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BERRY PICKING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA

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."

After three years in Chicago, modeling lingerie and doing catalog shoots, she set off for New York in 1989 as an aspiring actress. Her first modest break came when she was cast as one of four fashion-model roommates in the short-lived ABC sitcom Living Dolls. The experience gave her that all-important entry into show business, Berry says, but also foreshadowed what she would be up against as an African-American actor.

"I was the token black on that show," she says. "I hardly had very much to do. I would start the scene, 'Hello,' and end the scene, 'Bye, y'all.' And I realized, if I'm gonna do this (acting), I have to be more than this token black character that's on the show. So I left there feeling like I had the eye of the tiger, like I wanted to do something."

Moving to Hollywood in 1991, Berry scored her first theatrical movie role that year, playing a crack addict in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. "It wasn't a big role," she says, "but it was a role that wasn't just eye candy. That's when I thought, 'This is really what I want to do.'"

Her extraordinary beauty quickly got noticed; Berry made People's list of the 50 Most Beautiful People in 1992 (she was on last year's list as well). It took longer for her acting ability to be acknowledged. Her visibility and reputation grew steadily, thanks to parts in the 1992 TV mini-series Queen (playing Alex Haley's paternal grandmother) and such feature films as 1994's The Flintstones (her character, naturally, was named Sharon Stone) and 1998's Bulworth (as a would-be assassin of Warren Beatty's title character, a U.S. senator grown tired of playing the political game).

But parts for a black actress, no matter how beautiful, were limited. If she was to realize her dream of becoming an A-list actor, Berry realized, "I'd have to be creating some of those roles for myself.

"My manager and I were talking," Berry recalls, "and he said, 'If there was any role that you could play, what would it be?' I told him, 'I really want to play Dorothy Dandridge, that's my dream role.'"

Dandridge, a native of Cleveland like Berry, had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for 1954's Carmen Jones, but her career failed to take off, in part because of Hollywood's reluctance to put black actors in starring roles. She ended up singing before segregated audiences in hotels where blacks -- including performers like herself -- were forced to enter through the back door. She died of a drug overdose in 1965.

With Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston entertaining similar ideas, Berry persuaded HBO to finance her film. Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose) signed on to direct.

"She was extremely committed to it," Coolidge says. "It was Halle's inspiration that really attracted a lot of people to the project."

The result, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, garnered then-record ratings for HBO and the best reviews of Berry's career. Playing the part of an actress dissatisfied with the roles being offered her resonated with Berry, who won a Golden Globe and Emmy for the role.

"I could tell that in playing the part, she was expressing things that she felt personally," Coolidge says.

Halle identified with more than career frustrations; like Dandridge, whose husband openly cheated on her, Berry has had little success with men. In her 20s, one boyfriend hit her so hard that she lost much of the hearing in her left ear. A 1992 marriage to baseball star David Justice ended five years later in a bitter divorce, while a 2001 marriage to singer Eric Benet ended in 2005 amid reports of his continuing infidelity. "I stink at marriage," she recently told Parade magazine.

Things threatened to spiral downward for Berry in February 2000, when she was charged with leaving the scene of an accident after colliding with another car at a Beverly Hills, Calif., intersection. According to news accounts, she didn't report the incident to police until after she had driven herself to a nearby hospital. She eventually pleaded no contest and was put on three years' probation and ordered to pay $13,500 in fines and perform 200 hours of community service. A suit brought by the driver of the other car was settled out of court.

Amid the tumult, Berry's career fortunes were climbing steadily. Director Marc Forster had agreed, reluctantly, to have her test for the part of a lonely, shell-shocked waitress looking for a man able to make her feel good. The film was Monster's Ball, and audiences were taken aback by a glammed-down Berry in an emotionally raw performance only hinted-at in her earlier roles.

"She has this incredible passion and discipline, she's really committed to her characters, and she really works on them," Forster says. "Some people have the ability just to act it, and never really think about it. She really understands the complexity and really builds that three-dimensional character for herself."

Berry landed her Best Actress Oscar, the first ever given to an African-American. "This moment is so much bigger than me," she said in her tear-filled acceptance speech. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett Smith, Angela Bassett, Vivica A. Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

Although she barely remembers that night, Berry says she remains dedicated to those sentiments. "I feel like it's my responsibility to carry the torch, if you will. I think each generation has their responsibility -- not only in acting, but in life, each generation has their responsibility and their issues to deal with."

Since winning the Oscar, none of her roles has received the critical praise afforded Monster's Ball -- especially Catwoman, which she good-naturedly defends, saying "it was campy, it was silly, it was fun. But all [comic-book movies] are to me."

Still, her popularity remains high, as does her ability to play the good sport.

Remember the 2003 Oscars, when Best Actor winner Adrien Brody took the opportunity to fulfill just about every man's fantasy and give Berry -- who was presenting the award -- a scandalously long kiss?

"Caught me totally by surprise," she says with a laugh. "No idea. And he's lucky we were on that stage and he was getting that award. He got a pass card. Nowhere else in life would he have gotten a pass card to do that to me."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Halle Berry

Age:

40

Birthplace:

Cleveland

Named after:

A Cleveland-based department store chain, Halle Brothers Co., which closed in 1982.

Ranking on BET's 2005 All Shades of Fine: The 25 Hottest Women of the Past 25 Years:

1

Oscars:

Best Actress (Monster's Ball, 2001)

Razzies:

Worst Actress (Catwoman, 2004)

On accepting her Oscar:

"I don't remember being up there. I remember seeing the face of [best actor Oscar winner] Denzel Washington, like somehow he had a light on his face. I don't know if there was really a light on his face, or if I saw a light on his face. And that's really all I remember from the night ... and just crying. I knew I was crying."

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