Introducing Dorothy Dandridge

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Surrender Dorothy
Berry would probably make a better Lena Horne than a Dorothy Dandridge. Not
as vivacious as Dandridge, Berry’s non-threatening cuteness really does
recall Horne’s poised beauty (try Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes for a
parallel Dandridge temperament). So in the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,
Berry makes the best of loose-fitting apparel. She models a plainspoken remembrance
of Dandridge’s racist persecution–the surface of what a 90s black
Hollywood actress really knows and resents.

Since none of the big studios
would back this film, it illustrates cable moviemaking’s de facto, if conventional,
boldness. Berry herself coproduced (with Vincent Cirrincione), and makes do
with conveying just what one would expect from the biography of a disused film
star, not what would startle or amaze. But imagine her doing the young Lena
Horne (a skintight fit) and you can start to see into the psychology of posturing
and appearance that are also part of Berry’s success. As Horne, Berry would
expose the racial engineering implicit in Hollywood glamour; she would naturally
indicate the closeness–and absurdity–of Hollywood’s beauty standards.
As a child of the hiphop era Berry might even give access to the coiled anger
that was Horne’s backbone and that she sounded off about later in life.
And, I’d bet, Berry’d be able to vouchsafe a rarely admitted showbiz
truth: how narcissism intertwined with venality turns bitter. It is the drive
to succeed that sets these actresses up for Hollywood humiliation beyond everyday
racist insult; their artistic yearning pays the price for getting paid.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge
takes the standard Hollywood approach–the tradition of backstage heartbreak
from Helen Morgan in Applause to Susan Hayward playing Lillian Roth in
I’ll Cry Tomorrow. But with a black woman in the part, the long-suffering
ought to suggest something larger than traditional bad luck. A strange line
in Shonda Rhimes and Scott Abbott’s screenplay has 20th Century-Fox chairman
Darryl F. Zanuck hiring Dandridge but first unloading a crock of advice: “You
colored folks are always focused on the treatment you expect to get instead
of the treatment you’re getting.” That’s also the movie’s
safe approach–a neocon suspicion of black anger that implicitly blames
the victim and absolves the system. But HBO chairman Jeff Bewkes seemed to know
better than that when he described Dandridge as “a groundbreaking performer
who lived a very interesting life in the larger cultural context of what it
was like to be a black entertainer.” Rhimes and Abbott’s script doesn’t
capitalize on Bewkes’ awareness; its slightly maudlin take works for introducing
the concepts of broken dreams and potential heartbreak rather than boat-rocking

Anchored to the moment of
success that Dandridge achieved in the 1954 film Carmen Jones, this biopic
treats as a pinnacle the one Hollywood film to acknowledge Dandridge’s
1000-watt, movie-star sex appeal. It keeps referring to that rather strange
Otto Preminger production of Oscar Hammerstein’s all-black version of Bizet’s
Carmen as a fulfillment for Dandridge, although the movie merely slotted
her as a tragic mulatto vixen–she wasn’t even allowed to do her own
singing (the dubbed operatic soprano belonged to Marilyn Horne). Loosely connecting
Carmen Jones to Dandridge’s early singing-and-dancing career creates
the same mystique of triumphant expression that Spike Lee used when he quoted
Carmen Jones as an erotic ideal in the misbegotten Girl 6. It’s
a favored way to look back on past showbiz milestones. But in fact Carmen
simultaneously constrained as it highlighted Dandridge’s straight-acting
skill. At that peak of media exposure and industry acceptance, she still faced
the limitations of racial stereotyping that some other film roles (as a schoolteacher
in Bright Road and later as a disillusioned slave in Tamango)
opposed. Instead of suggesting that there might have been more to her talent,
to success, than Hollywood glory, Introducing uses mainstream conventions
as an artistic yardstick, thus failing to show how Dandridge’s interesting
life was reflected in the context of her career. Her life is dramatized without
emphasizing what made her an artist.

That mistake keeps Berry
from merging with the role significantly. When, in interviews, Berry says no
one today remembers Dandridge, you wonder if even she saw the recent reissue
of Dandridge’s intense dramatic performance in Tamango. None of
that movie’s politicized clarity and astringence about slavery (as institution
and cultural metaphor) seems to have influenced this characterization. Though
not as much a melodramatic downer as Lady Sings the Blues, this film
is a moderately glossy peek at Dandridge’s slide from brief stardom, rather
than an exploration into the fanciful ways white supremacy seduces even wary
black artists seeking an American dream. Typically, it attests to Dandridge’s
artistry by repeated footage of Berry lipsynching “I Got Rhythm” with
an ironic smile and long, dragged-out blue notes.

Berry’s strong suit, yet her ambition, her own need for credibility, dovetails
with Dandridge’s. Even without a great actress’ neurotic compulsion,
you remember what a game ingenue Berry has remained–from her bust-out debut
appearance as the crack ho in Jungle Fever to her genuine emotional stretch
in Losing Isaiah; her straightfaced flirtation in Bulworth and
her womanly radiance in Why Do Fools Fall in Love. Better than her flailing
in the miniseries Queen, Berry summons credible, nonactressy sorrow.
At Ciro’s in Miami, Dandridge, restricted from using the hotel pool, defiantly
dips her toe in the water. “Are you happy now?” the manager asks before
calling in a team of black pool-cleaners, and Berry calmly responds, “No,
I am not happy at all,” making it express a lifetime. It could be Berry’s
worthiest film moment since telling off Eddie Murphy in Boomerang. The
pinpointed frustration carries personal and projected meaning. Away from the
stage and soundstage, and after the silly fantasy of Dorothy turning down Carmen
(“Go away, I’ve already made up my mind”)–a decision
she would have certainly anguished over–this scene becomes Introducing’s
most sophisticated moment, finding significance in Dandridge’s private
turmoil. It is also, of necessity, the one quietly devastating moment.

Though never trashy, Introducing
uses cliche biopic trauma: Dandridge abused by her mother’s butch lesbian
lover; further abuse by director Otto Preminger (whom Klaus Maria Brandauer
plays like Charles Foster Kane with a rampant libido); a sexually frigid marriage
to one of the Nicholas Brothers; pill-popping excess; even a devoted agent out
of Carroll Baker’s Harlow. Yet, not even glib impersonations of
Harry Belafonte (“You look as good as me”) and Sidney Poitier (in
leg braces for Porgy and Bess) are enough to scrutinize Hollywood as
a moral–or amoral–environment.

Dandridge is shown partying
under a piano with Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe as if the “sexational”
trio were babes in Hollywood, but there is no sense of how Preminger could go
from manipulating her friend Monroe in River of No Return to Dandridge
herself, and no sense of how studio politics made that playboy auteurism possible.
Preminger, a randy opportunist with social pretensions (the auteurists’
Stanley Kramer), found career security at Fox, as did Monroe, while Dandridge
was seldom admitted to the studios, those Hollywood institutions apparently
designed to uplift the (white) race.

A montage equates Rosa Parks,
the Brown v. Board of Education decision and Dandridge’s Life
cover coup, but these segregated-50s events–including her cursed motherhood
(giving birth to a mentally deficient daughter)–feel hollow, depicted in
ways that isolate Dandridge’s endeavors from her own cultural consciousness.
Berry seems to be alone in struggle. (Her costar Loretta Devine does a funny
“moves like sex, smells like sex” pantomime, and Cynda Williams as
Dandridge’s sister Vivian vents a deft, quick temper.) Stuck in a flashback
structure, Dandridge sits making a desperate two-hour phone call while pasting
a scrapbook collage of Zelig-like photos with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
It further distances her despair.

Only during Dandridge’s
return engagement at Mocambo does Berry capture an attitude of paralyzing sadness,
but director Coolidge cuts from a potent mid-shot of her behind the mic to a
wider shot that loses Berry’s concentrated emotion. Coolidge doesn’t
seem to supply appropriate empathy, even though she’s usually good at bringing
out actors’ hidden, relaxed charm. (Remember Deborah Foreman, Arliss Howard
or Laura Dern in Rambling Rose?) It’s as if Coolidge settled for
Baby Sings the Blues, not knowing enough to pull out every desperate,
frustrated emotion Berry is primed to offer.

Despite having had the most
fortunate career of any black American actress, Berry has forgone such defining
portrayals as Alfre Woodard in Miss Evers’ Boys and Lynn Whitfield
in the more scandalous The Josephine Baker Story–both the kind of
starmaking lead performances that should have commanded the attention and acclaim
of theatrical releases. As Berry told the Times, “I’ve not
really been able to be a leading lady in film. And [playing Dandridge] gave
me a chance to do that. It’s hard enough being an actress, but being a
black actress…”

Still, Introducing
just misses the hard truth implicit in Berry’s all-out, enthusiastic effort.
In a sense her “blackest” performance was in Charles Burnett’s
strange, intuitive melodrama The Wedding, cast in the most difficult
role a black American actress has recently been assigned, playing a girl embarrassed
by the privileges of caste. (Toying with her own innocent middle-class desire
to assimilate, Berry limned a dilemma worthy of one of Satyajit Ray’s heroines–Sharmila
Tagore in Devi or Babita in Distant Thunder.) It was by foundering
in that role that Berry got the gravity to go farther.

“Now I’ve played
Dorothy Dandridge, so there’s no other role for me to play,” Berry
has said. Joking or not, it’s too reminiscent of Cicely Tyson’s agent
telling her, after CBS aired The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in
1974, “You’ve just acted yourself out of the business.” That
biographies are still the convenient mode in which black actresses are taken
seriously indicts the same structures of segregated fantasy and Hollywood indifference
that Dandridge struggled with. The history of black showbiz martyrs embodies
meaning for Berry and other contemporary actresses, and they’re understandably
respectful. Such roles accommodate their compacted anxieties, just like the
simulacra of Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy epitomized ambition and regret for
Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Unable to affect the dramatic contrivances
regularly available to white performers (like Julia Roberts, who has finally
found her metier playing a diffident winner–herself), black actresses wind
up proving their humanity by association. (It might also be the only way Hollywood
would surrender to the power of justified black grievance.)

Given the nature of modern
Hollywood, Berry’s sincere endeavor is probably the best film biography
of Dorothy Dandridge we’ll ever see. But its full tragic dimension will
only be realized if, instead of moving beyond Dandridge, Berry’s own career
simply feeds the next martyr cycle.