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Art Chenoweth

I found the results of the Academy Awards Berry satisfying. I was rooting for Halle Berry to win best actress Oscar from the beginning. Her performance in “Monster’s Ball” unveiled an amazing repertoire of acting ability she’d never displayed before. Possibly this stemmed from the types of roles she had been saddled with previously.

Berry’s performance ranged through a full palette of emotional hues: sullen despair, anguish, sorrow, hysteria, denial, rage, disbelief, depression, confused inebriation, lust, tenderness and finally resigned acceptance. I found her work electrifying. I tuned into the televised awards, something I seldom do, principally in hope I would witness her victory. The wise money had been on Sissy Spacek for “In the Bedroom,” one of the few nominated movies I didn’t see, so I can’t make a comparison. But I found it hard to believe anyone could top Berry’s work in this role. Billy Bob Thornton provided the perfect backboard for Berry to rebound from, so he deserves some of the credit.

Yes, I, like many, felt a tear creep into my eye after I saw her almost shocked reaction when she heard her name announced. Her emotion rang real. That alone endeared her to me, as compared with the boring and predictable reactions of most of the winners, with their feigned enthusiasm.

Berry drew criticism for her acceptance speech but the woman obviously dealt with intense feelings. Really now, her speech was timed for only three minutes, surely not excessive in view of the significance of the moment, the first ever black woman ever to win the best actress Oscar. The fact that in her excitement she mentioned her lawyer twice drew criticism in morning-after critiques. That seemed to me a niggling comment. Even as she stepped away from the lectern, her obvious excitement and disbelief radiated itself to viewers in a singularly genuine way, a genuine emotion too often lacking in these awards programs.

As for the male actor, I found satisfaction there, too. From the beginning, Entertainment Weekly magazine saw this as a two-man race between Denzel Washington for “Training Day” and Russell Crowe for “A Beautiful Mind.” I didn’t see “Training Day” but Washington has produced a body of distinguished work and has rated for a long time as one of the industry’s outstanding actors. His victory in the voting may have reflected, to some degree, the Academy membership’s distaste for the posturing and antics of Crowe.

Unfortunately, after Berry and Washington collected their awards, the media began speculating as to the “significance” of the victory of two black actors. For some reason, there has to become a “search for meaning.” The Oregonian dramatized this phony issue in its Pie Fight feature. Readers were asked to select from the following choices: “After Denzel Washington’s and Halle Berry’s Oscar triumphs, has a door to diversity in movies really been blasted open, or will Hollywood revert to business as usual?” The obvious answer: Hollywood will always do business as usual. Whether black actors will now win more awards will depend on the roles they get. Until recently, they haven’t gotten the roles that win the top awards. If Hollywood sees potential box-office in giving them these more important roles, or if some producer is burning to present a film with those roles, they’ll get them. If not, they won’t. We can’t forget that “Monster’s Ball” was considered a “little” film, not a blockbuster. And “Training Day” certainly didn’t compare with “Lord” or “Moulin” for box-office. So there is hope.

As we might have expected, the black film director, Spike Lee, chimed in with a cynical response concerning blacks as award winners. He hinted that Hollywood was merely patting itself on the back to say “Oh, that should satisfy them (black people), that should keep them quiet for awhile.”

I don’t believe the victories of Berry and Washington amounted to the tokenism that Lee suggested. Reuben Cannon, who in 1970 became the first black casting director for a large movie studio, sounded a realistic note. He said you have to be mindful that “the only way Hollywood will change is if we permanently change the way business is done in Hollywood.” Not a good sign.

I did appreciate the fact that Berry did not use the term “African American” in her acceptance speech. Rather she chose to honor “every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because the door tonight has been opened.” I find the term “woman of color” imperfect but distinctly preferable to the fad euphemism, African American. Berry’s choice of words echoed previous statements by the show’s emcee, Whoopi Goldberg, who has stated publicly she does not want to be called African American.

The outcome of the Oscars leaves me with the confidence of a prediction. This represented no trend nor was it tokenism. It did make a significant statement. If black actors, Asian actors and Hispanic actors can get standout parts, they will win. It must have taken some courage to produce “Monster’s Ball.” Let us hope a similar courage will spread through the entire industry. But with the bottom line accountants in charge, it’s too early to count on it.