I didn’t know what to expect when I watched Carmen Jones for the first time. I knew that the story was based on my favourite opera and that it was supposed to be a musical, but I was still caught by surprise when suddenly the famous overture from Carmen began to play and later a choir sang the well-known first melody – with English lyrics. At that moment, I realized with a feeling of pleasant anticipation what Carmen Jones would offer and I have to say that the combination of the modern presentation of the plot and Bizet’s timeless melodies turns Carmen Jones into a very interesting and engaging motion picture.
I have seen Carmen on the stage three times by now and what always surprised me during these three times was that, in my opinion, the least interesting aspect about the story was Carmen herself. The reason may be that the actresses who played her always seemed too old for the part and lacked the erotic and exotic fascination the character is supposed to have. It seems that the required experience in acting and singing often doesn’t accompany the supposed youthful and wild appearance (but of course I might only have had bad luck – I am sure that there are many actresses out there who can act and sing the part as well as look it). But in the end, the stage is a home of talent rather than looks – the audience in a theatre can always forgive if an actress doesn’t look like a wild and beautiful gypsy as long as her voice carries the right amount of passion and talent. The movie camera doesn’t forgive as easily and it’s clear that the title character in Carmen Jones demanded an actress who could offer all the visual qualities of the character as well as the inner desire, a convincing lust for live and love. The singing, on the other hand, is only of secondary importance in this case – lip-synching can solve any problem. Just ask Audrey Hepburn.
So it made sense that the movie makers laid the focus on the acting talent and the looks of the actress who would play Carmen Jones. And they did find the right amount of both in Dorothy Dandridge who took this paper-thin role and gave it the needed spark, wildness – and a great deal of sexuality. But at the same time she wasn’t able to overcome the obstacles that I see in the role of Carmen Jones. Call me a philistine but while I always admire the singing and music of an opera, I find myself often completely bored with the plot. When Aida and Radames are caged in a dark vault at the end of Aida and sing for what feels like 15 minutes only the same sentence “I will die now”, I get incredibly frustrated and begin to think “Oh, just die already!”. As I said, I like the music but a lot of operas I have seen so far have too filmy plots that mostly consist of two lovers who sing endless repetitions of the same sentences. Carmen always stood out among this because the plot seemed to involve a little bit more and actually made a worthy counterpart to Bizet’s catchy tunes. But even though – the character of Carmen is always more noteworthy for what she represents, for the way she affects the plot instead for her own personality. On a stage, all this doesn’t affect the admiration for the overall production, but in a movie that focuses on the character of Carmen Jones and Dorothy Dandridge’s performance, it all becomes painfully obvious various times.
Dorothy Dandridge has the famous and legendary honour of being the first African-American actress to receive a nomination for Best Actress. But like the other African-American nominees before her, this one nomination didn’t change the course of her career. The Academy is often blamed for their lack of nominations and wins for minority groups but the simply truth is that, especially back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, they rarely got parts that truly showed their diversity and talents. Apart from Porgy and Bess, Dorothy Dandridge never really got another noteworthy role. But even though, in 1954 she definitely broke some barriers but she also brought another novelty to this category – a high level of erotic, sex and seduction. Dorothy Dandridge’s Carmen Jones used her body and her looks with an honesty and unconcern that is a surprising change among the usual types of performances in this category.
The Carmens on the stage that I have seen so far weren’t necessarily sexy but they found the right voice for their roles. Dorothy Dandridge is unfortunately the other way around. I don’t blame actors for lip-synching – if they sing their parts, then I will give them some extra bonus depending on the quality of their work and if they don’t I don’t fault them in any way as long as they create the illusion that they might sing the part, just like Marion Cotillard in La Môme. But in the case of Dorothy Dandridge, it’s too obvious that she is not singing the songs – she always acts with the right amount of joy, sadness or erotic during the musical sequences but her acting and the voice don’t truly connect. In these scenes, it’s almost more exciting to watch her with the sound off since she sparkles with a vitality that the operatic voice doesn’t match.
Despite all the problems of the part, Dorothy Dandridge does leave a distinctive mark on the role and fills it with everything that is needed. She also adds a little more than that special poise – some hints at the soul behind the self-assured façade and the woman who so easily and carefree plays with love and life. Her own and that of others. She’s not only showing a woman enjoying her life but a woman who seems trapped in the only way of life she knows. She’s the only one not immediately running when Miller arrives at the bar – it seems natural for her to stand out from the crowd as she is always looking for something new to escape the boredom that comes with too high expectations for life. Carmen is a character that is going down a straight road to self-destruction and she seems to know it – but she is unable to find any escape from this because she is enjoying herself too much and probably prefers to live a short life full of love and fun instead of a long one full of conventions and obligations. Dorothy Dandridge finds a lot of honesty in showing how little Carmen actually cares about anything. Not even in her final scenes does she try to show some hidden feelings in Carmen but keeps her straight, shallow and self-interested character alive – to the last moment.
Carmen isn’t a complex character – but neither Bizet, nor Preminger nor Dandridge wanted her to be. She’s a femme fatale without the usual hidden qualities. Dorothy Dandridge sometimes may feel too forced in her attempts to appear un-forced but she also finds a lot of naturalism in everything she is doing. She lets Carmen be rather unpleasant and unlovable as both Dorothy Dandridge and Carmen Jones are secure in the affect of her good looks. She fulfils the purpose of the character with ease and more often than once burns up the screen with fiery passion. She’s not as fascinating as the story suggests she is but it’s still a remarkable and passionate performance of a remarkable and passionate character. For this, she gets