), with Louis Armstrong. On her own, she danced with Harold Nicholas of the dancing Nicholas Brothers in the 1941 Sonja Henie musical Sun Valley Serenade. The duo’s tap-dancing routine was cut from the version of the film shown in the South.
Dandridge married Harold Nicholas in 1942, but their union proved to be anything but a happy one. Nicholas reportedly liked to chase other women, and Dandridge virtually retired from performing during this time. Adding to the strain, after Dandridge gave birth to daughter Harolyn in 1943, they discovered that the girl had brain damage. Seeking to find a cure, Dandridge had Harolyn receive expensive private care for many years.
‘Carmen Jones’ and Stardom
After her divorce in 1951, Dandridge returned to the nightclub circuit, this time as a successful solo singer. After a stint at the Mocambo club in Hollywood with Desi Arnaz’s band and a sellout 14-week engagement at La Vie en Rose, she became an international star, performing at glamorous venues in London, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco and New York. She won her first starring film role in 1953’s Bright Road, playing an earnest and dedicated young schoolteacher opposite Harry Belafonte.
Her next role, as the eponymous lead in Carmen Jones (1954), a film adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen that also co-starred Belafonte, catapulted her to the heights of stardom. With her sultry looks and flirtatious style, Dandridge became the first African American to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Although she lost out to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl), Dandridge seemed well on her way to achieving the level of fame and superstardom enjoyed by white contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. In 1955, she was featured on the cover of Life magazine and was treated like visiting royalty at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Later Roles and Personal Struggles
However, in the years that followed her success with Carmen Jones, Dandridge had trouble finding film roles that suited her talents. She wanted strong leading roles but found her opportunities limited because of her race. According to The New York Times, Dandridge once said, “If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world.” Belafonte also addressed this issue, noting that his former co-star “was the right person in the right place at the wrong time.”
With Hollywood filmmakers unable to create a suitable role for the light-skinned Dandridge, they soon reverted to subtly prejudiced visions of interracial romance. She appeared in several poorly received racially and sexually charged dramas, including Island in the Sun (1957), also starring Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, and Tamango (1958), in which she plays the mistress of the captain of an enslaved ship.
Among the missed opportunities from this period, Dandridge turned down the supporting role of Tuptim in The King and I (1956), because she refused to play an enslaved person. It was rumored that she would play Billie Holliday in a film version of the jazz singer’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, but it never panned out. Dandridge did appear in one more role worthy of her talents, opposite Sidney Poitier in the Academy Award-winning Porgy and Bess (1959).
While making Carmen Jones, Dandridge became involved in an affair with the film’s director, Otto Preminger, who also directed Porgy and Bess. Their interracial romance, as well as Dandridge’s relationships with other white lovers, was frowned upon, particularly by other African American members of the Hollywood filmmaking community. On the rebound, Dandridge married her second husband, Jack Denison, in 1959, though that proved to be another troubled relationship. Denison was abusive and mishandled her money, with Dandridge losing much of her savings to an investment in her husband’s failed restaurant. They split in 1962.
As her film career and marriage floundered, Dandridge began drinking heavily and taking antidepressants. The threat of bankruptcy and nagging problems with the IRS forced her to resume her nightclub career, but she found only a fraction of her former success. Relegated to second-rate lounges and stage productions, Dandridge’s financial situation grew increasingly worse. By 1963, she could no longer afford to pay for her daughter’s 24-hour medical care, and Harolyn was placed in a state institution. Dandridge soon suffered a nervous breakdown.
Death and Legacy
On September 8, 1965, Dandridge was found dead in her Hollywood home at age 42. Initially reported to be the result of an embolism, additional findings pointed to an overdose of an antidepressant. Dandridge had little more than $2 in her bank account at the time of her death.
Dandridge’s unique and tragic story became the subject of renewed interest in the late 1990s, beginning in 1997 with the release of a biography, Dorothy Dandridge, by Donald Bogle, and a two-week retrospective at New York City’s Film Forum. In 2000, film star Halle Berry won Golden Globe and Emmy awards for her portrayal of the groundbreaking actress in the acclaimed TV movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.