Legendary actress Ruby Dee is going to the big dance! She's going to the Oscars!
On Sunday night, she'll join the other Hollywood A-listers and Academy Award nominees taking the big stroll down the Oscar Red Carpet and the only question that remains now – Will she win the coveted golden statue?
If she does, she'll become the fifth African American actress to take home the Academy Award – Hollywood's highest honor – and join winners' Hattie McDaniel (Gone With The Wind 1939), Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost 1990), Halle Berry (Monster's Ball 2001) and Jennifer Hudson (Dream girls 2006).
When I spoke to the Ruby Dee a few days ago, she was downright giddy caught up in the Oscar whirlwind that seems to whisk every nominee off their feet – even those who have been here many times before.
"I know people have been calling asking to dress me in this or that – I truly can't keep up with this," said Ms. Dee, who at the time hadn't decided which designer gown she'll stun the crowd in Sunday night. "I'm so glad I have my family with me. I'm just trying to settle down and enjoy the moment – it's really hard to do."
In the Universal Pictures epic "American Gangster," Ms. Dee is actually on screen for less than 5 minutes. But for those few moments, she delivers one of the most powerful performances ever on film as Mamma Lucas – the God-fearing mother of real life Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, played by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington.
Earlier this year, Ms. Dee became the only African American actor nominated for an Academy Award for 2007. At the age of 83 and after a long distinguished career on film, stage and television, Ms. Dee finally earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress and she earned her first trip down the prestigious Oscar red carpet.
"I couldn't believe it when I heard the news," said Mrs. Dee. "You mean like THE Oscar," she asked her granddaughter who called to break the good news. "I was so excited."
This awards show season, the raspy-voiced star has already picked up a Screen Actors Guild Award for her role in "Gangster," last week she was honored by the NAACP Image Awards, but Oscar is the big enchilada and everyone knows it.
"I'm very excited for her," said American Urban Radio's Hollywood Reporter Tanya Hart. "This is long overdue."
Every actor seems to dream about winning Oscar, but for Ms. Dee – long ago she put that thought out of her mind. "I didn't have the kind of talent or personality that kept me dreaming about Hollywood. They don't hire little colored girls to do this or that. After I got that in my head, I took another direction."
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, the much respected actress has worked in the vineyards for six decades. ("A Raisin in the Sun," Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," and "Jungle Fever"). She was the first black woman to appear in major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival.
Born Ruby Ann Wallace on Oct. 27, 1924, she debuted on Broadway in South Pacific (a drama, not the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical) in 1943. In 1946 she appeared in Jeb, playing opposite her future husband, actor Ossie Davis. After various film roles, including a part in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), Dee returned to the stage in 1959 to star in A Raisin in the Sun. In 1961 she again appeared, on Broadway with her husband in Davis' play Purlie Victorious; she later repeated that role in the film version, Gone Are the Days (1963). Dee won an Obie award for her work in Boesman and Lena in 1971 and a Drama Desk award for Wedding Band in 1973. She wrote two volumes of poetry and with her husband was active in the American civil rights movement for many years.
Dee and her husband who died in 2005, worked together so often on stage, television and film that they were almost considered a package deal – their credits including Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever among others.
Lauded for her artistic contributions, the talented actress was also the recipient of the John F. Kennedy Center Honors, Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award and she won an Emmy for the TV movie Decoration Day.
Winning awards is nothing new for Ruby Dee, except the only one that has eluded her – her entire career – is Oscar.
Why this year? Critics have all applauded Dee's role as "phenomenal" and "powerful," and it's the scene where she scolds Denzel Washington and then slaps him that seems to give everyone the chills.
"This was collaboration between Denzel and me," she recalled. "We decided that somebody had to spank this boy." And spank she did. It was the slap heard around the world.
Dee recalls those rigorous days of Harlem– because she lived through them. "This was an amazing experience for me, the whole film," said Ms. Dee. "It came right out of the bowels of where I grew up."
As a child, Dee lived in an apartment building on 137th Street and 7th Avenue. Of that time, she recalls, "People who looked like Denzel would come to the door in twos or threes, and they would give you a greeting and hand you a shopping bag. In there would be a turkey at Thanksgiving; at Christmas there would be toys." Only later in life would she learn that they weren't just helpful citizens; there was a "political connection to the gangster element."
For the Harlem native, revisiting the world of her youth proved helpful insight for all with whom she worked. The actress notes, "The time of Frank Lucas that "American Gangster" is about doesn't seem as much of a film to me as it does more of a memory.
Perhaps that's why Ruby Dee was able to "feel" the role and deliver it with such realness.
At this point in her career, Dee told the LA Sentinel "she's delighted" and "very busy" working. "I've busier than I've ever been in my entire career."
As for what her late husband would say about all this, "He's up there working on it."
Win or not, Dee said it's a great feeling to be appreciated and sure she'd like to take home Oscar.
"This is another good reason to live a long time – something like this can happen to you."