Pop Culture

What happened?

There’s something so disappointing about seeing a talented actor waste her talents on mediocre projects. A similar feeling struck me a couple years back when, after blazing through “The Usual Suspects,” “L.A. Confidential,” and “American Beauty,” Kevin Spacey suddenly turned his talents to “Pay it Forward” and “K-Pax.” What happened? Now, here we are again. Halle Berry is more talented than she displays in any of the projects she’s done since her Oscar-winning turn in “Monster’s Ball.” She’s currently starring in “Catwoman,” a film that’s gotten some of the worst word of mouth of any movie being released this summer. And again, I find myself asking the question: What happened?

Post-Oscar curse
Perhaps the very act of winning an Oscar can be too overwhelming. After all, what ever happened to Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino or even Gwyneth Paltrow? Has Julia Roberts done anything remotely interesting since her Oscar win for “Erin Brockovich”? Maybe once these actors achieve what they’ve set out to accomplish, something happens to their motivation. Perhaps they decide that now that they’ve established themselves as real actors, it's okay to take on some lighter roles, to have some fun, and in the process, stop challenging themselves.

Or maybe it’s something more mysterious, the kind of curse an author faces when she has to write that second novel and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Even Nicole Kidman, an actress who seems to be making the right choices, is having a run of bad luck. In this past year, she’s made “Dogville,” “The Human Stain” and “The Stepford Wives.” All respectable choices, and yet, they haven’t lived up to her Oscar-winning work. What of the pressure that comes with having to be the great actor the public believes you to be? And what if they suddenly stop believing it?

The Jolie connection

Giulio Marcocchi / Getty Images North America
HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 16: Actress Angelina Jolie arrives at the world premiere of WB's "Taking Lives" at Grauman's Chinese Theater, March 16, 2004 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Angelina Jolie

There’s another actor who comes to mind when I think of Halle Berry: Angelina Jolie. Jolie is another Oscar winner who seems lost in her post-Oscar acting career. Like Berry, she’s turned to playing comic book (or in Jolie’s case, computer game) characters. And like Berry, she hasn’t made one interesting film since her award-winning turn in “Girl Interrupted.” The two also share something else in common: their best work was not in the films for which they won their Oscars, but rather in HBO movies about real people.

In Jolie’s case, the film was “Gia,” a movie based on the life of model Gia Carangi. In Berry’s case, the film was “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.” In these two films, Berry and Jolie got to show the breadth of their talents. Unlike in her role in “Monster’s Ball,” Berry got to be beautiful and act at the same time. That’s one of the odd things about today’s films, a woman can be beautiful in a film or she can have a role that lets her use her talents, but she’s rarely given the opportunity to do both. The HBO film gave Berry freedom to show some range. Though Dandridge is at times abused and misused by those around her, Berry always plays her with strength. Yet the strength she shows doesn’t cut her off from the people around her. The chemistry Berry has with Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Otto Preminger is palpable. Berry makes this unlikely coupling seem real, and her performance is a triumph.

‘Whores or mammies’
Watching the character of Dorothy Dandridge struggle to find good roles, it’s easy to imagine how much Berry must have related to her plight. The question of whether there are good roles for women, let alone good roles for African American women, is one that’s asked on a regular basis. Beyond Berry, who are the top African American actresses in Hollywood? Perhaps, Queen Latifah. Some might suggest Angela Bassett — although if you do, I challenge you to try to remember one film she’s done since “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” Gabrielle Union, Vivaca A. Fox, Kerry Washington, Jada Pinkett Smith? How about Whoopi Goldberg or Beyoncé?      

Berry got her start in movies in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” playing the crack-addicted girlfriend of Samuel L. Jackson. And she is marvelous in the role — completely unrecognizable and fully committed to the part. Watching it, you never remember that she’d co-starred on TV’s “Living Dolls” or been a model. Yet I’m reminded of a line from “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” about how black actresses are relegated to playing “mammies or whores.” Perhaps Berry’s recent overly commercial choices just show her need to escape that stereotype. Though her work in “Monster’s Ball” was indeed Oscarworthy, there was something sad about watching her play such a victim. Catwoman, Storm and Jinx seem like very one-dimensional roles, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all powerful women.

Secret power
Are there roles for powerful women in Hollywood films? Again, I think of Angelina Jolie taking on Lara Croft — a role that seems to be a complete waste of her talents. Yet what is Jolie or Berry going to play: the girlfriend role, the wife, the mother? Both actresses share a bold radiance that seems as though it would be an asset to one’s career —yet, in some ways, doesn’t a slightly softer actress like Renee Zelweger or Cameron Diaz get more opportunities?

Looking at the careers of Berry and Jolie, you would think that to be a powerful woman in a Hollywood movie, you basically have to turn yourself into a cartoon. And it makes me worry for the most recent best-actress Oscar winner, Charlize Theron, who again seems a little too powerful, a little too radiant to be contained by the usual roles Hollywood offers women. Will she end up playing a superhero as well?

Of course, the one thing going against Berry that isn’t quite an issue for Jolie, yet, is time. Though Berry doesn’t look even close to her 38 years, the reality is that as she gets older, unless she can turn herself into a character actress, the parts she’s offered will begin to decrease. Even Meryl Steep doesn’t seem to make as many films as she used to — not to mention Michelle Pfeiffer and, oh yeah, Angela Bassett.

Perhaps it’s wrong to criticize Berry for taking on the role of a sexy vixen like Catwoman at 38 years old. Maybe, we should just be glad it’s being offered to her.

Next up for Berry
The good news is Berry isn’t being pushed to the side just yet. She has seven projects in the works for the next few years. They range from a television movie of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” to a remake of Pam Grier’s “Foxy Brown” to a comedy called “Nappily Ever After” to another “X-Men” sequel. Surely, one of those roles should offer Berry another chance to show her talent. In the meantime, rent, “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” or “Bullworth” or “Monster’s Ball,” because despite the recent choices she’s made, one thing’s certain: Halle Berry can act.

Paige Newman is the Movies Editor for MSNBC.com