We all remember the speech, at least those of us who saw it — and many who didn’t, thanks to the lampooning it received. Halle Berry breaking down in tears after receiving the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball. If nothing else, it was an authentic moment; nobody thanks their lawyer twice unless they’re swept up in emotion. But it’s one of those wins that has always generated a lot of chatter. Marc Forster’s film was almost completely overlooked otherwise when it came to awards; a screenwriting nomination at the Oscars, and a few other acting nominations for Berry were the extent of it. And while successful at the box office, it wasn’t a huge hit — it recouped less money than The Hours, which today is probably only remembered by people who keep track of Best Picture nominees. All of this led people to wonder — at least, those who didn’t resolve their wonder by watching the thing — how much Berry’s performance stands out in the film if it’s apparently the sole notable thing about it.
Over the years, it’s only acquired more chatter, and that is due to Berry’s other film performances. It didn’t take long for the cachet of “Academy Award winner Halle Berry” to fade. Swordfish came out roughly concurrently, and bombed. Right after her Oscar win, she went on to become a Bond girl in Die Another Day, with talks of a Berry-centered spin-off film that lasted up until audiences saw the movie. She demanded larger pay and larger parts in the X-Men franchise, with fans generally in agreement that she was far from the best part of the films. And then there are a litany of bombs, including Gothika, Catwoman, Movie 43, and The Call. The brightest spot in her post-Monster’s Ball resume is Cloud Atlas, a film with a reception that was somewhat divided. Although Berry may not have been the worst problem in all of these films, or even a problem at all in some, it all has led to discussion over whether her performance in Monster’s Ball was a fluke or even if it were overrated to begin with.
Monster’s Ball wasn’t a film I had ever really intended to watch, but when it came across my path, I remembered various discussions about Berry and decided to satisfy my curiosity.
The story in Monster’s Ball is deceptively simple. A man on death row, guilty but remorseful, is executed. Soon after, the warden who carried out the execution, Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) and the inmate’s widow Leticia (Halle Berry) each suffer family tragedies that while not entirely unrelated to the execution, are separate from it and from each other. Though neither knows of their connection at first, they find themselves drawn to each other by circumstance and eventually start to fall for each other.
They have their differences and similarities in equal measure. Both try to put a brave face on things, but while Hank seems to be stoically numb, Leticia is clearly closer to cracking from the strain. Both feel that they were failures as parents, and both have some justification for this feeling — Hank much more so than Leticia. They’re both clearly in a state of emotional freefall following their tragedies, and the film wisely doesn’t depict their relationship as a cure-all for their problems. Although it does help Hank to start rebuild his life, particularly leading him to renounce the racism he inherits from his father (Peter Boyle in a solid irascible performance), he also seems a bit obsessive. While Leticia is physically aggressive (the film gets a bit raunchy in places), Hank is more emotionally presumptuous, buying a gas station and naming it after her.
Thornton gives a solid performance, though with Hank’s stoicism it’s a very subdued role. Boyle is also great in his role, as it would be very easy to hate the hateful old man, yet he shows a pitiable aspect to him at times. Heath Ledger has a small role, but it’s one that has a powerful emotional delivery in it.
But the film is primarily Berry’s, even if Thornton is the one with the most screen time. Berry proves that she really can act, when given the right script and a character she can get into. And she gets into Leticia Musgrove. Her every emotion is writ large upon her face; never over-the-top, but always clear even when she’s trying to hide them. Her grief, anger, and anxiety are delivered in nuanced expressions as often as in outbursts. There’s a great scene where Berry never says a word but it’s clear that Leticia is in a state of pure shellshock. And when Berry does speak in other scenes, it’s an exceptional performance. She isn’t merely reciting the lines, but truly getting into character, and not just emotionally. Her mannerisms and accent are completely changed into a performance that is appropriate to the character.
It’s a great performance, and it is Oscar-worthy. Now here’s hoping that Berry decides to start proving it wasn’t a fluke.