Superlative (Belle of the Ball) or, The Winner Takes it All Off

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Superlative (Belle of the Ball) or, The Winner Takes it All Off

by Lauren Neal

Video at Vimeo

What makes someone the "Best Actress," or the "Best" anything?

"This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."- Halle Berry, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress; March 24, 2002

Writing in the early 1990s, Karen Alexander hypothesizes the emergence, implications, and (re)presentations of black female 'stars' yet to come. She notes that, over time, "[her] desire for an image to emulate ha[d] been replaced by the need simply to know why such images were not readily available to [her] when [she] needed them, to understand how they are constructed, and why they are sometimes not constructed" (51). Her relatively cynical musings could not have foreseen the historic Academy Award ceremony on the evening of March 24, 2002, which harbored the first Best Actress win by a black entertainer, as well as one of the only Best Actor wins by a black entertainer (Halle Berry for her performance in Monster's Ball, and Denzel Washington for his performance in Training Day, respectively). Anecdotally, after witnessing the event in the company of my family and our television set, my father, aware of my interest in pursuing the study of acting, spoke the following words: "Well, Lauren, you saw some history here tonight. People paving the way for you." That moment was the only of its kind in the first thirteen years of my life: the first time I realized that images of black and other nonwhite women have been historically stereotyped in regard to their race and sexuality; more often than not the cinema and media representations have excluded and/or erased their images entirely. That moment became the impetus for my own budding addendums to Alexander's questions:

  • 1. What accounts for the absence (or relative invisibility) of media (particularly: star) images of black women in past/contemporary society?
  • 2. How are the few images of black female stars constructed and manufactured for public consumption?
  • 3. What are the specific issues (if any) that arise for black women who exist, or attempt to forge successful careers, within the entertainment industry / mechanisms of stardom / machinery of Hollywood, etc., especially in regard to the intersectionality of racial, sexual, and general tensions at work in their star images?

Halle Berry's use of her own star vehicle to call attention to Dandridge's career (both in the acceptance speech quoted above and in her portrayal of Dandridge in an HBO original film), at the same time that Berry's own career seems homage and/or reiteration to the former, presents another intriguing issue. Berry, in winning the Academy Award for Best Actress, the same award Dandridge failed to win 47 years earlier, consummates a relationship between black actresses and Hollywood: Berry won the award offered, and subsequently denied, (only) six other actresses in history. Why have there been so few critically acclaimed and/or publicly acknowledged black actresses to move through the star system? Furthermore, with so few examples of black actresses who reached 'star' status, must black actresses subscribe to an alternative definition of and/or and alternative set of criterion for stardom? Berry is positioned in films as an object of sexual desire, yet her race intersects and interacts with the question of her sexuality in undeniable ways.

Historically, and arguably at present to some extent, black bodies in America have only been profitable insofar as their labor was free; it is no wonder it was, and remains, a difficult challenge for an industry as economically driven as Hollywood to invest in and produce African-American celebrities; black women in particular, who had to navigate their roles as both racialized and sexualized persons.

In particular, light-skinned, slight-featured black actresses like Lena Horne and Dandridge present a conundrum even within the intricate polysemy of film texts - their roles had to be simplified and reduced to stereotypes in order to accommodate for this. Berry's racial ambiguity marks her unfit for true inclusion in white or black discourses - there is an historical disavowal of those impure sexual acts which created mixed-race persons during the American era of slavery; her image seems to be a continued disavowal of any sort of history.

The degradation of the video was performed by filtering it through a number of different file-format converters (from the original DVD version of "Monster's Ball") to exemplify Berry's physical degradation to -- perhaps -- just that of another nameless, faceless Black actress. The backing track is Meryl Streep's version of "The Winner Takes it All," from her Golden Globe-winning performance in Mamma Mia. The irony means to bring to attention the difference in what is deemed "Best" depending on the actor herself, as well as highlight notions of vocal and sexual performance, in addition to "acting."

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