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The Oscars | FAMOUS FIRSTS

They've Made History

Denzel Washington's and Halle Berry's wins are an unprecedented Oscar moment for black actors.

March 25, 2002|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was so emotional she was nearly speechless, while he was cool and elegant as usual. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington reacted in different ways to their wins as best actress and actor. But the historical significance of the moment was not lost on the stars or the audience on a night made even more poignant by Sidney Poitier's honor from the board of governors for a career spanning half a century.

"This moment is so much bigger than me," Berry said. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.... This is for every faceless woman who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 27, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor's age--A story in Monday's Calendar about the significance of Oscars for Halle Berry and Denzel Washington misstated Washington's age as 48. He is 47.

"I was just very calm all day today," Washington said. "I just felt relaxed. I had been to the dance a few times and knew it was out of my hands. I'm already a part of history in many ways. I am just glad to know [Sidney Poitier]. I just feel closer to him now."

Since the nominations of Berry, Will Smith and Washington--three African Americans competing for the top prizes this year--the race became the center of media attention and discussions among activists and minorities.

Two days before the Oscars, an impromptu gala honoring "African Achievement in Hollywood" was held at a Westwood restaurant. On Saturday, activists held a round-table discussion on what the Oscar nominations meant for minorities in Hollywood.

Washington, who has been nominated five times, won his first Oscar 12 years ago for best supporting actor in "Glory." But he was reclusive during the campaigning season this year, never addressing the issue of race head on. The 48-year-old actor was stung by the brouhaha over 1999's "The Hurricane," a film criticized by many for its factual inaccuracies.

In any case, being the leading African American box-office star has placed a heavy burden on Washington, some say. "He should just be considered a fine actor," said screenwriter Cheryl Edwards ("Save the Last Dance"). "Instead, here we are ... looking at him as the great black hope."

Future hopes are also pinned on Berry. She first caught the industry's eye for her role as a homeless crack addict in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" (1991). She also played a recovering addict fighting for custody of her son in "Losing Isaiah."

But perhaps the turning point in her career came with her Golden Globe win in 2000 for the HBO biopic "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," in which she played the 1950s actress who fought for a career in then-segregated Hollywood. Dandridge, who committed suicide, was the first black woman to be nominated for best actress for 1954's "Carmen Jones."

But often the expectation that movie parts will come flooding in after an Oscar win is shattered by reality, said "Monster's Ball" producer Lee Daniels. "I sometimes wonder if the Oscar is the kiss of death actually," he said. "With Halle we are looking at a different situation because she's black and it's a first--we are treading new water here."

Hollywood is a difficult industry for nonwhites. From 1990 through 2000, only 21 nonwhites (including Asians, Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos), or about 9% of the Oscar nominees, were included in the top five categories: leading actor, leading actress, supporting actor, supporting actress and director. Only two--Whoopi Goldberg (supporting actress in "Ghost") and Cuba Gooding Jr. (supporting actor in "Jerry Maguire")--won.

Only time will tell if these awards result in concrete changes for the industry as a whole, said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television. "We are way premature in potentially celebrating these victories as some watershed event in Hollywood," he said.

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