Dandridge Made History with Carmen Jones

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When adapting Carmen Jones, realism was key for director Otto Preminger and had the screenwriter pull from the original source material as well as the Broadway musical and opera. Imperative for both the director and the studio though was its perception among the black community.  

Preminger said, “The all-black world shown in these films doesn’t exist, at least not in the United States. We used the musical-fantasy quality to convey something of the needs and aspirations.”

At the suggestion of 20th Century-Fox, Otto sent the script to be reviewed by Walter White, the president of NAACP, who liked the script, and thus, began the journey to creating the well-known musical with an all-black cast.

1. Preminger didn’t think Dandridge was right.

“She’s too much like Loretta Young,” he said, and when she auditioned, he suggested she instead try out for the part of Cindy Lou because of her sophisticated veneer. Dorothy Dandridge objected to the analysis, but set up the audition anyway. Given the second chance, she instead dressed the part of Carmen, even exercising vigorously to give her the look that she’d “worn out a bed.” This time when she entered the room in front of the director, he knew that he’d found his star. Others considered for the role included Joyce Bryant, Elizabeth Foster, and Muriel Smith.

2. It was Diahann Carroll’s screen debut.

Carroll was only 19 years old when she auditioned for the title role in front of Otto Preminger. “I had never before encountered power on such a grand scale,” she remembered. To make matters worse, he gave her the direction to remove her shoes and stockings as she did a sensual scene with James Edwards, whom she called “one of the most seductive men I have ever met.” Eventually, her timid performance caused the director to boom “Who ever told you you were sexy?” She replied, “No one! I swear!” The earnest response made him direct, and he decided to cast her in a small part in the film. When filming began, he also allowed her to sit beside him to see him direct.

3. Dandridge made Oscar history.

After getting the role, Dorothy had doubts and anxieties about the role, unsure if the role would further stereotypes. Preminger rushes to her apartment to appease her fears, and she agreed to continue. Critics raved about her performance, and she became the first Black actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Remembering Dandridge, Olga James said, “She behaved like a star… She was simple, elegant… well-mannered… disciplined.”