Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dorothy Dandridge Biography

Singer, actress. Born November 9, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio. Dandridge’s mother, the actress Ruby Dandridge, urged her two young daughters into show business in the 1930s, when they performed as a song-and-dance team billed as “The Wonder Children.” Dandridge left high school in the late 1930s and formed the Dandridge Sisters trio with her sister Vivian and Etta James. They performed with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, where Dandridge—who had a mixed racial heritage—early on confronted the segregation and racism of the entertainment industry.

As a teenager, Dandridge began to appear in small roles in a number of films, including the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races (1937) and Drums of the Congo (1942). In 1945, she married Harold Nicholas of the dancing Nicholas Brothers (with whom she performed in the 1941 Sonja Henie musical Sun Valley Serenade); during their turbulent six-year marriage, Dandridge virtually retired from performing. A daughter, Harolyn, was born with severe brain damage in 1943; as Dandridge was unable to raise her herself, she placed the girl in foster care.

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 sell-out 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 costarred 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. Though many believed she deserved to win, Dandridge eventually lost the award to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl). Still, after the phenomenal success of Carmen Jones, Dandridge seemed well on her way to becoming the first non-white actress to achieve the kind of superstardom that had accrued to 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.

In the years that followed her success with Carmen Jones, however, Dandridge had trouble finding film roles that suited her talents. Her only other great film was 1959’s Porgy and Bess, in which she played Bess opposite Sidney Poitier. She turned down the supporting role of Tuptim in The King and I because she refused to play a slave. It was rumored that she would play Billie Holliday in a film version of Lady Sings the Blues directed by Orson Welles, but it never panned out. In the racially disharmonious 1950s, Hollywood filmmakers could not seem to create a suitable role for the light-skinned Dandridge, and 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), co-starring Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, Tamango (1959)—in which she played the mistress of the captain of a slave ship—and Malaga (1960).
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