Women’s History Month: Dorothy Dandridge and Carmen Jones

Dorothy Dandridge  played Carmen Jones in 1954

Dorothy Dandridge played Carmen Jones in 1954

Dorothy Jean Dandridge was an African American film and theatre actress, singer and dancer. She is perhaps best known for being the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones.

Dandridge was born November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio to aspiring entertainer Ruby Dandridge and Cyril Dandridge, a cabinetmaker and minister. Ruby created a song-and-dance act for her two young daughters, Vivian and Dorothy, and the Dandridge Sisters continued strong for several years, booked in high-profile nightclubs, like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.

In 1952, she was cast in first starring role as Jane Richards in Bright Road, about a teacher’s struggles to reach out to a troubled student, the first time she appeared opposite Harry Belafonte. In 1953, 20th Century Fox began casting the all-black musical film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 Broadway musical Carmen Jones, Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen updated to a World War II-era African-American setting.

Director and writer Otto Preminger initially did not consider Dandridge for the role, feeling her sophisticated look was more suited for the smaller role of Cindy Lou. Dandridge, recalling her experiences of having to dress down to a demure school teacher for the screen tests of Bright Road, outrageously reinvented a look with the aid of Max Factor make-up artists, to obtain the appearance and character of the earthy title role, Carmen, and confronted Preminger in his executive office. Preminger gave her the role, and completed the cast with Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Olga James, and Joe Adams.

Despite Dandridge’s recognition as a singer, the studio wanted an operatic voice, so Dandridge’s voice was dubbed by operatic vocalist Marilyn Horne for the film. Carmen Jones opened, to favorable reviews and strong box office returns, in October 1954. Dandridge’s performance as the seductive leading actress made her one of Hollywood’s first African-American sex symbols and earned her positive reviews. On November 1, 1954, Dorothy Dandridge became the first black woman featured on the cover of Life.

Carmen Jones was a worldwide success, one of the year’s highest-earning films, and earned over $10 million at the box office. Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, the first African-American nominated for a leading role. In 1958, Dandridge accepted Samuel Goldwyn’s offer to star in Porgy and Bess, her first major Hollywood film in five years, which had a long and costly production; and when it was released in 1959, was critically bashed and failed to recoup its financial investment.

Dandridge married dancer and entertainer Harold Nicholas on September 6, 1942, gave birth to her only child, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, September 2, 1943; the couple divorced in October 1951. While filming Carmen Jones, Preminger and Dandridge began an affair which lasted four years, during which he advised her on career matters, demanding she accept only starring roles, advice Dandridge later regretted accepting. She ended the affair when she realized Preminger had no plans to leave his wife to marry her.

Dandridge married Jack Denison June 22, 1959; they divorced in 1962 amid financial setbacks and allegations of domestic violence. Dandridge discovered that the people handling her finances had swindled her out of $150,000 and she was $139,000 in debt for back taxes. Forced to sell her Hollywood home and place her daughter in a state mental institution, Dandridge moved into a small apartment in West Hollywood. She died under mysterious circumstances September 8, 1965 at age 42.

Years later the industry acknowledged her legacy. In the 1980s, Cicely Tyson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine, Tasha Smith, and Angela Bassett acknowledged Dandridge’s contributions to the role of Black Americans in film. In 1999, Halle Berry played Dandridge in the HBO Movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which she produced, and won the Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award. When Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball, she dedicated the “moment [to] Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.”

Dandridge has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is the most prominent figure of a huge mural of celebrities painted on Hollywood High School, and has a statue at Hollywood-La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles.