Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In Character: Maria Bello

Fearless. That’s Maria Bello. In the majority of her finest performances, Bello naturally commands her characters with fearless vigor. There’s no material too shocking, no character too repulsive – Bello is an actress undaunted by the dark sides of human nature. Not only does she embrace the dread, she utterly thrives on it. Which is precisely why she’s one of my favorite actresses working today.

Five Essential Roles
The Cooler (2003)
Natalie Belisario
Who better to play an actual Lady Luck than Maria Bello? William H. Macy’s Bernie Lootz is paid to cool people’s luck. Bernie is such an unlucky guy, he actually alters the fortunes of those around him. So when Vegas cocktail waitress Natalie takes an unexpected interest in Bernie, thereby reversing his misfortune, both are thrown for a whimsical loop. Perhaps the most uninhibited romantic character Bello has ever played, Natalie is a free spirit with a fearless heart, and I simply adore her.

Thank You for Smoking (2006)
Polly Bailey
One aspect of Bello’s craft that doesn’t get mentioned enough is how damn funny she can be. As alcohol lobbyist and self appointed Merchant of Death, Polly Bailey, most of Bello’s scenes in Thank You For Smoking take place at a small restaurant table. But that’s more than enough room for her to fully flex her comedic skills. Razor sharp wit, lacerating sarcasm and unexpected sympathy all play into Polly’s charm. Certainly not the most substantial role Bello has played, but an endlessly amusing one no doubt.

The Sisters (2006)
Marcia Prior Glass
Arthur Allan Seidelman’s The Sisters is a tough film to take. The movie, which is inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters, is a verbose examination of a handful of impossibly dreadful people. Every character in this film bitches and moans about everything, ceaselessly, articulately. The final result is a very taxing experience, but one benefited greatly by tremendous acting.

Bello has played her fair share of loathsome women, but Marcia must be the absolute worst. She picks fights for the sake of fighting, cheats on her husband openly, mocks, berates, and degrades all those around her for no reason other than Why Not. Again, The Sisters isn’t necessarily a good film, but you’ve never seen Bello play a character remotely like this one. Horrible and astounding at the exact same time.

Downloading Nancy (2008)
In scouting out Bello’s best work, I picked up on a trend rather quickly. Maria Bello does great work in grim movies. You may not fully enjoy the often dark material she is drawn toward, but it’s damn hard to not appreciate her efforts. I mention this because Downloading Nancy is one of the most gruelingly devastating films I’ve ever seen. The movie features depressive housewife, Nancy, who attempts to find someone who will torture her to death. And I don’t mean physical torture in one sitting. I mean physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually torture over the course of weeks until she dies.

Upon its release, Downloading Nancy was described by critics as morbid, sadomasochistic; an all around downer. Hard to disagree. But value the film or not, there’s no denying Bello’s fearlessness. Nancy is a woman so far removed – from herself, her husband, her life – that death appears to be the only answer. An extremely unsettling film, anchored by as courageous a performance as Bello has ever given.

Beautiful Boy (2010)
Kate Carroll
The entirety of the power, hopelessness and affliction of Beautiful Boy can be found in one extended argument. Long after unhappy married couple Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate Carroll have discovered that their only son has gone on a shooting rampage at his college, Bill and Kate finally have it out in a shitty motel room. They scream and shout about why their beautiful boy did this. Bill blames Kate’s tedious and constant criticizing of their son’s behavior, while Kate blames Bill’s frequent job-related absences. The brutal argument ends with Bill admitting that he wishes their son was never born, which forces Kate to leave the room.

This is a hell of a scene, one of the single finest sequences Bello and Sheen have ever been involved in. And it’s just one scene from a universally exhausting film.

The Best of the Best
A History of Violence (2005)
Edie Stall
I remain stunned by the lack of awards attention bestowed to David Cronenberg’s masterful A History of Violence. Yes, William Hurt deservedly nabbed an Oscar nomination (as did Josh Olson’s script), but the heart of this film rests on Viggo Mortensen and, to a greater extent, Maria Bello. In fact, I think Bello’s work as Edie Stall was the finest female performance of 2005. In the film’s first act, Bello perfectly plays Edie as a quintessential small town gal. Happy wife, proud mother, career-driven lawyer – Edie takes pleasure in the small things, and Bello sells it beautifully.

But after her husband is the victim (and ultimate hero) of a horrible crime, Edie’s suspicions start to mount, resulting in a conflicted performance fueled by love, hate, pride and fear. Everything Bello conveys in this film is done with audacity. Whether she’s telling a hardened thug to fuck himself, lying convincingly to the town Sherriff, exercising her carnal desire on a set of wooden stairs, or sitting aguishly at a dinner table, everything about Edie Stall simply works.

In a career made and remembered for playing fearless characters, Edie Stall is without a doubt the best, most fully realized of them all. Bello’s final scene in this movie expresses a type of remarkable torment that can very well define a career. And she does it without saying a word. Which is fine – Maria Bello has always been capable of letting her eyes do the talking.

Other Notable Roles
In World Trade Center
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1996-1997)
ER (1997-1998)
Permanent Midnight (1998)
Payback (1999)
Coyote Ugly (2000)
Duets (2000)
Auto Focus (2002)
Silver City (2004)
Secret Window (2004)
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
Flicka (2006)
World Trade Center (2006)
The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Towelhead (2007)
The Yellow Handkerchief (2008)
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)
The Company Men (2010)
Prime Suspect (2011-2012)
Touch (2012-2013)


  1. Maria Bello is someone I like as I think A History of Violence is her best feature. Yet, she's been in some very bad movies that makes it hard for me to watch as she is given some really bad material. Films like Grown Ups and... ugh... Towelhead as a mother who kicks her daughter out all because her boyfriend was shaving the girl's pubes. That is one of the worst films I had ever seen in my entire life.

    1. I do agree that she's been in some rather bad films. I'm not going to make excuses for them, but Bello is known to champion indie scripts that she comes across. So, if starring in something like Grown Ups helps her get Downloading Nancy off the ground, then by all means, you know?

      Either way, I'm glad you dig her in A History of Violence.

  2. I'm only really familiar with Bello from A History of Violence. Even with Viggo Mortensen stealing the whole film, she managed to hold her own.

    1. Definitely held her own in that flick. She really won the movie, in my opinion. I love her power.

  3. Yikes! I'm really behind on Bello's work. She is fantastic in A History of Violence, though. Love her performance, which was probably Oscar-snubbed due to category confusion. I consider her supporting, but I couldn't argue with considering her a lead.

    1. I have to admit, the main reason I've seen most of the films above is because Bello is in them. If she's in a movie that sounds somewhat good, I do whatever I can to seek it out.

      And yeah, supporting or lead, she should've been recognized for A History of Violence.

  4. I'm going to chime in with everyone else; while I know Bello's name and recognise her face, [i]A History of Violence[/i] is the one film that stands out for me. Her performance there is very powerful, and elevates what could be an overly grim picture into something more thoughtful.

    1. Hell yeah man, I absolutely agree. I'm glad so many people appreciate her work in that movie as much as I do.

  5. I first saw Maria Bello in ER, where you did a great job when the show still had most of its original cast (from what I remember). I can't think of a role where she hasn't been excellent, and The Cooler and A History of Violence are great examples. I definitely need to check the ones you mention that I haven't seen like Beautiful Boy and Downloading Nancy. Great job spotlighting a major talent!

    1. Thanks Dan! Both Beautiful Boy and Downloading Nancy are heavy films, but if you're a fan of Bello, you'll definitely appreciate her work in them.

      Man, remember how good ER was back in the day?

    2. I wonder if ER would hold up if I watched it again now. They used to show re-runs at midnight on Sundays on local TV, and they always sucked me in! They had quite a good run in the early seasons.

    3. Definitely a good question. I've found that the older ones hold up better. To me anyway. The days of The Clooney.

  6. Good list man! I love Bello as an actress and think she's one of the most underrated working today. It's a shame that she didn't get more recognition for her work in A History of Violence because her, as well as Viggo, really get into the heart and souls of those characters, as tortured and pained as they may be. A great movie altogether, but they are the ones who keep it running and gunning (pun sort of intended, I guess).

    1. Ha, thanks dude! I agree that Bello is one of the most underrated actresses in the game today. Her role in A History of Violence is simply unparalleled. She's a force of nature in that one.

  7. I agree with History of Violence, she was totally robbed of an Oscar nom for that. Hell, they should've given her one just for that sex scene on the stairs alone. That looked painful! I loved her in Beautiful Boy as well. She broke my heart.

    1. Painful indeed. I only wish she was offered more roles like that one. I would love for her to nab an Oscar nom sometime.

  8. Hmmm out of the films you mentioned I have only seen her in A History of Violence, which I was a big fan of.

    1. Good stuff. That's an incredible movie right there.

  9. Oh, she is awesome. I really need to rewatch History of Violence, I only saw it once and I loved it.

    1. So very awesome, one of my current faves. I love A History of Violence. Great film.

  10. Everybody's like I've only seen her in A History of Violence while I'm over here just knowing her from Thank You for Smoking. Maybe it's because Ethan Hawke is having a really good summer this year but I think you should do a post on him sometime soon.

    1. I have considered him, but I'm not sure if he's a real character actor, but really, who the hell knows?

      Either way, glad you're a fan of Bello's work in TYFS. I love her there.

  11. I have got to get around the seeing A History of Violence!