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Dorothy Dandridge Did it First

Getty Images / Silver Screen Collection

Dorothy Dandridge Did it First

When Halle Berry became the first African-American to win the Academy Award for best actress, for 2001's Monster's Ball, she dedicated her win to Dorothy Dandridge in her acceptance speech, along with Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. Younger viewers may not have even known who Dandridge was. Her acting career was short, as was her life, and few of her movies have been canonized among the classics. But for Berry and her fellow black actresses, Dandridge was a role model and a trailblazer.

The world might not have been ready for Dandridge when she began her acting career in the 1930s. Even when she made her most famous film, 1954's Carmen Jones, those who hoped to see her become the first major African-American screen siren would be disappointed. Her career saw its share of obstacles – a still-segregated country that saw a beautiful black woman as exotic at best, as well as some poor career advice that she probably shouldn't have followed. Told to accept only leading roles to increase her star power, Dandridge ended up in a long career drought, one from which she could never completely rebound. Her early death at 42 left her all but a footnote in Hollywood history for many years.

Decades after her death, young African-American actresses began the process of rediscovering Dandridge. As they learned more about the ground she broke in Hollywood, they found inspiration in her life and career. In 1993, Hollywood's Walk of Fame added its "Four Ladies of Hollywood" gazebo, featuring a statue of Dandridge along with statues of Mae West, Anna May Wong and Dolores del Rio in a representation of Hollywood's multicultural history. Later in the decade, Berry played Dandridge in the 1999 HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Stars including Cicely Tyson, Whitney Houston and Jada Pinkett Smith joined Berry in praising Dandridge as a major influence. Her legacy rests in part on a number of "firsts," the feats she achieved before anyone else. Here are four of those crucial firsts that made Dandridge an icon to generations of black actresses who came after her:

1. First African-American actress to be nominated for the best actress Oscar

Dandridge starred opposite Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones, a big-screen adaptation of an Oscar Hammerstein musical based on Bizet's opera, Carmen. The film itself was groundbreaking, a big, bold, operatic production in the newly introduced CinemaScope, featuring an all-black cast. Then Dandridge blazed a longer trail when she received an Oscar nomination, the first best actress nomination for a black woman and the first nomination for any black performer in a lead role. Her competition included some of the greatest actresses of Hollywood history: Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Jane Wyman and Grace Kelly, who won for her role in Country Girl. Perhaps Dandridge's career wouldn't have floundered if she had won. But as it was, she opened a door for the African-American actresses that would come after her, including fellow nominees Diana Ross, Whoopi Goldberg and Quvenzhane Wallis, as well as Berry, who finally brought the award home.

2. First African-American actress to present an Oscar

Dandridge made history in more than one way at the 27th Academy Awards. In addition to a nominee, she was also the first African-American actress to present an award. Some may not think it such a momentous achievement, especially since she didn't win an Oscar that evening, but it was an important step toward diversity in Hollywood. Dandridge quietly acknowledged the honor when she said, before announcing the winner, "If I seem a little nervous, this is as big a moment for me as it will be for the winner." The enthusiastic round of applause she received on entering was a testament to her star power.

3. First African-American woman featured on the cover of Life magazine

Life magazine was once one of the most popular periodicals around, dedicated to storytelling through stunning photography. Being featured on the magazine's cover would have been a massive win for any actress, with millions across America seeing her face in their homes and on newsstands. But it was even bigger for Dandridge, who became the first African-American woman on the magazine's cover. It was her Carmen Jones success that got her there, coupled with her undeniably photogenic beauty.

4. Hollywood's first interracial kiss

Some dissent persists over what constitutes the first big-screen interracial kiss in Hollywood's history, but a majority of sources seem to agree that the honor goes to Dandridge and her co-star John Justin in 1957's Island in the Sun. In fact, what they shared was not the type of kiss we've become accustomed to seeing on screen decades later, but a passionate, intimate embrace, one that leaves no doubt about the participants' intentions. As tame as it may seem by today's standards, this embrace was huge. In 1957, the U.S. was still 10 years away from seeing antimiscegenation laws struck down in all 50 states. The embrace scandalized many viewers because it wasn't even legal where they lived. But it gave others hope: hope that their own relationships would one day be legal and even prosaic, depicted by Hollywood with no scandal attached.

Perhaps there should have been a fifth item to add to this list: Dandridge as the first African-American leading lady, carrying more than a single film as female star. But that wasn't in the cards for Dandridge in a world that wasn't sure what to do with an African-American actress who refused to play the maid. When she died of an embolism in 1965, her career already had been effectively over for several years, stalled by her very desire to be a star. Half a century later, her example inspires other actresses to fight their way to the top.