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Belle of the 'Ball'

I told Halle Berry this story.

I was on the plane to Sundance. Sitting across the aisle was Michael Barker, honcho of Sony Classics. We were talking about Halle Berry's performance in "Monster's Ball." Barker told me: "It is the best performance I have seen in a movie since Marlon Brando in 'Last Tango in Paris'."

"He said that?" said Berry, disbelievingly.

"And it isn't even his picture," I said. "And then he said, 'My only worry is that not enough Academy voters will see it, to find out how good it is'."

On Feb. 12, we will all find out. That's when the nominations are announced. Berry has already been nominated by the Screen Actors' Guild, the American Film Institute, the Golden Globes and countless critics' groups. But the movie only goes into national release on Feb. 1, after "qualifying runs" in New York and Los Angeles.

I think it is the best film of the year, an exploration of two lonely and desperate people who reach out to one another to save their own lives. Berry stars with the great Billy Bob Thornton. She is a waitress in an all-night diner, drinks too much, has a troubled relationship with her chubby son. He is a guard on Death Row, a racist, who executes Berry's former husband--although for a long time she doesn't know that.

It would be too simple to say they fall in love. Love is a luxury they cannot afford. It is clearer to say they need one another.

"They have the same amount of pain," Berry said. "It looks different, it is different, but it's the same, and they both need each other. They need the touch, the human connection. They're both dead inside, lonely souls. Dying a slow death. And when they meet each other it's like the kiss of life."

It's not an "interracial relationship" because they're not thinking about race, I said. That's far from their minds. He's gone through life parroting his father's racist line--he's an abused child and an abusive father--but racism falls away from him like a snake's dead skin.

"It supersedes color," she said. "Color is the issue for others but not for them."

For Berry, the movie is a crucial breakthrough. "Now other directors can see that I can do this," she said. She is a star who before "Monster's Ball" was not always taken seriously as an actress. It was clear she had great talent, but it was obscured by her beauty. Although "Monster's Ball" was shot on a limited budget and she was paid far less than her usual salary, she had to fight for the role--to convince director Marc Forster to look below the surface and see that she could play this waitress named Leticia.

"Marc didn't want me," she said, during a talk on Wednesday in Chicago. She was passing through town on her way to London, where she will be a Bond girl in the new 007 movie--a role on the other end of her career scale. "To his credit, he was so clear about who she was and how he saw her. And he just didn't see me as Leticia."

What did you do to persuade him?

"We had a lot of talks. I expressed my passion. I think I made him realize that my passion matched his own passion for the project. He almost didn't get to direct this film because he was new and some people didn't believe that he could it. And so I asked him, please don't let me a victim of the very thing that you yourself are fighting. Because you've never seen me do it, it doesn't mean that I can't. He took a chance."

Forster had made only one earlier movie, "Everything Put Together," a 1999 Sundance entry unseen by me. Berry says she saw it, and although it was different from "Monster's Ball," she liked the direction and the passion. Forster has a good feel for actors: "Never before have I worked with a director who said he would take however long it takes, to get where he wanted me to get to. Normally, its' like, that was great but can you make it like two minutes shorter? Or, can you stand over there while you do it? He let us be and that's never happened before; he just let those moments develop and I thought that was really wonderful."

Being beautiful is an advantage in life, I said. But I suppose it can also be an disadvantage, in the sense that maybe he thought you were too good looking to be this sad and lonely.

"If he thought that I remember telling him, sad and lonely comes in all different kinds of packages and most beautiful people are somewhat sad and lonely. They live somewhat of an isolated existence."

Berry got a lot of publicity on her previous picture, "Swordfish" (2001) for a scene in which she bared her breasts and received, it was reported, a $500,000 bonus for doing so--an amount far greater than her total salary for "Monster's Ball," which has a good deal more nudity and sexuality.

I asked her about the disparity between the two films and she smiled.

"Well, the nudity in 'Swordfish' was totally gratuitous," she said. "It didn't have to be there. I knew that when I read the script. I said, you know guys, this doesn't have to be here. You would have the same movie without it. And [producer] Joel Silver said, yeah, I know, but I want it anyway.

"I took that a challenge. I thought, there's a reason this is being presented to me. I now know what that reason was. It was because 'Monster's Ball' was coming, and I would have never have been able to even think about tackling a role like 'Monster's Ball' had I not done 'Swordfish' and got through that inhibition that was somewhat holding me back.

"With 'Monster's Ball,' it's not even about sex, that scene; it's so unsexy and it's not about sexual titillation. It's about two people getting what they need--and that's the air to breathe. It's not a sexual thrill or sexual pleasure. Without that scene you don't understand why these people will be together; you understand after it why you want them to be together, why you root for them. And without that I don't think you would be able to make that big leap you have to make with their characters."

When you say it's not about sex, I said, there's another scene I found fascinating. You're a little bit drunk next to him on the couch, and you're waving your arms around, and your hand keeps landing in his lap and you don't notice it and either he doesn't notice it or he doesn't want to admit that he notices it. The audience notices it and it's funny because the two of you--your minds are elsewhere.

"Totally. And you know, that scene is the first time in the movie where they're really just people. Billy Bob's character isn't there with the issues of his father; she's not there with the issues of her dead husband or her son. They're there as just people being human, having a moment, and they naturally go where their hearts really want them to go."

What are your thoughts about the Oscars?

"I never really thought that in my lifetime my name would be synonymous with Oscar. I never believed I would get the opportunity to play a character that would be worthy, that would be seen in the way movies have to be seen to even be thought about for Oscar. If that should happen that would be huge for me. Women of color don't often get roles that allow us to be in these categories, you know." Although it's getting better. The casting is a little more color blind than it was 10 or certainly 20 years ago.

"It's slow but that's okay, because real evolution takes time. If it happened too quickly, I don't think I'd wanna hang my hat on it. I think it would disappear as fast as it came."

You got a lot of praise and honors for playing Dorothy Dandridge in that made-for-TV movie. The color line in movies essentially destroyed her.

"Part of it," Berry said, "is when she got nominated for that Oscar, after that Hollywood really didn't know what to do with her. She had nowhere to go and that eventually ate her alive. Hopefully, today--well, Angela Bassett got nominated a few years ago and it didn't eat her alive, so I know it's a new day. There are more opportunities for us. "

One more comment about beauty, I said. Somebody asked me, isn't Halle Berry too beautiful to play an all-night waitress. I told them, "If you want to see her not looking beautiful, check out a movie named "B.A.P.S." where she has gold teeth and a hairdo that looks like it has things living in it."

Berry laughed. "I hear about 'B.A.P.S.' all the time," she said. "Well, I'll tell you what. That came at a particular time in my life, right after the divorce. And it was either go to work in that movie, or hang myself with the shower curtain. So you know what? I'm glad I did it."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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