When you consider the short, sad life of Dorothy Dandridge, it has a familiar ring. She was a child performer who rose to sudden stardom, a sex symbol who was frustrated as an actress, a victim of two bad marriages, dead at 42 of an overdose. But Dandridge had one historic triumph. She was the first African-American to be nominated for a best-actress Oscar, for "Carmen Jones" in 1954 (Grace Kelly won, for "The Country Girl"). "I fell in love with Dorothy as a child, the first time I saw her in 'Carmen Jones'," says Halle Berry, 33, who stars this week in "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge." "I knew I wanted to be an actress just because of her and how she jumped off the screen."
Though her movie career was short, Dandridge is in no danger of becoming a footnote. Two biographies have come out in the last decade, and Berry's been vying with Whitney Houston, who bought rights to one of the books, to get her film out first. Besides the eerie coincidence of Berry and Dandridge being born in the same Cleveland hospital, Berry related to Dandridge's struggles in an industry that still barely acknowledges black talent. "I can't get a starring role in a film because there aren't any, just like 40 years ago," says Berry, also the movie's executive producer. "I look at films like 'You've Got Mail,' and I go, I could have played the role. But we don't even get the courtesy of a reading. So it was very easy to be Dorothy and feel her pain." She also felt linked to Dandridge after the failure of her marriage to baseball star David Justice. Berry considered suicide: "You get to a point where you're so down on yourself. I was right there, wondering what I had left. You can kill yourself slowly, and I think that's what Dorothy did."
Dandridge's despair is a big part of the HBO movie, though some grittier details of her life have been glossed over. Her affair with director Otto Preminger (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is here, but not that she became pregnant and had an abortion. The film is most powerful in conveying the racial climate of the '50s: a pool at a Las Vegas hotel where Dandridge was headlining was drained and cleaned after she defiantly stuck her toe in the water. And if the star's story has been oversimplified, Berry does capture the high-spirited flair of her nightclub performances--an evocation of the beauty and electricity that made Dandridge a legend.