The Ghosts of Dorothy Dandridge
“If it is possible for a human being to be a haunted house, may be that would be me.” Dorothy Dandridge opens her biography.
I am dancing with the ghosts of Dorothy Dandridge. How do I write about her? The ghosts are the spirits of injustice, the whispers of stories that had once shouted to be told. I have struggled to find a way to express her life as being haunting and haunted.
Her desire to be a Hollywood star, as a light-skinned black woman, rendered her life an impossibility. I have the academic language of intersectionality to describe the injustices of her life, but finding an everyday vocabulary has been tough.
Dorothy Dandridge is an impossibility. Dorothy Dandridge is taboo.
The taboos started in childhood, when she and her sister Vivian toured as entertainers. Her parents split before she was born. Her mother had a relationship with Geneva Williams, known as Aunt Ma-Ma, or Neva. The relationship between Ruby Dandridge and Geneva is never named. A lesbian couple could not exist in the church-going tours. They were an impossibility.
Neva was a disciplinarian. The physical abuse is described but rarely labelled as abusive. Breast-binding and sexual assault were also part of Neva’s armoury.
And then there was Hollywood.
Dorothy Dandridge was given a list of superlatives.
She was beautiful, talented, sexy, captivating, flawless. But these are words that cover up, rather than reveal. They are traps laid by praise. They are the rugs waiting to be ripped from under her feet. They are too much and not enough. They are just words. They are broken promises. They are gossip. They are mean. They are a burden.
She could be all those wondrous things, but she could not be who she was.
Rumours circulated, that along with Lena Horne, she was auditioned to play the titular role of Pinky (1949) – an Elia Kazan film about a light-skinned black woman passing as white.
The part went instead to Jeanne Crain, a white woman. Elia Kazan was unhappy with the choice.
“The only good thing about her was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is what 'passing' is."
But the script called for the character to have a love affair with a white doctor. And so to cast a black woman would fall foul of the Production code and could cost the film an audience in certain US states. So the main character, an ambitious woman who grows to show pride in her ethnicity is not played by a black woman.
“This is for Dorothy Dandridge.”
Halle Berry on being the first Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress in 2001.
Dorothy Dandridge allowed her to dream.
I watched her as the playful, seductive Carmen Jones (1954). This is the film for which she became the first black woman to be nominated in the Best Actress category at the Oscars, nearly fifty years before it was actually won by Berry.
Reviewing the film with my 21st century sensibilities, it jars.
“It is said the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at; the camera sees what you want it to see.” (James Baldwin)
And Otto Preminger, the director Carmen Jones, wants you to see is the all-black cast as something other, exotic, different. It is a film with dusty roads in studios and glistening bodies stylised as alien belonging.
It is fascinating and intriguing. Dandridge is a star.
But that is not her voice. She had a career as a singer, but her voice was deemed not operatic enough. And so the film-goer is treated to a voice that is singing in an accent that does not fit with any voice.
It made her a star. But with no star vehicles.
Impossibilities piled up in Dandridge’s life. Impossible marriages, affairs, casting couch offers, financial investments, prescription drugs, depression. The impossibility of being a mother to her disabled daughter. The impossibility of being a paragon for other black women.
Somewhere underneath all this was the woman. Her character is overshadowed by the plot. The resilience, the ambition, the sense of humour, the shyness, is just out of reach.
Dandridge died at the age of 42. She had $2 in her bank account.
The final taboo – accidental overdose, or suicide?
The impossible comeback.
About the Creator
Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.
Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.
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