Her name was up in lights on the Las Vegas strip. Yet Dorothy Dandridge, the first black movie star, couldn't use the swimming pool at the hotel where she was performing. When Halle Berry, playing the title role in HBO's "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," sums up the outrage her character felt at this stupidity called racism, she glows with an indignant passion.
"Tonight I will take my bows and exit stage rear, go through the kitchen, pass the casino, around the pool I am apparently too dirty to swim in, up the service elevator to my luxurious penthouse, sip my complimentary champagne and pee in a brand-new Dixie cup," she rants. There is so much fire in this one scene that you expect her to go directly to the pool and dip her foot in the waters just to cool off, though in fact when she later puts her toe in the pool it is purely to break the ban on blackness. The hotel owners promptly drain the pool.
Throughout the movie, airing tonight at 9, the modern actress succinctly captures the dilemmas the 1950s actress faced in a Hollywood that didn't know how to use her talents and a society that thought that no matter how lofty her achievements, she could be treated like a dog. Though the writers try hard to show some of the joy that Dandridge must have known, the story is a succession of tragedies. And the visual thread that moves the story forward--Dandridge talking through the night to a close friend, reviewing every misstep, every self-inflicted wound, every betrayal--only reinforces the melancholy.
The producers--Berry is the executive producer--inserted the word "introducing" in the title because Dandridge's story is often forgotten. For those of us who grew up in Ebony magazine households where the Dandridge face was as familiar as Great-Grandma Josephine's, this gap of knowledge has always been mystifying. But people keep having to "rediscover" Dandridge, who was the first black actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, broke the color barrier at the Waldorf-Astoria's Empire Room and was considered one of the beauties of the day. Berry does her justice. Though Dandridge was a larger woman physically, Berry appears almost to channel the actress in one scene when she sits on a bed in a white negligee and raises her shoulder in a familiar screen-siren gesture.
What the movie underscores--and the lesson didn't start or end with Dandridge but was accentuated by her electric performances--is that given strong material an actress can break away from narrow, one-dimensional work. As Dandridge, Berry shows she has much more to offer than the scowl-and-smile school called for by "The Wedding," "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" and "Bulworth." And she shows that Dandridge had much more to offer than a smolder, although how much more is never clear.
The Dandridge that Berry portrays sways between the take-charge and the do-me-in-and-I'll-help-you-turn-the-screw type. She is elegant and poised in public before alcohol and prescription drugs become substitutes for love, work and self-respect. She is helpless when her mother's lesbian lover forcibly examines her to see whether she has slept with the famed dancer Harold Nicholas, who later becomes her first husband. She fights for her severely retarded daughter but when her mother, a comedienne played slyly by Loretta Devine, announces that a breakthrough gig in Miami Beach awaits her, she is compliant and turns the daughter over to a caretaker.
The movie skates over much, and emphasizes Dandridge's victimhood. It leaves the impression that she thought her beauty was her only gift and that the need for money drove her to work nightclubs wearing all those beautiful gowns. Perhaps the script's largest deficiency is its failure to make clear what kicked off the actress's downward spiral, and to show us how long it took. Was Dandridge's drug dependency an overnight thing, so swift that her close friends, her family, her manager didn't notice until she slurred her words and missed appointments?
The movie wants to tell an idol's life story, but the public part of that story is where it has firm footing. The script is taken from the book by Earl Mills, the manager who was there for the rise and fall, and who is respectfully played by Brent Spiner.
Dandridge fought for the lead role in "Carmen Jones" and wooed director Otto Preminger, who later became her lover. Here her ambivalence is sharply focused. She is a tough negotiator for parts but then listens to Preminger when he urges her to turn down a secondary role as a slave in the movie "The King and I." It is a costly career decision. As Preminger, Klaus Maria Brandauer brings a fighter's instincts to his part, panting at her eroticism, berating her when she falters, and builds her up only to add to her self-destruction. In the end, in 1965, Dandridge died from a drug overdose, and associates still debate whether it was an accident or intentional.
What is missing here is a sense of why Dandridge let herself be surrounded by all this ugliness, what in her life mattered most to her. At one point she says, "Sometimes you jump to see what it feels like to fall," but for the two hours we are carried along on the Dandridge saga we are left to wonder why she couldn't keep going, and why since her death she hasn't been the object of an occasional resurrection.