When Halle Berry was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category in 2001, it wasn’t unexpected or even shocking. But when she won the award that year for her raw performance in Monster’s Ball, the win was wholly unexpected as she became the first black woman to win the award in their 74-year history. Her award-winning performance can now be seen for free on IMDB TV.
Monster’s Ball tells the highly controversial story of a white, racist prison guard Hank Grotowski (played by Billy Bob Thornton) who begins an unlikely affair with the African American wife, Leticia Musgrove (Berry), of a man he just executed. When the movie begins we find Hank and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) as correctional officers in a Georgia prison. Sonny is very much the opposite of Hank. He has two friends, Willie and Daryl, who are black and his demeanor is that of a gentle young man.
Things come to an immediate head for the father and son when the night before an execution, Hank tells Sonny they are going to a “Monster’s Ball” which is a get-together by the officers who will be performing the execution. Sonny attends, but it ultimately proves to be too much for him. During the “last walk”, Sonny gets sick and passes out. Hank hauls him off to the bathroom, slapping him around and telling his son he is too soft.
The next morning, Hank attacks his son, ordering him to leave the house. Sonny pulls a gun on his father, holding him at gunpoint. When things finally settle between the two, Sonny asks Hank if he hates him. Hank finally admits he does and always has. Sadly, Sonny tells his father, “Well, I always loved you,” then turns the gun and kills himself with a gunshot to the chest.
Halle Berry’s Leticia lives a just as brutal life of her own. She is a single mom, since her husband was just executed. She has a ton of financial difficulties, an eviction notice, and a car that just broke down. When Leticia finally meets Hank, it is centered around more tragedy. Her son Tyrell was hit by a car and it is Hank who drives by, then finally decides to turn around and help them. Unfortunately, Tyrell is pronounced dead at the hospital.
Life’s tragedies begin to bond Hank and Leticia. But Hank finally realizes he participated in Leticia’s husband’s execution, though he doesn’t tell her. This leads to the movie’s most controversial scene. While race is at the center of the entire movie, what many talk about when referring to the movie is the hot and steamy sex scene between the two leads. In fact, the scene was so hot the first edit got the movie the infamous NC-17 rating, so a minute had to be edited out so the movie could get an R-rating.
When Halle Berry reflected back on shooting that scene, she was terrified. She does think, though, that her brief topless appearance opposite Hugh Jackman in Swordfish helped her get over the nerves to perform the sex scene in Monster’s Ball.
She said via the New York Post, “If I hadn’t done that and been over it, when I got to the love scene in the Monster’s Ball script, I would have stopped reading and said, ‘Not for me.’” But the script, written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, was a riveting read for the actress. “I felt I could totally relate to this woman character – she was strong, yet very vulnerable; she was angry, but very fragile; she went on a journey and, at the end, through her perseverance and strength, she bettered her life.” Halle Berry wanted the part and she wanted it badly. “At that moment, I called up my manager and said, ‘Let the fight begin! I want this.’” It was a move that paid off.
But that scene. Director Marc Forster was blown away by the two as he was filming it. “I felt like I was watching two people who had no idea they were being watched,” he said to the New York Post. As for Halle Berry, she surprised even herself as to how far she would take her character at that moment. “There was no real direction in the screenplay, it just had to be animalistic, and they had to be having sex not just for the act itself but for all the other reasons that they were coming together,” she explained to The Guardian.
While Thornton, who at the time was married to Angelina Jolie, insisted that Jolie wasn’t jealous of the scene, Halle Berry’s significant other (she was married to singer Eric Benet at the time) had a much different reaction. “I had a screening just for him to let him deal with it,” Berry said to the Post. “At the end of the day, he was able to say, ‘I’m really proud of you for the risk you took.’ But then he said, ‘But I don’t like seeing you with another man like that!’” Which is ironic as the singer underwent treatment for sex addiction the following year. The couple divorced a few years later.
For those of you wondering what IMDB TV is, it’s another streaming service provided by the Internet Movie Database for free. Their selection is not as prolific as Netflix but for a free site, they do offer some nice selections.
Monster’s Ball, controversy and all, is a tight story. It is also heartbreaking and at times hard to watch, though buoyed by the two strong performances from Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. Forster made the movie on a scant $4 million budget which, according to Berry, she brought home $5,000 for playing Leticia. But the movie was a hit with critics and audiences alike, as it earned $45 million at the box office.
Head on over to IMDB TV and give it a shot.