“Tall, tan and terrific” was Dorothy Dandridge’s self-appraisal. Who could disagree? The pretty singer-dancer-actress had been in movies since she was a kid, dancing with the Nicholas Brothers to “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the 1940 Sun Valley Serenade, and a decade later she was playing a jungle princess in a Tarzan movie. In 1954, when Otto Preminger decided to film the Broadway hit Carmen Jones (Oscar Hammerstein II’s black-cast reworking of the Bizet opera), he cast Dandridge to play the cigar-factory Circe. Or, rather, to “speak” Carmen: the young soprano Marilyn Horne did the singing. No matter that Dandridge was only a half-Carmen, audiences liked her and the Hollywood establishment loved her. She got the first Academy Award nomination for a black performer in a leading role.
She had a prom queen’s prettiness — a domesticated beauty, she was close to Halle Berry, who played her in a TV movie — but Dandridge could also strut sexily, prowling with a feline’s predatory grace around Harry Belafonte, who played her hapless lover Joe. Even if Hollywood was not yet color-blind, it couldn’t ignore her luster. If there were roles for an alluring, all-purpose glamour goddess, she got them. Oh, sorry, Dorothy, we’re all out of those this year. She played a few more sultry sex kittens and was disposed of. Unlucky in her choice of men (including Harold Nicholas and Preminger), Dandridge grew depressed and, in 1965, took too many pills and killed herself. She was 41.
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