Saturday, March 28, 2015

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge: A Review


The title Introducing Dorothy Dandridge is really a pun.  The phrase 'introducing so-and-so' is used when someone is going to make their debut (and I suspect, is expected to make a big splash).  However, it also works in that Dandridge is perhaps not as well-remembered as she should be and thus, the film has to 'introduce' her to us.

In what turned out to be a curious bit of casting history, Halle Berry, who would go on to be the first African-American woman to win a Best Actress Academy Award, plays Dandridge, the first black woman nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.   Berry herself would win an Emmy Award for her performance as Dandridge, one of five Emmy Awards Introducing Dorothy Dandridge would win out of its nine nominations.  Introducing Dorothy Dandridge plays like many Hollywood biopics: a story filled with triumph, tragedy, and an untimely death.  Now add the extra layer of racism, and we get a fascinating, if not completely perfect, rendering of Dandridge's life.

The framing device is of Dorothy Dandridge engaged in a long overnight call to her friend and ex-sister-in-law Geri (Tamara Taylor).  Dorothy remembers all her life as she makes a collage of photos of that has gone before. 

There was the physical abuse and terror she faced from Auntie (LaTonya Richardson).  Auntie was the 'personal friend' of Ruby Dandridge (Loretta Devine), the mother of Dorothy and her sister Vivian (Cynda Williams).  It's not directly stated, but one guesses that Auntie and Ruby (who worked in Hollywood in primarily maid parts) were longtime partners.  Dorothy catches the eye of legendary dancer Harold Nicholas (Obba Babatunde), one half of the brilliant Nicholas Brothers dance duo.  She and Harold marry (and she enters marriage a virgin), but Auntie's violent assault to see if Dorothy really was a virgin traumatized her, making sex more a chore than a pleasure.

Harold proves to be a bad figure, as he went golfing while Dorothy waited for him at home when she went into labor.  Over Dorothy's objections, she was taken to the hospital, where she gives birth to her only child, a daughter she names Harolyn, whom they call Lynn.  Lynn is diagnosed as mentally retarded (to use the terminology of the day), who will remain mentally at four for the rest of her life.  Dorothy is devastated by the diagnosis and she tries to be with Lynn as much as possible, but work (and a divorce from Harold) make it impossible.

Dorothy catches the ear of Earl Mills (Brent Spiner), a music producer who was tricked into listening to her unofficial audition at a party.  Mills is intrigued, but Dorothy is determined to have a Hollywood career.  That career leads her to take on roles like a jungle Queen in a Tarzan movie (where her questions about logic are dismissed in favor of her showing more skin).  She agrees to hit the club circuit to raise her profile (and get some income).

She has to push against rather ugly racism, but her charm, talent, and beauty win even the most hostile of audiences.  Dorothy, however, continues to push for a film career, and a new opportunity has come up.  An all-Negro (again, the term of the day) musical based on the opera Carmen.  Carmen Jones' legendary director, Otto Preminger (Klaus Maria Brandauer) thinks Dandridge is too soft and lady-like to be his sultry seductress.  However, a quick wardrobe change and appearance in Preminger's office takes that idea off his head.  Even before filming begins, they become lovers, with Preminger serving as her mentor on the set and in the bedroom.

Dandridge is a sensation as Carmen Jones, and all her work gets her where she wants to go: to the Academy Awards as the first black woman to receive a Best Actress nomination.  She not only attends the ceremony (and is seated among the elite rather than the back of the room like Hattie McDaniel, the first black Academy Award winner), she gets to present an award, another barrier broken as she becomes the first black female presenter.

Obviously, she didn't win (even if she had had weak competition I doubt America would be ready for a black female Oscar winner), and worse, Preminger started giving her bad advice.  20th Century Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck (William Atherton) wants to build her up to be the first real minority sex symbol by casting her in non-black roles (an Italian, a Mexican, and an Asian) in order to build her profile.  She agrees to star in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I as Tuptim, a slave to serve as a concubine for the King of Siam.  Preminger tells her she, an Academy Award nominee, should not go back to playing slaves.  Despite Miller's frantic pleas, Dandridge reneges on her promise, damaging her career and inadvertently passing a chance to be in a successful and artistically creative project.

Her career in clubs isn't too hot either.  She still objects to being hidden away in penthouse suites, forbidden to cross the casino floor or use the backstage restroom.  She's even told that should she decide to swim in the casino's pool, it would have to be cleaned.  Dandridge will not be denied, and she dares to put her foot in the water.  As she finishes her set, she and Mills find the swimming pool has been drained and is being scrubbed, just because she put her FOOT in the water.

A short-lived marriage to hotel owner Jack Denison (D.B. Sweeney), an abusive man who bilked her out of her fortune, temporarily puts her down, as does an unhappy reunion with Preminger on the film of Porgy & Bess (Preminger having abandoned her prior) and having to give up her parental rights to Lynn due to inability to maintain her hospital bills.  Miller, however, comes to the rescue.  He gets her to get off the pills and booze and puts her up in a spa.  Here, she regains her health and gets better news: club dates and foreign-film projects are opening up.  It looks like Dorothy Dandridge is making a comeback.

Sadly, she injures herself when tripping over weights, fracturing her ankle.  We go back to the beginning, where she ends her call and hears from Mills, who is coming to pick her up for New York and a booking engagement.  She decides to bathe before leaving, but when she doesn't respond to his calls, a frantic Miller bursts in.  He finds Dorothy Dandridge dead: on the bathroom door, nude.  It is unclear exactly how she died: the investigators on the scene speculate that she may have died from a rare embolism (bits of bone that floated into her blood stream and blocked blood flow to her brain), or it was a suicide (a note previously written by Dandridge having been discovered). 

Dorothy Dandridge was only 42.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge is an excellent film.  It has high production value and is an extremely well-acted production.  In regards to the former, the recreations of events like Dandridge's Oscar presentation and Carmen Jones look authentic all around.  Comparing the two you see that Introducing Dorothy Dandridge took great care in replicating the moments to where they match them remarkably well. 

Berry is simply brilliant as Dandridge, whether in channeling her anger at being mistreated by the racists or in her coquettish nature with men.  The anger and the heartbreak Dandridge has (in particular with regards to her daughter) are moving.  We celebrate Dandridge's defiance when she dips her toes in the water.  However, when we see that the casino has kept their word to clean it out, Berry doesn't speak, doesn't emote, but shows a quiet pain and reflection on what she has to endure.

Berry also has a great moment when she re-auditions for Preminger, using her feminine wiles to show she is no sweet girl, but a sultry sex goddess who could lure men to their doom.  She has to play Dandridge playing Carmen, a hard feat that Berry does well.  Berry may not be the greatest of actresses today, but when given good direction (courtesy of Martha Coolidge) and a good script (courtesy of Scott Abbott and future uber-producer Shonda Rhimes), Berry can be quite capable of giving an effective performance.

Her two primary costars, Spiner and Brandauer, are also excellent as the nervous but loyal Mills (who has carried a torch for our torch singer too lately revealed) and the arrogant but brilliant Preminger (whom we figure would not leave his wife for anyone, even Dandridge).  Coolidge uses silences to convey emotions, to let us know what is going on.  Seeing Preminger walk away while Dandridge is performing on stage says so much without having to say anything vocally.

Other characters, like Williams' hot-and-cold sister Vivian and Devine's Mother Ruby do get a bit short-changed, popping in and out with little rhyme or reason.  Sometimes certain events, like Dandridge's relationship with Lynn, do get short-shifted and are rushed.  The entire Denison marriage was done almost as an afterthought, with Sweeney being a small part of what perhaps could have been a more important role.

Still, on the whole Introducing Dorothy Dandridge did exactly that: serve as an introduction to a pioneer.  Dorothy Dandridge broke down walls for African-American women in entertainment.  She was beautiful in any hue and by any standard, and as Mills points out to her, by taking some of the degradation she is making it slightly easier for the next woman.  She took the blows so that others, like Berry, would not.  Her legacy should not be forgotten, even if it is also tainted with pills, booze, and lousy decisions (Dandridge's rejection of the role of Tuptim, a part played in the film by another minority trailblazer, Puerto Rican legend Rita Moreno, was a terrible mistake).  We feel a sense of optimism when she begins her recovery and her comeback, only to mourn when we find her in the same sad situation another screen beauty ended up in.  Like Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge was found nude when dead, her corpse left exposed while the investigators looked her over.

Dorothy Dandridge's importance in African-American history, particularly with regards to film, should not be forgotten or ignored.  Introducing Dorothy Dandridge does much to keep her legacy alive. 

A well-acted, well-written, well-directed biopic (albeit a bit rushed), we are very pleased to be Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.



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