03.01.11

Halle Berry Gets Lost in Anistonland

These days, the actress is earning more attention for her personal drama than her on-screen roles. Allison Samuels examines whether the negative attention is an "Oscar curse"—or a blessing.

When a glamorous Halle Berry took the stage at Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony, viewers were reminded of that historic night when Berry took home the Oscar for Best Actress. In fact, a reminder was needed: Ever since her 2001 winning turn in Monster's Ball, Berry hasn't exactly wowed moviegoers with her choice of memorable roles. Do Gothika and Perfect Stranger ring a bell?  Not so much, right?

What has captivated audiences are the cinematic details of the twice-divorced 44 year old's private life. Her failed romance with Gabriel Aubrey, the Canadian father of her 2-year-old daughter Nahla, recently dissolved into a very nasty and very public child-custody battle, complete with ugly accusations from both sides (she accused him of calling her the "N" word; he's accused her of being verbally abusive to him and neglecting their daughter). At this point in her career, Berry would truly be hard pressed to land a role as interesting, complex, and unpredictable as her own real life.

Of course, it's not entirely Berry's fault that she seems to be following the same career path as Jennifer Aniston. It's hard to ignore the similarities between the two: Both are talented, beautiful, flawlessly stylish—and as unlucky in love as they as they seem to be with career moves.

In Berry's case, there's the added complication of the "Oscar curse"—a career black hole from which Best Actress winners like Charlize Theron fail to emerge. Moreover, as the first African-American woman to win Best Actress, Berry's had to navigate uncharted territory in a town not known for creating or producing multi-faceted, non-stereotypical roles for women of color.

"Hollywood had absolutely no idea what to do with Halle after Oscar night," says a well-known African-American filmmaker, who asked not to be identified. "Yes, it happens to white actresses who win, but it's really brutal for women of color because there isn't a road map. You get lost and you don't even know it."

“Halle is the most celebrated African-American actress in the world and the first one to win the Best Actress award,” says an image consultant. “Those are the only things she should be known for.”

Knowingly or unknowingly, Berry seems to have gotten lost in Anistonland. For years, Aniston has managed to stay popular and on the cover of major magazines (every three to four months like clockwork), with or without a film or project worthy of discussion. The rules in Anistonland are really simple: Just let the pain and drama of your personal life, a pain most anyone can relate to, tell your story.

"When I saw Halle on the cover of People a few weeks ago, I was taken aback," said African -American film historian, author, and New York University professor Donald Bogle. "When was the last time she was on the cover of that magazine? It's been years. It did occur to me right then that, yes, this is an ugly situation, but it's not the worst thing for Halle's career. It shows her in an interesting, human light."

It's a well-documented fact that most celebrities worth their salt have some tragic narrative running through their lives. And such tragedy can create an unbreakable bond with an adoring audience that only gets stronger with time. In Aniston's case, having her super-good-looking and famous husband leave her for another super-good-looking and famous actress instantly made Jennifer the girl to root for—and more importantly, the girl everyone wants to know more about.

Last fall, both Berry and Aniston graced the highly anticipated September covers of Vogue and Bazaar magazines, respectively. Aniston's cover drove Bazaar's sales up 22 percent, the highest in seven years. By contrast, sales of Berry's history-making cover (she was the first African-American woman to appear on the September issue since 1989) fell 5.5 percent. That was before Berry's latest news. People magazine will only say that the sales of Berry's recent cover were brisk.

The question now is, will Berry's new recent relationship woes make the two divas an even-draw in the land of public opinion and sympathy? "It's still too soon to tell in Halle's situation," says Fred Mwangaguhnga, editor of Mediatakeout.com, a popular African-American entertainment website. "We're really accustomed to her being something like how Tiger Woods used to be. Classy, no drama, no seedy details, and certainly not the kind of things that have come out recently. That's not the picture of Halle we've had over the years."

The details involving the demise of Aniston's marriage, Mwangaguhnga points out, were much more clear-cut, making the former Friends star's victim status immediate and without question. "Aniston hasn't presented herself as a victim as much as she just became one," says Mwangaguhnga. "What happened to her happened before our very eyes, with no one challenging the way it seemed to go down. That's not the case with Halle. It's very he said/she said, and that can go either way with people. Particularly the parts about race. People have a hard time hearing that."

Hollywood image and brand experts say they were surprised that the normally reserved and media-savvy Berry allowed her custody battle to escalate as far as it did, both in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion. "Halle is the most celebrated African-American actress in the world and the first one to win the Best Actress award," says Marvet Britto of The Britto Agency, an image consulting firm in New York. "Those are the only things she should be known for, and the only things people should be talking about when they talk about her. Not messy custody battles or an ugly war of words with her ex. That doesn't help her brand or her."

Friends close to Berry say the actress realized a little too late how ugly her court battle would become and the potential damage it could do—first and foremost to her daughter, but also to her image and career. "She figured many women face this same situation every day, so people would be understanding of that," said a good friend. "She didn't factor in all the details of her relationship coming out that would make both her and Gabriel look bad." Berry reportedly also worried that studios might shy away from her with so much personal drama, and that her recently negotiated $50 million deal with Revlon Cosmetics could suffer as well. So it's little wonder that an abrupt end to the custody battle was announced last week.

The former couple's truce should allow Berry to begin filming Cloud Atlas, alongside co-stars Tom Hanks, James McAvoy, and Ian McKellen this summer, as well as finalize a deal that would put her on Broadway opposite Samuel L. Jackson this fall.

It's imperative, industry experts say, for Berry to bring the focus back to her career. "A successful run on Broadway," says Bogle, author of Brown Sugar: Over 100 Years of America's Black Female Superstars, "could change the conversation about her."

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Allison Samuels is a senior writer at Newsweek. Her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, O, Essence and Vibe magazines. She's also the author of Christmas Soul , published by Disney/Jump At the Sun, and Off The Record , (Harper Collins/Amistad).