Halle Berry was a teenager sitting in the dark one Saturday afternoon when Dorothy Dandridge switched on the light.
She recalled that first electric encounter as easily as remembering what she'd had for lunch. She was 18, waiting expectantly in a Cleveland movie theater for the retrospective program to begin. The feature was "Carmen Jones," a 1954 modernized version of Bizet's opera.
Dandridge's singing voice was provided by opera star Marilyn Horne. But everything else that made Dandridge a stunning femme fatale was hers: the creamy-skinned beauty, that certain sexiness. She lit up the screen. And Berry never forgot her.
"I was in awe of her beauty, her talent, her charisma," said Berry. "And the fact that she was a black woman and there were other black people in an all-black musical, I'd never seen that growing up in an all-white suburb outside Cleveland. I was fascinated by that."
As fascination turned to knowledge and understanding, Berry could not miss the striking parallels between Dandridge's life and her own: Both were born in the Cleveland area, fair-skinned women of color, each among the most beautiful show women of her generation.
Their eras are dramatically different, and surely the racism of Dandridge's day was harder than anything Berry is likely to confront in hers. But each in her own way and time has seen her beauty and talent open doors while her color kept the chain latched.
As both the star and an executive producer of "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," Berry hopes to enhance Dandridge's fame and stretch her own acting muscles when the HBO Pictures film debuts Saturday at 9 on the pay-cable service. (Dandridge's life also will be documented on A&E's "Biography" installment of Monday, Aug. 23.)
"I realized there was not much written about her," said Berry during an interview in Pasadena, Calif. "I had a hard time finding out she had done 22 movies and what her life was like. How did this beautiful leading lady who had made such a contribution to the film industry come to be forgotten?"
She is remembered in "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" as a woman whose personal life was sexually haunted (the scene depicting her sexual abuse at the hands of a female friend of her mother is tough to watch), a life filled with men and a life that ultimately ended amid frustration and mystery.
Tallies may vary, but she is credited with starring or being featured in 10 films and playing bit parts, some of them uncredited, in some 18 others.
Early on, she and her sister Vivian, played by Cynda Williams, teamed with Etta Jones to form the Dandridge Sisters, a song-and-dance trio that could be seen in such haunts as Harlem's Cotton Club.
There they encounter the Nicholas Brothers, with whom Dorothy would perform, and one of whom, Harold, she would marry.
The HBO production, directed by Martha Coolidge, zooms the viewer through the complexities and disasters of that marriage and her growing stardom.
Along the way, production designer James Spencer re-creates sets from four of her films with exacting detail and evokes the nightclub scene of those days.
While scenes look right -- Berry wears more than 80 costumes -- the energy of the original performances often is lacking. Anyone familiar with the electric dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, for instance, will find the work of Obba Babatunde and Darrian C. Ford nicely done but very tame.
The centerpiece of the film focuses on Dandridge's winning the role of Carmen. While she made films up to 1961, her star never burned brighter than it did in 1954, when "Carmen Jones" brought her an Academy Award nomination as best actress and landed her on the cover of Life magazine. Both the nomination and the photo placement were firsts for a black woman.
In winning the movie role, she also has an affair with the film's producer, Otto Preminger. Klaus Maria Brandauer plays the then-legend and then-married filmmaker.
One of the few male constants in her life was her longtime agent, Earl Mills, played by "Star Trek's" Brent Spiner. In an odd scene, he discovers her under a piano with two other rising stars, Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe.
The story ends in 1965, when Dandridge is found dead in her apartment of a prescription drug overdose at age 42. There's still an argument about whether her death was intentional or accidental.
"You're left to decide," said Berry of the film's ending. "I happen to think that any time someone loses their life by their own hand there are no accidents. So I think she killed herself, but I think she was gradually killing herself for many years. I don't know if she took the pills that day and said, I'm going to lie down and die right now, or if it just finally caught up with her that each day she woke up she was escaping death. She was slowly killing herself."
Dandridge's agent maintained that the death was accidental.
"Mills thought she was on her way back up," said Berry. "But up to what? She was 42 years old, at rock bottom again. When she was on top before, she didn't win the brass ring, and the state of race relations was not that much better. . . . I think she lost the will to fight."
Berry, who turned 33 on Aug. 14, has one of modeling's most familiar faces, and she is serious about carving out a film career. Between television and feature films, she already has roughly as many film credits as Dandridge gathered in her career. And she's hungry for more.
"As an actress, I knew that if I could bring her life to the screen it would give me a chance to really stretch myself as an actress and be a leading lady. I've yet to really be able to do that. I've had to play character roles and smaller parts. The industry really doesn't support an actress like me. . . . This gives me a chance to show all of my wares."
If she was going to make such a leading role happen, a producer once told her, she was probably going to have to create it for herself. So she did.
Berry bought the rights to "Dorothy Dandridge," a book by agent Mills, and packaged her proposal. Before HBO said yes, other companies said no. "The very reason I wanted to make the movie was the reason studios didn't want to make the movie," said Berry. "Because nobody knew who she was."
Many people know Halle Berry, and she lives in a gentler time than Dandridge's. But there are acting jobs she pursues, she said, where it's stated flatly: "We're not going black with that role," or "We'll never cast a black woman in this part."
"It's one thing to be told you don't have the acting chops, or, we need someone who's funnier," she said. "But to not be able to get in the room because of your skin color can be hard to take."
And if the door were flung wide open, what parts would she like to play?
"Any roles that Meg Ryan gets to do," she said with a smile and light laugh, "I think, God, I should have done that! Any role that Cameron Diaz gets to do these days.
"I wanted badly to be the girl in `Matrix.' There's a wide variety. I would just like more choices. I've been able to get a few choices, but it's been really hard to convince people I can do what I can do."