Wendi Williams lends voice to 'Introducing Dorothy Dandridge'
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By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- When HBO's heavily promoted biopic "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" has its Saturday night debut, the title character's face will be that of actress Halle Berry. But her voice belongs to Los Angeles singer Wendi Williams.
Early reviews of the film say Berry shines in her work as the doomed Hollywood star. Dandridge was the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award -- that was in 1955, for her work in "Carmen Jones" with Harry Belafonte. Dandridge was a woman who defied Hollywood stereotypes, but was ultimately unable to overcome the racial discrimination she faced. She died in 1965 of a prescription drug overdose, at age 42.
Before she cemented her place in record books with her Oscar nomination, Dandridge rose to fame as a nightclub singer. And when it came time to resurrect her old songs for both the HBO film and its soundtrack, it's Williams who performed the vocal tour of duty.
"It feels great to be the voice," she says. "It hasn't hit me yet. I really enjoy singing, so if I can do it one way or another, I'm really happy."
Initially, says Williams, she was supposed to serve only as Berry's vocal coach. The actress intended to do all her own singing in the film. But as shooting loomed, she ran out of time and ceded singing duties to Williams. The two are said to be a good singing-speaking vocal match.
"They tell me that it's about the tone," Williams says. "Like if we were to speak at the same time, some of the tones would be the same. It's believable. Halle felt really good about it.
"It kind of fell into my lap," she says, "and I was really excited about it."
Music to her ears
One might wonder if Williams feels invisible, serving as the comparatively unsung singing voice in the film. HBO and soundtrack label RCA Victor have clearly publicized Williams' work as Dandridge's voice. But doesn't it bug her, even a little, to see Berry's visage splashed all over the place, while she remains behind the scenes?
To the contrary, Williams -- a seven-year veteran of the now-defunct all-girl R&B group For Real -- says the situation suits her just fine. She's been in this boat before: For Real supplied the voices for an ensemble in the 1996 Illeana Douglas film "Grace of My Heart."
"I'm fully appreciated," Williams says. "I don't feel left out or behind the scenes at all."
Williams spent two weeks learning the songs on the album, numbers once performed by Dandridge, including "Hep Hop" and "I Got Rhythm." She watched archival footage of Dandridge singing on television and studied the singer's mannerisms and vocal style.
"I had to watch the tapes," she says "and really try to be the character, not so much myself, and capture Dorothy. I watched a tape of her over and over and I got into her character. But it was challenging, because it was a very different style of music from what I was used to."
And after she'd recorded the music, she worked with Berry to make sure her on-camera singing looked authentic. As any former Milli Vanilli fan knows, it's one thing to move your lips -- it's another thing to look like you're belting out a song.
"I got to go on the set and help Halle do the lip-syncing," she says. "So it was helpful that we did all the vocal exercises before we started filming because that kind of helps her look more like she was singing. Especially with the breathing and everything. Because if you're not looking like you're even extending your vocal chords at all, then it doesn't come off very well."
Working with Berry, says Williams, was a breeze. "Halle is a doll," Williams says. "She's so wonderful. Really sweet, very easygoing and ridiculously beautiful."
So, by many accounts, was Dandridge. But her life proved to be anything but.
At the age of 4, Dandridge was half the song-and-dance duo "The Wonder Children" with sister Vivian. Later, as part of the singing group the Dandridge Sisters, she played the Cotton Club and even made an appearance in the Marx Brothers' 1937 "A Day at the Races" and in "Going Places" (1938) with Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan.
Dandridge went solo in the early 1940s, starred in several musicals and established herself as a nightclub singer before her breakthrough film role in the 1951 "Tarzan's Peril."
She earned her Academy nomination in the title role of "Carmen Jones" -- an updating of the Georges Bizet opera "Carmen" -- but lost the 1954 best-actress statuette to Grace Kelly for her work in "The Country Girl." In the 1957 "Island in the Sun," she was cast in a then-rare onscreen interracial romantic liaison, with actor John Justin.
Out of the limelight, Dandridge's life was grim. She had two failed marriages; a daughter whose brain damage required her to be institutionalized; a drug problem; and a troubled affair with director Otto Preminger that led to a stormy working relationship on the 1959 "Porgy and Bess."
Williams says she was stunned to learn the harsh details of Dandridge's life.
"I think it's a really interesting story," says Williams, "because you never know how someone's life is when they're so glamorous. Before, I didn't know anything about her but her name. On the other end, I learned that I could do just about anything as far as singing goes. I'm very proud to be a part of it."
"Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" is a production of CNN Interactive sister company HBO, a Time Warner property.
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