Dorothy portrayed a murderer in her first feature film starring role in Four Shall Die in 1940. At the time, Black actors were frequently cast as violent and criminal types, and very rarely the hero. Despite trying to avoid future violent and criminal roles, Dandridge was still typecast and had difficulty finding more exciting parts.
34. Dorothy Was Forced to Lip-Sync In Her Breakout Role
Despite having a beautiful singing voice thanks to her childhood work of performing in a song and dance group, Dandridge, unfortunately, had to lip-sync for her first musical film role. Carmen Jones’ director wanted a more operatic tone of voice than Dandridge could provide, and cast an actual opera singer to sing her parts.
33. Fighting Her Typecasting Led To Another Typecast
In an attempt to avoid the violent criminal typecasting that plagued so many Black actors in the era, Dandridge made a strong effort to cultivate a polite and clean-cut persona that would allow her to pursue more diverse roles. However, this backfired and ultimately led her to be typecast as a docile Black figure. She had to fight against this conception to land her role in the award-winning Carmen Jones.
32. She Became The First Black Woman Featured On the Cover of Life Magazine
Carmen Jones was a critical and financial success, making back over ten times its budget at the box office – something unheard of for Black-led films at the time. The success of the film led to Dandridge being featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1954. She became the first Black woman to achieve this accomplishment.
31. Dorothy Was the First Black Woman Nominated for An Oscar
Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Carmen Jones. She was the first Black woman ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Unfortunately, she lost to Grace Kelly for her work in The Country Girl.
While she may have lost her 1955 Best Actress nomination, just being nominated in that year put her amongst the best of Hollywood royalty. The Country Girl, for which Grace Kelly won the award, was widely considered to feature one of her best performances. Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland were also nominated for Best Actress in 1955, making it a genuinely star-studded category.
29. It Took 50 Years After Dandridge’s Nomination For A Black Woman to Win Best Actress
While Dorothy Dandridge broke barriers by being nominated in 1955, it was until the 2002 Academy Awards that a Black woman finally took home the Oscar. Almost 50 years after Dandridge’s nomination, Hally Berry won the Best Actress award for her work in the film Monster’s Ball.
28. Halle Berry Acknowledged Dandridge In Her Acceptance Speech
Halle Berry knew full well that she was making history by winning her award in 2002. In her acceptance speech, she talked about the trail-blazing Black women in Hollywood who came before her and made her win possible. One of the people she mentioned was Dorothy Dandridge, in addition to Black stars Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll.
Proving that the world can indeed be a small place, Halle Berry was even born in the same Cleveland, Ohio hospital as Dorothy Dandridge herself. Both women began their lives in Ohio only to move to larger cities to launch their careers. Dandridge landed in Hollywood while Barry moved to New York City.
In a sort of side-move towards progress, Dandridge starred in an interracial romance role in Island In the Sun, in which an Indian woman falls for a white man. While the progressive move towards depicting interracial relationships was positive for the time, casting a Black woman as a South Asian character is far from ideal. The movie had to tread lightly around the connection thanks to the era’s Motion Picture Production Code, which outright banned interracial relationships.
In 1958’s Tamango, a film about a slave rebellion aboard a slave ship, Dandridge was supposed to appear entirely in a tattered two-piece bathing suit and even shoot one scene while swimming naked. Dandridge refused to allow this invasion of her own modesty and had the wardrobe tailored to her personal desires and refused to complete the nude scene.
22. The US Banned One of Her Films For Showing An Interracial Kiss
Tamango became famous in the US for being a banned film. The Motion Picture Production Code of the era explicitly banned interracial romances from being shown. An Italian movie, Tamango depicted a kiss between Dandridge and white actor Curd JÃ¼rgens. The film was not shown in the US until 1962, after the dissolution of the Hays Code in American filmmaking.
21. False Memories of Other Interracial Kisses Lingered
In a case of shared false memory, sometimes called a Mandela Effect, many moviegoers of the 1950s thought that Dandridge actually shared her first interracial kiss in 1959 in the film Malaga. While white actor Trevor Howard did have an enormous amount of onscreen romantic chemistry with Dandridge, the film did not, at any point, show a kiss between its two stars.
Dandridge encountered constant hardships as a Black actress, from typecasting to segregation, the Hays Code’s limitations, and more. Inspired by those hardships, she was an active member of the National Association for the Advance of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League.
Image 23 A still from A Day At the Races. Alama Drafthouse Cinema.
19. She Performed in a Marx Brothers Film
While it was only a bit part, Dandridge could still lay a claim to being in a film of the great Marx Brothers. She appeared, briefly, in the 1937 film A Day at the Races, which was a huge commercial hit.
18. Dorothy Briefly Gave Up Acting for a Faithless Husband
In 1942, Dandridge embarked upon a brief retirement from acting. She intended to settle down with her husband, Harold Nicholas, and start a family. However, Nicholas rewarded her sacrifice and care by cheating on her with numerous other women. She returned to acting soon after this discovery. Nicholas later abandoned both Dandridge and their daughter.
17. She Was Fully Aware of the Discrimination She Faced
As a Black woman in the United States in the 20th century, Dandridge was fully aware of the vast array of powers lined up against her success. She faced racist directors and co-stars, segregated entertainment venues, and a production code that banned interracial relationships. Dandridge once famously said that she knew if she were Betty Grable she’d have been able to capture the world.
In 1956, Dandridge was offered another Asian role, this time as the Burmese slave girl Tuptim in The King and I. Dandridge refused the character, and maintained a strict no-slave role policy throughout much of her career. She broke that rule for 1958’s Tamango, but the film portrayed a slave uprising so successful that France banned it from playing in their African colonies.
The breakout moment of Dandridge’s career was convincing director Otto Preminger to cast her in Carmen Jones against her typecast image of a docile, polite woman. The edgier role found her nominated for her first, and only, Oscar. However, the position came with another benefit: a secret romance with the director that lasted for over four years.
14. Her Director Lover Gave Her Shoddy Career Advice
During their four-year love affair, Preminger frequently gave Dandridge advice on how to advance her career. Perhaps the Austro-Hungarian director’s opinion would have benefitted a white woman, but it did little for the challenging career predicaments of a Black actress in Jim Crow-era Hollywood. He encouraged her only to take leading roles, but those were in desperately short supply for Black actresses, and ultimately that advice hurt Dandridge’s career.
Hollywood studios had immense control over the lives of their stars in the first half of the 20th century. Studios “owned” celebs and would lend them out to other studios like stud horses. They had the power to force child stars, like Judy Garland, to take drugs to work longer. They hid movie stars’ homosexuality in an era where the public wouldn’t tolerate such knowledge. Moreover, in 1955, they forced Dorothy Dandridge to undergo an abortion.
The 1955 forced abortion of Otto Preminger’s child ended the relationship between Preminger and Dandridge. After the abortion, Dandridge realized that Preminger had no plans to leave his current wife and children, and she wanted a more stable, long-term relationship. The stress of the abortion and the terrible career advice were the nails in the coffin of their doomed affair.
As is all too common with stars, Dandridge was taken advantage of by shady financial managers. Not only did they not pay her taxes correctly, leading to a tax bill of over $139,000 in back taxes, they also stole over $150,000 from her directly. These misdeeds left her in serious financial hardship.
Thanks to the duplicitous and fraudulent management of her financial managers, Dandridge ended up owing back taxes of over $139,000 to the IRS. In a tale that has become all too common for Black actors and entertainers, in particular, the IRS did not take kindly to Dandridge’s late payment.
9. Her Only Child, A Daughter, Was Born With Severe Brain Damage
Early on in Dandridge’s career, when she took a brief hiatus to start a family with ex-husband Harold Nicholas, Dandridge gave birth to a daughter, Harolyn. She was born in 1943 with severe and permanent brain damage that required daily care. Dandridge found herself with a permanently disabled daughter and a husband who cheated on her before abandoning them both.
8. Her Husband Left Her and Their Disabled Daughter
In addition to cheating on her with numerous women during their marriage, Harold Nicholas left Dandridge and their permanently disabled daughter high and dry when she was less than five years old. A single mother with growing financial hardship due to financial mismanagement on the part of her financial advisors, Dandridge was quickly finding herself in a dire situation.
7. Dorothy Was Forced To Commit Her Daughter to an Asylum
With her mounting financial woes, it was only a matter of time before Dandridge was no longer able to afford the incredibly expensive personal in-home care for her permanently disabled daughter. With no way to care for her daughter herself while still earning an income, Dandridge was forced to make the incredibly difficult decision to admit her daughter to a state-run asylum.
A bitter divorce and the gross ineptitude and theft of her financial managers left Dandridge in dire financial ruin. She was forced to sell her Hollywood home and put her daughter into a public-run mental asylum. She went from being an Academy Award-nominated actress to having to rent a tiny, dingy apartment.
5. Her Second Husband Wooed Her With Flowers Every Night
Dandridge met her second husband shortly after separating from married director Otto Preminger. Jack Denison was a Las Vegas restaurant owner who showed his affection for Dandridge by having fresh flowers sent to her dressing room every single night. Even in 1959, when their romance began, this must have been a costly way to show interest.
4. Her Second Husband Was, At the Least, Verbally Abusive
Dandridge’s second marriage lasted less than three years. Married in 1952, they were engaged in a bitter divorce with allegations of domestic violence by 1962. Reports indicated that Denison was, at the very least, verbally abusive to Dandridge. It is entirely possible, based on her divorce accusations, that he was physically abusive as well.
3. Dorothy Was Constantly In and Out of Apartments
With her continuing financial woes, worsened by her acrimonious divorce from second husband Jack Denison, Dandridge rarely stayed in any one place for long. Friends reported that she was always moving in and out of apartments. She would often become convinced that landlords or neighbors were stealing from her, prompting yet another move.
Only hours after phone calls to friends in which she stated, ominously, “Whatever happens, I know you will understand,” Dorothy Dandridge was found dead in her apartment at age 42. Her date of death was September 8th, 1965. Dandridge was supposed to fly out to New York later that night for some club appearances.
1. Controversy Remains Over the Cause of Her Death
There still is debate among forensic scientists as to the exact cause of Dandridge’s death. One pathology institute insists that she died of a likely accidental overdose of the antidepressant imipramine. However, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office argues that she died of a fat embolism after an injury to her right foot earlier that week. Her body was cremated shortly after her death, so we will never know precisely what snuffed out her shining light.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources: