Hollywood Has Failed Halle Berry
By: Steve Hladik
The first African American woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress has yet to find another project worthy of her gifts.
Halle Berry’s latest movie, Kidnap, opened July 31st to poor reviews and a number 5 spot on the box office. One could wish to chalk it up to just a regular Hollywood misfire, no actor is totally immune to the occasional financial flop or critical failure. But, there’s something much more frustrating and ultimately troubling about the case of Halle Berry.
Since she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2001 for her work in Monster’s Ball, becoming the first African American woman to do so, and the only one to achieve that honor since, Halle Berry has yet to find pretty much any project worthy of her gifts. She’s tried her hand at sci-fi (Cloud Atlas, CBS’s Extant) romantic comedy (New Year’s Eve) and action (Gothika, Catwoman) but each and every one of those projects met the same fate that her latest movie has. The only project that has come close was 2010’s Frankie & Alice, where Berry got to put her talents to actual use, telling the true story of a bipolar stripper from the 70’s. The film garnered her a Golden Globe nomination, but it came and went without much impact, and stands out really as the only worthy movie Halle Berry has made since she won her groundbreaking Oscar.
It’s hard not to wonder why an actress of such talent, intelligence and beauty has barely been able to find work, let alone work that matches the greatness she can provide. Perhaps the answer lies in the very fact of her greatest accomplishment.
As stated earlier, Berry’s 2001 Oscar win made her the first African American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, and has been the only once since to take home the statue. As bizarre as that sounds, it shouldn’t perhaps come as much of a surprise then one would think. Since 2001, only eight women of color have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress (Ruth Negga, Quvenzhane Wallis, Gabourey Sidibe, Penelope Cruz, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Salma Hayek.)
In their respective years, none of them were really ever viable for the win, just nominees that gave great performances that were recognizable enough to be checked off on a nomination ballot. All of them, obviously, lost to white women whose careers are not struggling, and just like Berry, many of them are struggling to find work, let alone work of quality. Only Penelope Cruz has been able to sustain a high-profile movie career, even snagging an Oscar in 2008 for Best Supporting Actress in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. (In fairness to Ruth Negga, her nomination only came last year and has signed onto some fairly promising projects, not to mention her lead role on AMC’s Preacher.)
This is of course not a put down of these women, all highly talented woman capable of greatness that warranted recognition from the Oscars, but rather a putdown and a commentary on Hollywood’s treatment and value of actresses of color. When most white actresses win Best Actress, or even come near an Oscar in either lead or supporting categories, they most of the time are immediately signed up for prestigious movies or, nowadays, television shows, and when the careers of some of these actresses stall or meander, they are most of the time able to pick right back off where they left.
Look at this year’s Big Little Lies, starring Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Those two women have made both fantastic and dreadful movies since their time bringing home the gold, but have been able to fall right back into their better roles without much complication. Women like Berry, not so much. You can’t say it’s age, she won her Oscar in the same decade and falls into the same age range as both Witherspoon and Kidman, as well as other winning actresses such as Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett. You can’t say it’s looks, for Berry has often been hailed as one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, even getting the cover in 2003 for People’s Most Beautiful issue.
Lastly, you certainly can’t say it’s talent, for just on the basis of Monster’s Ball alone, Berry has proven herself as an actress of tremendous depth and ferocious vulnerability. Take two of the moments in the film, for example: the scene where her character Leticia finds out her son is dead, is truly one of the most painful displays of parental grief ever put onto screen. I often wondered why when actors are playing devastating scenarios like that, they seem to try and “underplay” or “act around” the grief they are trying to inhabit. Berry completely ignored that trope, diving headfirst into the feeling of losing a child. It’s difficult to watch, but not as difficult as the scene following it, where Leticia invites Billy Bob Thornton’s Hank over for a night of drinking and casual sex, which turns into a horrifying duet between two lost souls, the two of them writhing around naked and drunk, trying to find passion in the ugliest of places. She does more with the four words “make me feel good” than most actors can do with pages of them.
The desire, the loneliness, the nastiness, the devastation, it’s all packed in there, and it’s about time someone lets Berry do work of this caliber again. She has a film Kings coming out later this year, co-starring Daniel Craig which is about the LA Riots. Produced by A24 and helmed by acclaimed director Deniz Gamze Erguven, there is certainly hope that this could be a success for Berry, and may finally get her a seat back in the Kodak theater on Oscar night, where years ago, she made history that has yet to be repeated.