By People Staff
Updated April 01, 2004 01:50 PM

There are kisses and then there are kisses – rock-your-world, paperback-romance kisses that set hearts aflutter and make knees buckle under. Such was the case when surprise Best Actor winner Adrien Brody leapt onstage at this year’s Oscars and embraced presenter Halle Berry for what seemed like forever. “He’s a wet kisser,” says Berry. “I didn’t kiss back at all.” Of course, “I didn’t stop him either!” Later that night, Brody explained his impulsive move. “If you ever have an excuse to do something like that, that was it,” he declared. “I took my shot.”

Who can blame him? One year after her historic Best Actress win for her gritty portrayal of a struggling waitress in Monster’s Ball, the star with the silk-pie skin and to-die-for body says she has “evolved into this woman that feels very confident in who she is.” It shows. Berry, 36, a former catalog model and Miss USA first runner-up (Note to judges: Oops!), seems to get more gorgeous with every passing year. Slipping into a tight bodysuit as mutant weather girl Storm in X2: X-Men United, the new sequel to the ’00 megahit, she even manages to make a white wig look sexy. (“It’s bad enough I’ve got to wear white hair with my dark skin,” she says. “But the style is more layered this time. I welcomed the softening change.”)

Now is definitely prime time for Halle. “Boy, does she know how to work with what she has, and she’s got a lot,” says producer Joel Silver, who has worked with her on four films. Adds Pierce Brosnan, her leading man in last year’s Bond offering, Die Another Day: “She’s got the most gorgeous face that you just want to dive into, the most gorgeous body that you just want to embrace.” And John Travolta, Berry’s costar in the ’01 thriller Swordfish, says, “Her talent is equal to her beauty. Halle is completely real, and you immediately want to support her survival. She’s strong but very vulnerable at the same time.”

Berry capitalizes on those contradictions to glide between just-for-fun roles and art-house Oscar bait. Now in Montreal filming the horror flick Gothika with Robert Downey Jr., “she has cracked the ability to be taken seriously and not just as another pretty girl,” says Lee Tamahori, who directed her in Die Another Day. “She’s now in that exalted level of American female actors who can command anything she wants.”

More often than not, what she wants is free time to spend with her husband, R&B singer Eric Ben t, 36, and his 11-year-old daughter, India, whom she adopted after marrying Ben t in ’01. (India’s biological mother, Tami Stauff, died in a ’93 car accident.) “India has been a great addition to my life, because I no longer just focus on me,” Berry says. “Before she came into my life, I was about work, work, work. Now I get to really focus on what’s important. And we get to play.”

Not that married life has been all fun and games. During the past year, Berry and Ben t have had to repeatedly confront talk of trouble. Although Ben t previously has admitted to “mistakes,” Berry says the union is solid: “He has brought me a lot of joy.” Still, she acknowledges, “all marriages are challenging. We’re grateful that we’re dealing with some heavy issues early, and hopefully we’ll get them behind us and move on.” Adds Ben t, who got to know Berry after one of his concerts in 1997 and wed her in a beachside ceremony in Santa Barbara, Calif., before just two friends: “I’m a much better person because of her love.”

Berry also praises the benefits of counseling. “I’ve been in therapy my whole life,” she says. “Eric could well have said, ‘You know what? This is too much work.’ But I have a partner who is willing to do the hard work. Going to therapy and working out our problems is a must.” Another marital imperative: a regular “date night.” “It can be at a restaurant, it can be in the bathtub, it can be by the pool, in the Jacuzzi,” Berry says. “Usually there’s a bottle of wine involved. It’s just about connecting.”

Connecting has been an ongoing theme in Berry’s relationships, going back to her difficult childhood in and around Cleveland. The younger daughter of Judith, 63, a retired nurse who is white, and Jerome, an African-American hospital attendant who died in January, Berry and her sister Heidi were called “zebra” and “Oreo” by neighborhood kids. But the actress credits her mom – who raised the girls solo after Jerome left the family when Halle was 4 – with instilling an inner strength. “She never wanted me to focus on my physical self,” recalls Berry, who remains very close to her mother. “My mom always said, ‘Beauty is what you do.’ ”

One thing she wasn’t able to do was reconcile with her father – who she says abused her mother – before his death. (He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease.) Long estranged from him, she spent years blaming her father’s abuse and absence for her own problems with men. But his passing, she says, has brought her unexpected comfort. “I feel like now I can really talk to him in a strange kind of way,” she says. “I think I’m a lot closer to him now than I ever was when he was alive.”

This is an excerpt from our special cover package. For the complete story, and more of the 50 Most Beautiful, please pick up the May 12, 2003, issue of PEOPLE.

– JULIE JORDAN in Montreal and DAVID J. SEARLS in Bedford, Ohio