Berry Picking

From Superheroes To Needy Widows, The Oscar Winner Chooses Roles That Suit Her Ambitions

April 15, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic


Few were surprised when Halle Berry was named 2004's Worst Actress at the Razzie Awards, an annual lambasting of the year's worst films held the night before the Oscars. But what happened after her "win" for playing the title character in Catwoman surprised nearly everyone.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Razzies founder John Wilson intoned from the stage of Hollywood's Ivar Theatre, "Halle Berry."

When Berry herself appeared, wearing a Cheshire-cat grin on her face, the Oscar she'd won for 2001's Monster's Ball in her left hand and the Razzie in her right, the audience gave her a standing ovation. It was the first time an actor had ever shown up to accept a Razzie.

"I don't have to give this back," Berry told the crowd, holding her Oscar aloft. "It's got my name on it." With the laughter and applause barely subsiding, she turned to her manager and said, "Next time I do a movie -- if I get a chance to do another movie -- maybe we should read the script first."

Berry laughs at the memory. Her friends had urged her not to go, she recalls. "They thought, 'Oh, you can't do that. You're an Oscar winner. You cannot give these people that much attention and validation.'

"I didn't expect to get thunderous applause. I thought I might get laughed at. It [was] as good as Oscar night, to have that kind of love coming back from people."

Berry has long been playing the Hollywood game by her own rules.

Realizing early on the paucity of substantial starring roles for black actresses, she fought for parts she believed in -- once producing an HBO movie herself so that she could star in it, another time convincing a director that she wasn't too glamorous to play a love-starved, dirt-poor Southern widow. The films won her an Emmy and an Oscar.

Now she is going her own way again, ignoring conventional wisdom that dictates only certain roles -- preferably high-minded dramas -- are suitable for Oscar-winning actors. The strategy has earned mixed reviews.

Since winning acting's top honor, Berry has played superheroes (in the second and third X-Men films, as well as Catwoman) and a Bond girl (2002's Die Another Day). She has portrayed a troubled psychiatrist (2003's Gothika) and provided the voice for a sultry collection of animated nuts and bolts (2005's Robots).

She's at Philadelphia's Four Seasons Hotel to promote her latest project, Perfect Stranger, a psychological thriller that opened this weekend. Although her role as an investigative reporter looking to expose a murderer shows off Berry's acting chops better than anything since her Oscar win, the movie's convoluted plot is unlikely to leave much of an impression on audiences.

Dressed in a blue pinstripe blouse and black slacks, the 40-year-old Berry is disarmingly quick to smile and answers questions easily. "Sometimes, people don't want you to move on," she says.

"They want you to do the role over and over that they loved you in once. And as an artist and an actor, that's the last thing I wanted to do. I want to keep doing something different. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won't. But that's the beauty of it. After Monster's Ball, I got every downtrodden-black-woman role that was written. But I didn't want to do that again."

That refusal to be pigeon-holed earned Berry the respect of Giovanni Ribisi, her Perfect Stranger co-star: "You see it in the choices of films she decides to do. She has definitely a gutsiness about her that is refreshing."

Berry also has a determination to prove herself that can be traced back to her childhood in Cleveland, where she was born to a white mother and black father. Her mother's family disowned their daughter, and her father, Jerome, abandoned his family when Berry was 10 (afflicted with Parkinson's disease, he died in January 2003; she did not attend the funeral). Her mother, Judith, wanting a better education for her girls, moved Berry and her younger sister, Heidi, to the Cleveland suburb of Bedford.

The suburbs may have offered young Halle more opportunities, but they also presented new challenges.

"My sister and I were one of probably five black kids in a school of about 1,500," she says. "Day 1 at school ... I immediately felt inferior. My high school years were all about proving that I was as smart as anyone, and so I was class president and I was on the honor role. I went the extra mile studying. ... I had to be not a cheerleader, but I had to be the head cheerleader. I had to be the prom queen. And it was just to feel that I was as good as the other kids."

Berry began entering beauty pageants after high school, when a boyfriend submitted her photo; she was named Miss Teen All American 1985 and Miss Ohio 1986, then first-runner-up to Miss USA. "We didn't have a lot, so initially I saw dollar signs," she told People magazine in 2003. "But then I felt really empowered after winning."

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