Reference Entry

Berry, Halle (<i>born</i> 1968), Stage / Screen Actor, Model

Steven J. Niven

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Berry, Halle (born 1968), Stage / Screen Actor, Model

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film actress and model, was born Halle Maria Berry in Cleveland, Ohio, the daughter of Jerome Berry, a hospital attendant, and Judith Hawkins, a psychiatric nurse. Her father, an alcoholic, abandoned the family when she was four, leaving her mother to raise Halle and her sister Heidi, first in predominantly black inner-city Cleveland and later in that city's white suburbs. Berry's childhood was troubled, in part because of the economic hardship of growing up in a single-parent household. But as the light-skinned child of an interracial couple—her mother was white, her father African American—she also endured racial taunts from both blacks and whites. Fellow students called her “zebra” and on one occasion left an Oreo cookie in her school locker. Berry never had any doubts about her own identity, however, and states on her Web site that her “race” is African American and English.An extremely shy teenager, Berry craved acceptance from her peers and worked energetically to be the most active and popular young woman at her high school. As a cheerleader, editor of the school newspaper, an honor student, and class president, she appeared to have succeeded, but when fellow students accused her of stuffing the ballot box in the voting for prom queen, she was forced to share the title with a white student. Although this reversal suggested to Berry that whites would not accept a standard of beauty that included people of color, her success in beauty pageants suggested otherwise. By the mid-1980s an African American woman as flawlessly beautiful as Halle Berry could win Miss Teen Ohio and Miss Ohio. As a runner-up in the 1986 Miss U.S.A. pageant, Berry, then a student at Cleveland's Cuyahoga Community College traveled to London to represent the United States in Miss World, the leading international beauty contest. Although Miss Trinidad & Tobago won the title, Berry placed sixth and created a sensation by appearing in the “national costume” segment of the pageant wearing a skimpy bikini with strands of beads and shooting stars. The outfit was purported to express “America's advancement in space,” but it drew the ire of other contestants such as Miss Holland, who wore the traditionally bulky and much less revealing Dutch costume with clogs.Halle Berry, at the induction ceremony of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, 3 April 2007. (AP Images.)Berry found participation in beauty pageants an ideal preparation for a career in Hollywood, since it taught her how to lose and not be devastated. Considered too short at five feet six inches to be a runway model, she won bit parts in the television sitcoms Amen and A Different World, but she was rejected at her first audition for a major television role in Charlie's Angels '88. She did win a regular spot as a teenage model in 1989's short-lived sitcom on ABC, Living Dolls, but increasingly found that her stunning looks and beauty pageant past kept her from landing the serious acting roles she desired. A minor but critically praised role as a crack addict in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991) signaled a change in her fortunes. That performance marked Berry's first, but by no means last, effort to overcome critics, including Lee himself initially, who could not envision her as anything less than glamorous. In preparation for the role, she interviewed drug addicts and refused to bathe for ten days before shooting. Her next role, as a radio producer on the prime-time soap opera Knots Landing, was much less gritty, but it did ensure greater exposure and led to a series of prominent appearances in the film comedies Strictly Business and Boomerang (1992) and the television miniseries of Alex Haley's Queen (1993).In the 1990s Berry became one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood, appearing in popular, though not critically acclaimed movies such as Fatherhood (1993), The Flintstones (1994), and Executive Decision (1996). She received favorable reviews for these parts, but the praise—the film critic Roger Ebert described her as “so warm and charming you want to cuddle her”—may have reinforced the view in Hollywood that she was best suited to light roles. At the same time, Berry's beauty and poise earned her an MTV award in 1993 for “most desirable female,” an assessment shared by People magazine, which since 1992 has consistently listed her among the most beautiful and best dressed women in the world, and by the manufacturers of Revlon makeup, who named her their main spokesmodel in 1996. In an age of celebrity, when fashion has come to mean as much to the corporate world and consumers as films and television, such accolades have greatly enhanced Berry's fame, fortune, and clout. Indeed, in 2002 the Wall Street Journal reported that the financially ailing Revlon Company was relying on a line of Halle Berry cosmetics as the primary means of halting its plummeting profits and share price.Berry's growing fame and celebrity came at the price of endless media scrutiny. Her 1993 marriage to David Justice, a right fielder for the Atlanta Braves, delighted the tabloids, who printed scores of articles on the glamorous newlyweds, but the couple's troubled relationship and acrimonious divorce three years later was like manna from heaven for the National Enquirer and the Star. Though she continued to play an increasing variety of film roles, including a drug-addicted mother forced to give up her child to adoption by white parents in Losing Isaiah (1995), Berry's personal life provided greater publicity than her movies. In February 2000 a judge placed her on three years probation and ordered her to pay $13,500 in fines and perform 200 hours community service for leaving the scene of a traffic accident. Berry enjoyed better press in 2001, when she married the singer Eric Benet and became stepmother to his daughter, India. However, Berry and Benet separated in 2003, and in January 2005, the couple divorced. In 2008 Berry had a daughter Nahla Ariela Aubry with Gabriel Aubry, a French Canadian model. Berry and Aubry separated in 2010.Her first leading role, as Dorothy Dandridge in the television drama Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), gave Berry the critical success she had long craved and won her an Emmy Award for outstanding lead actress. As a longtime admirer of Dandridge, Berry co-produced the biopic and lobbied hard to publicize this HBO film about an African American actress renowned for her poise and beauty who suffered from depression and several unhappy and tempestuous relationships. Although Berry never faced the full force of Jim Crow segregation, she strongly identified with Dandridge's determination to broaden the diversity of roles open to women of color.The parallel with Dandridge continued with Berry's performance in Monster's Ball (2001), when she became the first black woman to win the Academy Award for best actress; in 1955, nearly half a century earlier, Dandridge had been the first African American nominated in that category. Some critics ridiculed the speech in which Berry accepted her award in the name of “every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” They noted that actresses like Hattie McDaniel and Dandridge, let alone thousands of unsung women in the civil rights movement, had already given that door an almighty push. Yet Berry was hardly the first Oscar-winning actress—or actor, for that matter—to be overcome by gushing hyperbole in receiving their profession's highest award. Others, including the members of the Academy, praised her portrayal of a poor southern black woman struggling to raise a son after the execution of her husband, and her complex relationship with one of his white executioners. In The Nation Michael Eric Dyson, a prominent black academic, lauded Berry's bravery in using her speech to speak up for “ordinary brothers and sisters.”Following her Oscar triumph, Berry became one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. She starred as Storm in the critically and commercially successful X-Men trilogy and had a voiceover role in the animated hit Robots. In the James Bond film Die Another Day, Berry revived memories of Ursula Andress with her role as Giacinta “Jinx” Johnson. Less successful was Berry's eponymous role in Catwoman (2004). Widely panned, Berry's performance earned her the unfortunate worst actress award in the 2005 Golden Raspberry Foundation Awards, though she displayed self-deprecation and a great sense of humor in turning up to collect her “Razzie.”Berry's breakthrough in winning an Academy Award and the sharp criticisms of her acceptance speech captured the ambiguities facing prominent African Americans at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Black American talents and achievements were recognized and rewarded by America's dominant culture as never before, yet that same culture continued to debate those successes in highly racialized ways.Although her motion picture appearances were limited as she focused on her family between 2006 and 2009, Berry appeared in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) Perfect Stranger (2007) and Things We Lost in the Fire (2007). In 2010 she made a return to film in the psychological drama, Frankie and Alice, in which she portrayed a go-go dancer with dissociative identity disorder. For that role, she was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe, and won both the NAACP image award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture and the Best Actress Award from the African American Film Critics Association.

Reference Entry.  1585 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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