Is it a curse to be beautiful? Tell that to the 6 billion people who aren't. Halle Berry--Miss Teen All-American, runner-up Miss USA and by acclamation one of the world's prime ravishers--is a gifted actress too. She has lent boldness and tact to Jungle Fever, Losing Isaiah and Bulworth; she has captivated TV viewers as Dorothy Dandridge and Alex Haley's Queen. All this hints at some divine conspiracy--or at least a case of unfair genetic competition. A glamour monopoly.
But Berry, 33, the offspring of a black father and a white mother, knows that her form of stellar attraction can win the wrong kind of attention. She has physical and psychic bruises from some of the men she's spent time with, losing most of her hearing in one ear after an assault by an early beau. She has got herself in trouble too, in a February 2000 car crash that cost her 20 head stitches and a no-contest plea to charges of leaving the scene of an accident. As survivor and screw-up, Berry was ideal for the role of Leticia, the broke, hapless widow of an executed man who gets tangled up with a racist penal officer (Billy Bob Thornton) in the moody Monster's Ball.
Berry read the script and immediately called her manager to say she would do it. As she recalls, "He said, 'Well, there's a small problem. They don't want you.' Then the fight began." Berry met with director Marc Forster, and, she says, "I just wore him down. I shared with him some moments in my life. Some were personal moments of heartbreak, hard knocks. I can relate to Leticia in ways that you wouldn't think I can if you're just looking at me." So Forster took the risk. "I felt I wanted to give her the opportunity, and I feel I made the right decision," he says. And Berry made good on it. Her Leticia is willful and a handful, daring to forfeit the audience's patience but never its fascination.
The movie is about the redemption of a racist--though some may ask how many prejudicial scruples a man would have to overcome to persuade himself to have sex with Halle Berry. The actress, who had previously flashed her bosom in Swordfish, once had scruples of her own about going buffo. "If a movie script had nudity in it," she says, "I wouldn't even finish reading it. But I've become a woman who's a bit more secure and willing to free herself of her inhibitions for her art." Thus the startling, dramatically expressive love scene in Monster's Ball.
From little films, large honors flow. She was nominated for an American Film Institute Actor of the Year-Female award (losing to Sissy Spacek) and for a Golden Globe. And she might be in an aisle seat on Oscar night. "Oh, Jesus, I can't wrap my brain around that thought yet," she says. "For most of my career I haven't been synonymous with awards." But why not a statuette for the statuesque? Another bauble for the beauty who has it all and now knows what to do with it.
--By Richard Corliss. Reported by Jess Cagle/Los Angeles