If the old showbiz axiom “leave ’em begging for more” has any truth to it, then “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” is a job well done. Helmer Martha Coolidge has created an enthralling biopic, directing Halle Berry in her most heartfelt performance to date, but there’s much more to this tragic story of the first African-American woman to be nominated for a best actress Oscar than can possibly fit into two hours.
“Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” as the title suggests, will be an education for many viewers. This film marks a big step in recognizing the contributions of Dandridge, a woman who made Hollywood accessible for other black actors, but, as a biography, it only begins to explore the psyche of such a complex star.
Based on the book “Dorothy Dandridge” by the star’s former manager Earl Mills, the film focuses heavily on Dandridge’s career, and, like her Hollywood peer Marilyn Monroe, Dandridge’s personal and professional lives were complexly intertwined.
Coolidge takes us through Dandridge’s life by way of a series of flashbacks as the fading star recalls the events of her life in one of her notorious latenight phone calls to her best friend, Geri Nicholas (Tamara Taylor).
Often described by the white press as sepia-skinned or cafe au lait-colored, Dandridge bought into the beauty myth that brought her instant attention while making waves by refusing to play stereotypical black roles. Her greatest fame came from landing and nailing the lead role of Carmen in the controversial musical “Carmen Jones” by helmer Otto Preminger (Klaus Maria Brandauer).
We learn that Dandridge was traumatized by a sexual assault by her mother’s lesbian lover, which caused a lifetime of intimacy problems. She had two failed marriages and a mentally challenged daughter who had to be institutionalized. While gutsy and determined when it came to her career, Dandridge had a bad head for business and allowed her finances to be colossally mismanaged.
Although Dandridge’s tragic tale is not unique to Hollywood, it is important. The entertainment field in the 1950s was a place where minorities could excel, but it also offered a cruel dichotomy: Although Dandridge could make the cover of Life magazine, she was not allowed to swim in a hotel pool in Las Vegas.
Time and again, Dandridge was called upon by her agents and lovers to conjure up the strength and courage to break down racial barriers, but they did not offer the same strength in return. Preminger, with whom she had a tumultuous affair, talked her out of taking roles, which many speculate hurt her career.
It would have been easy for Coolidge and writers Shonda Rhimes and Scott Abbot to attribute Dandridge’s career failings to her weakness for choosing the wrong men, but, as in the case of Monroe, the truth is far more complicated.
Dandridge placed far too much emphasis on her beauty, and, as she got older, self-doubt undermined her natural ability. She was also plagued with guilt over her daughter and mismanaged career. The movie ends with her death from a prescription drug overdose at 42, on the eve of her supposed comeback tour.
As Dandridge, Berry is sexy and innocent, breathy and every bit as beautiful as the glamorous star. The role is that of a damaged beauty — but not a pitiful one — and Berry hits the mark whether it calls for sultry or sullen.
Brent Spiner, as the put-upon Mills, none-too-surprisingly gets saintly treatment, but he handles the duty well, playing the softer moments as poignant and not saccharine.
Brandauer makes for a fascinating Preminger, bringing out both the bulldog and puppy dog in the notoriously difficult director. Other supporting roles, including that of Dandridge’s actress mother, played by Loretta Devine, and D.B. Sweeney as Dandridge’s abusive second husband, Jack Dennison, however, are far too brief.
Dance sequences are impeccable, as are production designer James Spencer’s meticulous re-creations of famous nightclubs and movie sets. Tech credits are polished, accentuated by a jazzy musical score by Elmer Bernstein.