Major movie stars traditionally try to avoid films that require gratuitous nudity. But that’s precisely the reason why Halle Berry chose to headline the hacker-themed action movie Swordfish, which opened in theaters 20 years ago on June 8, 2001. Midway through the Joel Silver-produced blockbuster, which also starred John Travolta and Hugh Jackman, Berry’s mystery woman, Ginger Knowles, greets Jackman’s super-hacker, Stanley Jobson, by dropping the book she's reading to reveal that she’s topless.
It was the first nude scene of Berry’s career, and the actress was well aware it was going to be the only thing about the movie that anyone would be talking about. The scene became even more buzzworthy after Swordfish director Dominic Sena revealed that Berry was paid an extra $500,000 — “$250,000 per breast” he reportedly said — on top of her $2.5 million salary to bare all.
That’s a widely reported detail that Berry herself has always disputed. “If I were charging for them, it would be a lot more than $500,000,” she told The New York Times Magazine in 2001. Still, she’s never expressed regret about having Swordfish on her filmography. “It was such gratuitous nudity, and some people have a problem with that,” she later told CNN. “While I was making Swordfish, I knew it was gratuitous. I never made excuses for it.”
Reviews at the time weren’t kind to Swordfish, and many critics singling out Berry’s topless scene as an example of the film’s overblown excesses. “Despite the presence of Halle Berry’s breasts, Hugh Jackman’s towel [and] John Travolta’s soul-patch … the mind-numbing cyberspace thriller Swordfish still leaves us asking: ‘Is that all there is?’” sniffed San Francisco Chronicle reviewer, Bob Graham.
Seen again today, the movie is clearly caught between the end of one era of big-budget filmmaking and the dawn of another. Released two years after The Matrix — also produced by Silver — reinvented Hollywood action choreography, Swordfish liberally steals many of that movie’s tricks, including its signature “bullet time” effect. Meanwhile, both Berry and Jackman were fresh off the success of the inaugural X-Men movie, which planted a flag for comic book adaptations as Hollywood’s dominant blockbuster fodder.
At the same time, though, Skip Woods’s script is overtly modeled after the overblown action movies of the ’80s and ’90s — think such vintage Silver productions like Commando, Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. The negligible narrative casts Travolta as Gabriel Shear, the leader of a top-secret organization that either perpetuates or prevents terrorism depending on how you’re able to interpret his grandiose monologues.
After his usual hacker is captured by the FBI — led by Don Cheadle’s easily-frustrated agent — Gabriel asks his accomplice, Ginger, to recruit Stanley from his post-prison exile and assist in his latest scheme: recovering funds from the defunct DEA drug-money laundering program Operation Swordfish. But Ginger may not be who she appears. Midway through the movie, she reveals to Stanley that she’s an undercover DEA agent whose life would be on the line if her cover is blown.
Since gratuitous nudity was a staple of Silver’s ’80s action movies, it’s no surprise that he took point on incorporating it into Swordfish. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly in 2001, the producer said that he strongly encouraged Berry — who had a small role in The Last Boy Scout as an exotic dancer — to make this the film where she reinvented her screen image.
“I’ve known Halle for years, and I felt this was time for her to do this,” Silver remarked. “I think it’s cool for the character and good for the box office.” He wasn’t entirely wrong on the last point: Swordfish finished its theatrical run with a solid $150 million worldwide gross, although it was handily dwarfed by effects-heavy summer movies like The Mummy Returns, Jurassic Park III and Pearl Harbor.
Berry had her own reasons for agreeing to Silver’s offer — none of which involved an extra $500,000. Besides the box-office success of X-Men, the actress had also recently collected her first Emmy and Golden Globe statues for her star turn in the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, based on the life of the groundbreaking Black singer and actress. With those awards in hand, Berry felt emboldened to push herself to try things she specifically avoided as a younger actress in the business. “With the success of my Dorothy Dandridge project and the critical acclaim that brought me, I finally felt that I didn’t have to prove myself anymore,” she told EW.
In another interview with Cinema.com, Berry described how much she enjoyed playing the “sexy girl” role. “I’ve never really explored that part of myself on screen before. For so many years, I said, ‘No, no, no,’ and a lot of it was not being comfortable with myself, being afraid and wondering what people would think. Finally, after the last couple of years of my life, I sort of shed myself of all of those worries and I feel really, really good about it.” She also took the opportunity to set the record straight on Sena’s comment about her $500,000 bonus. “I would sell these babies for way more money.”
One might even argue that Swordfish is the reason why Berry won her first Oscar. Six months after the movie came and went from multiplexes, the actress returned to the big screen in Marc Forster’s acclaimed drama Monster’s Ball, playing the troubled wife of a Death Row inmate (Sean Combs) who becomes involved with the prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who participated in his execution. The role demanded that both actors to strip down for a raw sex scene that’s light years removed from Swordfish’s Maxim-level topless scene.
But Berry made it clear she couldn’t have made one film without the other. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to do the sex scene in Monster’s Ball if I hadn’t shown my breasts in Swordfish,” she told the New York Times Magazine. "We shot the sex scene on Day 19 of a 21-day shoot. I always say Billy Bob and I dated for three weeks and then we had sex. The sex scene scared me completely, but courage comes in strange ways. I look at it now and I think, ‘Who is that girl up there?’”
Released on December 26, 2001, Monster’s Ball became a big player in that year’s awards race, with Berry winning Best Actress honors from multiple critics groups, as well as the Screen Actors Guild. It all culminated in her historic Oscar Night victory on March 24, 2002, when she became the first — and still only — Black actress to win the Best Actress statue. “This moment is so much bigger than me,” she said in her tearful speech. “It’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Needless to say, Berry didn’t give Swordfish a shout out in her Oscar speech. But she has embraced Ginger’s “sexy girl” legacy in her popular Instagram feed, where she regularly posts bikini photos and other revealing snapshots. “I look at it as storytelling in a small medium,” she told Yahoo Entertainment in 2019 about her approach to Instagram. “[Instagram] used to be a place for photographers and artists to show their work, and now it’s become something all the way different. But I like to look at it from that perspective still: It’s about storytelling and photography and beauty.”
Swordfish is currently streaming on Netflix.
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