Who Was Dorothy Dandridge?
With beauty icons like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe representing female empowerment and success in the entertainment industry, who are we overlooking? Now these women certainly deserve their praise. Don’t get me wrong, but there are many women in history who were just as important in their time, only their names are not nearly as well-known. And the woman who stands out to me as intensely forgotten in both her place in beauty and the movie industry is Dorothy Dandridge.
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To prove my point, I only knew of her loosely because Halle Berry won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for playing her in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge in 1999 (worth a watch). But my lack of knowledge drove me to dive into the archives about this gorgeous singer and actress. From there, my shock only grew. How has such an influential and powerful woman not been a bigger focus or idol for women today?
Much of her career took place in the 1940s and 50s, which as you know, were decades far from fair when it came to race (not that today is such a picnic). But I’d like to battle that, and give Dorothy at least some of the massive amount of credit she has long deserved for such an impeccable acting and singing career, as well as her inspiring and trailblazing life. It is about time that Dorothy gets the recognition that she has so rightfully earned.
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As a black woman at that time, Dorothy was already at disadvantage. With just as much talent and capability as her white counterparts, she still missed out on leading roles. It took her twice the ambition and loyalty to her principles to make a name for herself in such a prejudiced society and industry. She once said, “it [prejudice] is such a waste. It makes you logy and half-alive. It gives you nothing. It takes away.” She was dedicated. She refused to play the more common demeaning roles that she was typecast for, and rather held out for the roles she knew she deserved.
Along with her career struggles, Dorothy did not have the easiest of childhoods or relationships. Her first husband Harold Nicholas was reportedly quite the philanderer. And to add to the hardships of her life, she gave birth to a daughter Harolyn who was discovered to have brain damage. Surviving and living through trauma such as an ordinary person is difficult enough, but whilst under so much pressure and in the limelight, Dorothy went through more than any woman should ever have to endure.
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Thankfully, Dorothy ended up divorcing Nicholas and went back to entertainment. She started by performing all over the country whilst experiencing some of the cruelest forms of racism, yet she pushed onward. She was allowed to perform on stage, but was banned from staying in hotels, using amenities, and even speaking to guests. Then as she made her way back into film, she once again was fighting through studios that didn’t know how to cast a beautiful black woman in lead roles.
And this was not a simple transition. Most black women at the time were cast in the roles that were less than flattering. Either they played small roles serving white characters or were placed in the category of exotic and animalistic. Both of these options did not fit into Dorothy’s standards or principles. She continually turned down roles in order to set an example and prove that she was more than capable of playing a strong female character. But in order to find her way back into film, she did eventually have to settle for the role of Queen of the Ashuba in Tarzan’s Peril.
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For the rest of her career as many other black actors in these times, there was a bitter self quarrel in the industry. Were you to risk your career to empower your race by solely portraying the few worthy characters there were, or would you protect your career by playing roles that only further pushed blacks into stereotypical and racist boxes? While facing this brutal struggle Dorothy proved herself and became the first black woman nominated for the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar for Carmen Jones. Of this role she said, “Carmen Jones was the best break I've ever had. But no producer ever knocked on my door. There just aren't that many parts for a black actress.”
What made this so much more disturbing is that she was widely praised for this role. Her fellow nominees for her Oscar nomination included Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Judy Garland, and Jane Wyman. And if any of them had played this role there likely would have been producers sucking up to them. One of the saddest yet most honest quotes of hers I found was, “If I were white, I could capture the world.”
In addition to her nomination, Dandridge was the first black woman to be featured on the cover of Life magazine.
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As most celebrities have some sort of scandal during their success, unfortunately Dorothy did as well. She received tons of backlash for dating white men throughout her career. But even though countless outlets dragged her for this, anyone within the industry should have understood that those men were the only ones she met due to her line of work. Yet if she were to act in a love scene with them, it would have been considered outrageous.
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As the film industry wasn’t improving its treatment of black actresses and she wouldn’t corrupt her principles, her momentum had started to dwindle. Soon she met a man named Jack Denison who owned restaurants. She married him and performed at his less than elite locations which only again lowered her entertainment value. This time for her was devastating. She lost her money, was forced to send her daughter to a home, and was reportedly being abused by Denison. Once again, she left and planned to renew her life and career. But she soon sustained an injury which led to her accidental overdose in 1965. Like many actresses of the time, she was taken from the world far too soon, at the young age of 42.
Dorothy’s story is not solely one of a Hollywood starlet, it is the one of a striving black woman, a mother, and a victim. She paved the way for women like Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and so many more inspiring women. Her story is one of strength, tragedy, courage, and talent. The only thing that makes Dorothy’s life story even more heartbreaking is how black actresses are still treated in Hollywood today. With their beauty, talent, and determination the film industry still has a long way to go to right their wrongs.
Photo via The Hair Pin
Dorothy Dandridge will not be forgotten nor will she be ignored or considered lesser than someone like Marilyn Monroe because of her skin color. In fact, she had to endure more hardships than anyone to make it and survive. Her legacy is one to think about, one to tribute, and one to honor.
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