Berry dreamed of playing Dandridge

August 19, 1999|By Beth Harris

LOS ANGELES -- It was a Saturday in Cleveland, and Halle Berry tuned in the local UHF channel for the afternoon movie.

The black-and-white screen sparkled with Dorothy Dandridge singing and dancing in the 1954 film "Carmen Jones," featuring an all-black cast. Berry, then 18 and living in an all-white suburb, was transfixed.

"Wow, everybody else in this movie is black, too, and they're talented and beautiful," she recalls thinking at the time. "This seems like a happy place. I want to go wherever they are."

And so she did.

She stars in "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," a drama about the tragic actress-dancer-singer who was the first black woman nominated for an Academy Award as best actress. The movie debuts Saturday on HBO.

Berry, who also served as an executive producer, spent six years trying to persuade Hollywood studios to take on the project. When she couldn't get a deal, she turned to cable.

"I've been in love with Dorothy since the moment I saw her," says Berry. "I remember seeing how beautiful she was, of course, and then how charismatic and how fiery and what a talented actress she was."

Intrigued by this woman from her own hometown of Cleveland, Berry visited her local library to glean more about the actress. Sadly, she found only a one-sentence reference to the Oscar nomination.

"That fueled my passion," Berry says. "I didn't have many images of what black life was like growing up, so it was fascinating to me."

Bringing Dandridge's life to the screen also appealed to singers Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, who reportedly were interested in doing their own versions.

"Among the African-American community, well, this is a major story," says Martha Coolidge ("Lost in Yonkers," "Rambling Rose," "Out to Sea"), who directed the HBO movie. "Why isn't the white community so aware of how great a story this is? Why do we have to introduce Dorothy anyway? We should all know her."

During production, Dandridge's manager, Earl Mills, and best friend Geri Branton, dropped by with their memories of the woman they called "Dottie."

"It was so comforting to have them there and be able to ask them, `Am I doing good?' " Berry says. "Their stamp of approval was all I cared about because they knew her."

Dandridge, whose mother was an actress, entered show business at age 4, singing and dancing with her sister Vivian (Cynda Williams). She was a regular on the radio show "Beulah," danced at the Cotton Club and made her screen debut in 1937 in the Marx Brothers classic "A Day at the Races."

The HBO movie details her marriage to the phenomenal tap dancer Harold Nicholas, played by Obba Babatunde, and the birth of their retarded daughter, as well as bigotry and her starring role in "Carmen Jones," where she captured the heart of Otto Preminger, the film's married, white director (Klaus Maria Brandauer).

"He became like putty in her hands because she was strong, and he was attracted to her strength," Berry says.

During their affair, Preminger promised Dandridge they would be together publicly when the world was ready for an interracial couple. He later walked out on her.

"We grow up thinking we're going to find Prince Charming," says Berry, who was divorced in 1997 from Cleveland Indians player David Justice. "I know what that feels like -- to grow up wanting that and not being able to catch it, but always trying."

Dandridge's career careened off-course, and a second marriage, to nightclub owner Jack Dennison (D.B. Sweeney), ended after he physically abused her. (As a teen-ager, Dandridge was sexually assaulted by her mother's female friend, who was checking to see if the girl had lost her virginity during a date.)

"She was so torn down from the abuse she suffered that I don't think she thought she had anything else to offer but her beauty," Berry says. "That was the real tragedy of her life. She was so smart and she was so strong, but she didn't know it."

Still, Dandridge retained her feistiness. She called Preminger "a big, fat bulldog" when he bullied her into doing "Carmen Jones," based on the Bizet opera. She told off studio head Daryl Zanuck, who told her she would be a huge star. And during an engagement at the Riviera hotel in Las Vegas, Dandridge was told "colored" people were not allowed to use the pool. Defiantly, she dipped her toe in the pool, which later was drained and scrubbed.

As a result of her Oscar nomination, she made the cover of Life magazine. But she lost the award to Grace Kelly, and, because Hollywood did not offer leading lady roles to black actresses, she was unable to parlay her nomination into other credible parts. Depressed, Dandridge began drinking and popping pills.

Even for black actresses today, lead roles are few. The next project for Berry, who co-starred with Warren Beatty in "Bulworth," is "The X-Men," based on a cartoon.

Dandridge was a talented singer and dancer, two things Berry had never before studied. She learned to tap dance during three months of lessons. Singing was another matter: Wendy Williams provides vocals in the movie for such classics as George Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm" and Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me."

Dandridge was bankrupt by the early 1960s. She was 42 and attempting to resurrect her career when she died from an overdose of a prescription antidepressant in 1965, the year before Berry was born.

"She was slowly killing herself for the last five years of her life, and finally one day it caught her," Berry says.

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