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HBO recognizes the late Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Gets Her Due

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"Introducing Dorothy Dandridge"
HBO-TV
9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 21
Repeats Aug. 24 and 29

Quickly, now — can you name the first black woman ever to be nominated for an Oscar for best actress? (No, it wasn't Hattie McDaniel; she was nominated, and won, for best supporting actress for "Gone With the Wind.")

Here's another one: Who was the first black woman ever to be featured on the cover of Life magazine?

The answer to both questions is Dorothy Dandridge. And don't be surprised if you don't recognize her name right off the bat. She died in 1965, before black actors finally broke through the color barrier.

The reason she was nominated for an Oscar (she didn't win) and adorned the cover of Life was the 1954 movie "Carmen Jones," an adaptation of the opera "Carmen" that featured an all-black cast. Otto Preminger was the force behind the movie, and Dandridge played the title role. Aside from a few other forgettable roles, including one Tarzan film in which she played the Queen of the Jungle, that was the extent of Dandridge's big-screen career.

If Dandridge had been born 30 years later, she would have been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. As both an actress and a pop singer, she was that good. Instead, she lived and died in a time when black people were called "colored," when black stars had to use the service entrance, and when their bathroom facilities backstage often consisted of nothing more than a Dixie cup.

Life would have been hard enough for Dandridge even without the immutable difficulties of her private life. But they were legion.

Dandridge was born in Cleveland and raised by her actress mother, Ruby, with the help of Ruby's "special friend" — read "lesbian" girlfriend — whom Dorothy and her sister were taught to call "Auntie." The domineering Auntie kept a strict eye on the girls while Ruby worked. It was at Auntie's hands that Dorothy suffered a violent attack and humiliation that scarred her for the rest of her life. She came home late from a teenage date and was sexually assaulted by Auntie, who told the girl that she wanted to see if she had given up her virginity. She had not.

The horror of the attack by Auntie left Dandridge nearly incapable of intimacy with a man, which led to the breakup of two marriages and an ill-fated affair with Preminger, the man who directed her in her greatest film role.

HBO's "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" is a fascinating telling of the story of the actress who would have been an even bigger star, were it not for the racism that persisted until years after her death. Director Martha Coolidge ("Rambling Rose") offers up a mesmerizing and taut drama in which every scene moves the story inexorably onward and not a foot of film is wasted.

But the film is, from first scene to last, totally Halle Berry's. She fits just as completely and seamlessly into the leading role as she fits into the eye-popping, curve-hugging dresses she wears when Dandridge is on stage at the Cotton Club. With Brent Spinner ("Star Trek: The Next Generation") as her manager, and Klaus Maria Brandauer ("Out of Africa") as Preminger, Berry is surrounded by a surfeit of talent.

"Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" is well worth a look. Even if you've never heard of Dandridge, just sit back and enjoy a riveting story graced by a cast that couldn't be more

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