Dorothy Dandridge was an immensely talented performer who has never received her due, and maybe HBO's "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" will change that. More power to it.
It's too bad the movie, premiering tonight at 9, couldn't generate some of the same electricity Dandridge displayed both onscreen and onstage. And it's even worse that the writers couldn't make this biopic, featuring Halle Berry in a lovely but shallow performance, as exciting as it is inspirational.
Dandridge, who died in 1965 at age 42 of a possibly accidental drug overdose, certainly deserves better than the footnote status she's been relegated to for years. Known, if at all, as simply the first African-American nominated for a best actress Oscar (for her electrifying performance in the 1954 musical "Carmen Jones"), Dandridge was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word, a woman whose talent certainly would have made her a superstar, if only her skin were a different color.
The problems with "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" are apparent from the beginning. As a framing device and a way to move the story along, writers Shonda Rhimes and Scott Abbott use a telephone call Dandridge places to a good friend. Either because she's in a reflective mood or because she realizes this is the simplest way to tell a person's story onscreen, she decides the time is right to reminisce about her hardscrabble life, all the while cutting out pictures and arranging them into a photo collage. (We never do get to hear what the friend thinks about all this rehashing.)
The story begins with Dandridge as one-third of an Andrews Sisters-style trio whose performance not only earns a dozen curtain calls, but attracts the eye of Harold Nicholas (Obba Babatunde), half of the legendary tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers.
A smitten Harold Nicholas begins courting Dandridge in earnest, and they soon marry. On their wedding night, however, he discovers that his wife is frigid, the legacy of a particularly gruesome sexual assault administered by her mother's "special friend." Although the film never really deals with what made her "special," and the woman pretty much disappears after that, the assault's effect on Dandridge remains profound -- one of a handful of factors that the film suggests led to both her unhappiness and her self-destructive ways.
Nicholas, too, is soon out of the picture, but not before he and Dandridge have a daughter, who turns out to be severely mentally handicapped. The scenes between mother and daughter, and the anguish Dandridge felt over her inability to do anything to help the girl, offer the high points of Berry's performance; they're genuinely heart-wrenching.
But Dandridge's experience with Nicholas proves to be only the first in a series of bad choices involving men. She has a torrid affair with her "Carmen Jones" director, Otto Preminger (smarmily played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, looking like Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now"), who proceeds to evade questions about commitment and offer bad advice until dumping her once the picture becomes a success.
She then hooks up with Jack Dennison (D.B. Sweeney), a would-be operator who speaks some of the world's most transparent pick-up lines, then uses Dandridge as a punching bag after their marriage.
Only two men treat Dandridge with any sort of compassion. Studio head Darryl Zanuck (William Atherton) may talk down to her, but he's the only one who has a clue as to how to handle her talent -- which means, of course, she ignores him. And her agent, Earl Mills (Brent Spiner), turns out to be the only man who really loves her. Not surprisingly, the film is based on his book.
Berry, who serves as one of the film's executive producers, displays an obvious passion for her subject, but she simply doesn't possess enough gravity as an actress to pull it off. Though undeniably beautiful, she has trouble making sparks fly -- a problem Dandridge never had to work through.
"Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" offers all the by-now-familiar examples of the mindless prejudice black performers had to endure in the 1950s, when nightclubs were glad to have them perform, so long as they came and went through the back door and didn't use the public restrooms. In one telling scene, Dandridge dips her toe in the hotel pool, which is then drained and scrubbed -- by black maintenance workers.
But the film never progresses beyond that, never really provides us with an understanding of what made Dandridge's experiences so extraordinary. It tells us of the indignities she had to endure but never makes us feel the passion they must have provoked within her. It tells us the Dorothy Dandridge story is extraordinary, but it never makes us feel why.
When: 9-11 tonight