The Real Actress That Inspired Hollywood‘s Camille Lived A Far More Heartbreaking Reality

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: Spoilers are ahead for Hollywood.
Netflix's new series Hollywood gives Tinseltown a much-needed rewrite. And while it may be more fiction than fact, Ryan Murphy's latest show is based in some reality — even if it is an altered one.
For instance, Hollywood's leading lady Camille Washington, played by Laura Harrier, was inspired by Dorothy Dandridge, the first Black woman to get nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. "I drew from [Dandridge] and watched interviews with her and watched as many of her films as I could," Harrier told Refinery29. "I wanted to pay homage to her with Camille."
Harrier also wanted to give Camille the happy ending Dandridge, who died at the age of 42 of an apparent suicide, never got. "Unfortunately, I like to think Camille’s story goes on to be a bit more positive than Dorothy’s," she said of Camille getting to realize her leading lady dreams. "Her career didn’t get to the places that I think it should have."
Like Camille, Dandridge's career started in the 1940s, but hers was in night clubs as a singer, often alongside her sisters. Dandridge would go on to become the first successful Black actress in Hollywood despite never being given the kind of opportunities the fictional Hollywood character was. "She really struggled in life," Harrier said pointing to the racism of the era, that in many ways hasn't gone away. Things are looking up, but Black women still struggle for leading roles in Hollywood.
For Dandridge, though, it wasn't just systemic racism that kept her down, there were laws that kept her from playing the romantic lead in films. Anti-miscegenation laws, which enforced racial segregation in marriage and criminalized interracial relationships, existed in many American states until 1967. During the '40s, Hollywood followed the Hays Code, which also refused to depict miscegenation, or couples of mixed race, onscreen. (In 1956, the Code removed the clause.) Since all of Hollywood's leading men were white, it didn't allow Dandridge much chance to play the romantic lead for the major studios.
Despite this, Dandridge's career reached its peak in the 1950s. "I really loved Carmen Jones with her and Harry Belafonte," Harrier said of the all-Black ensemble musical that Dandridge would call "a turning point in her career." In an interview, Dandridge said she "never worked harder" on a film and that Carmen Jones "was the best time I ever had," according to The New York Times.
That same year, Dandridge chocked her success up to "the heartache of my child," who was born with a brain injury, and the failure of her marriage to first husband Harold Nichols. "It forced me to make a success of my career," Dandridge said. She threw herself into her work to take her mind off of it all. "It's a wonderful therapy," she said then, according to The New York Times. "You don't have time to feel sorry for yourself."
The musical, which cast Dandridge as a hardheaded temptress, was one of the year's highest-earning films. It earned her a contract with 20th Century Fox that the studio hoped would turn her into the first Black screen icon. But despite roles in 1957's Island In the Sun, which featured a controversial interracial relationship, and 1959's Porgy and Bess, which was a financial failure, roles for Dandridge quickly dried up.
Still, Dandridge's brief career was history making thanks to an Oscar nomination for Carmen Jones in 1955. Fifteen years after Hattie McDaniel made history for becoming the first Black performer to win an Oscar. A win for Dandridge would have been historic, but instead the little gold man went to Grace Kelly. The first Black woman wouldn't win Best Actress until Halle Berry in 2002. Knowing this makes Hollywood's reimagining of the 1948 Academy Awards all the more exciting and perhaps, infuriating.
Camille wins the Best Actress Oscar beating Loretta Young, who actually won the award that year for her performance in The Farmer's Daughter. She becomes the first Black woman to be nominated for Best Actress — six years before Dandridge — and the first one to win — 54 years before Berry made history.
Camille's victory changes history and makes you wonder what heights Dandridge could have reached if she didn't have to fight the studios and society to give her a chance to be a star. If someone had, would she have been able to become a leading lady in the same way other white female stars were? Would she have won an Oscar? Would the woman who said "[prejudice] was such a waste" have been able to stand up to the bigots?
Unlike Camille, who finds power in newfound success, Dandridge never stopped fighting for respect. She turned down supporting roles in The King and I that would have cast her as a slave. That rebellion landed her a reputation for being difficult. It all took a emotional and financial toll on Dandridge, who filed for bankruptcy in 1963 due to ongoing lawsuits, a year after her last screen credit. She died two years later with $2.14 in the bank.
Unfortunately, the past is the past, Hollywood can't change it no matter how much its creators wish they could. Dandridge will be remembered for what she did do and sadly, for what she couldn't. Still, Harrier believes there is a very real way in which Hollywood takes inspiration from Dandridge and the other stars of her day. Inspiration that could lead to very real change for the future.
Dandridge made films in the '40s against the backdrop of World War II. "It was a really difficult time for the world and there’s a lot of heaviness and sadness. People needed those films to escape and to feel better and to feel something outside of the weight of their lives," Harrier said.
Right now, as Hollywood deals with a global pandemic that caused movie theaters to close and studios to reassess their futures, Harrier hopes Hollywood can help inspire much-needed change so that the struggles of Dandridge and other Black actresses weren't for nothing.
"I hope that in a way, maybe our show can mirror that time" in which Hollywood takes place, Harrier said. "Afterwards there was a lot of growth. I think the world will come out on the other side of this and if we could do a little in making people feel better through it, then I feel like we did our job."
Related Content:

More from TV

R29 Original Series