Screenshot of Dorothy Dandridge from the trailer for the film The Decks Ran Red in 1957
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Who was the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award in a leading role?

Two black women had been honored before at the Academy Awards, both in the best supporting actress category: Hattie McDaniel, in 1939, the first African American ever to be nominated for an Oscar, and to win; and Ethel Waters, in 1949. But in 1954 Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965) made history when her name was read in the top category.

Dandridge, a performer since she was a child, desired Hollywood stardom. The few roles available to black actresses—servants, slaves, “loose” women—she found demeaning, and except for some small parts, she held out. The nightclub circuit proved more fruitful, and her reputation and clout grew. In 1951 she became the first black performer to entertain in the dining room of St. Louis’ Chase Hotel—but only after it met her demands that black patrons could use the main entrance and eat in the same dining room.

Still, Hollywood beckoned, and Dandridge accepted a role she would previously have shunned: a jungle queen in Tarzan’s Peril (1951). Her next role, however, met her standards: that of a teacher in a rural African-American school in Bright Road (1953). Her most celebrated part was the lead in Carmen Jones (1954), which promised to open doors that had been closed to her because of her race. For that performance, in 1954 Dandridge became the first black actor of either sex to be nominated for an Oscar in a starring role.

In November, dressed as Carmen, she was the first African American ever featured on the cover of Life magazine. Presenting the Oscar for film editing at the 27th annual Academy Awards in 1955, she became the first black woman to participate in the televised broadcast. Grace Kelly won the best actress statue, but Dandridge’s rise seemed assured when 20th Century Fox offered her a three-year contract, a first by the studio for a black actor. Later that year Dandridge made headlines again as the first black headliner at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

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But there was nowhere for a black leading lady to go. Hollywood’s (to say nothing of society’s) racism fettered her. Verboten under the stifling Production Code, the interracial affairs implied in Island in the Sun (1957) and Tamango (1959) sparked controversy. By the late 1950s, Dandridge had little choice but to accept roles that she would once have refused, and she took the lead in Porgy and Bess (1959), a production riddled with stereotyped characters. Dandridge won a Golden Globe for her performance.

Her decline was tragic. She became addicted to pills and alcohol and went bankrupt. Although she made a triumphant return to nightclub performing, she couldn’t capitalize on her success, and when she died in 1965 of either an accidental or an intentional overdose of antidepressants, the 42-year-old Dandridge had $2.14 in the bank.

The epilogue to Dandridge’s story contains the kind of closure that Hollywood adores. In 2002 the best actress Oscar went to Halle Berry, who had portrayed Dandridge three years earlier in the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. In her emotional acceptance speech, Berry paid homage to Dandridge by name and called the historic moment “so much bigger than me”: “This moment,” she said, “is … for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened,” a door Dandridge had peeked through a half-century before.