Under the Circuit: Maria Bello

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The Cooler
Born: April 18, 1967
Place: Norristown, Pennsylvania
Major Awards and Citations:
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series of 1998 (“ER”)
Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture of 2003 (The Cooler)
Central Ohio Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Performance of 2005 (A History of Violence)
Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress of 2005 (A History of Violence)
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress of 2005 (A History of Violence)
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress of 2005 (A History of Violence)
Online Film Critics Society Award for Best Supporting Actress of 2005 (A History of Violence)
Village Voice Film Poll – Best Supporting Performance of 2005 (A History of Violence)
Oscar Snubs: A History of Violence

            Beautiful Boy has been received warmly by most critics, and even the negative reviews have praised the raw, heartrending performances from its leads Michael Sheen and Maria Bello as the grieving parents of a school shooter.  Though it has so far not made waves at the box office and the film’s Oscar chances are currently slim, it’s worth noting that both of its stars were considered in the past to be major threats for nominations.  Though there are many fans of Sheen’s portrayal of the then-popular Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen, I decided instead to reminisce on the, in my opinion, more egregious snub of Bello for her 2005 performance in the provocative thriller A History of Violence.

Just looking at the vast majority of her awards at the top there shows that I am not alone in calling it an egregious snub.  David Cronenberg’s cerebral deconstruction of violence, identity and Western notions of absolution centers on the reawakening of peaceful everyman Tom Stall to psychotic killer Joey Cusack, played in one of his best performances by Viggo Mortensen.  There is an almost-too skillful way in which Cronenberg reveals his implications; giving the audience just enough to consider every option before making us reconcile the dual identities of Tom/Joey.  At the end, as he’s sitting across from his now-aware family, the audience confronts the true reality of forgiveness.  How could he and his family just go back to their small town life after knowing what he has done?  Is it really that easy to wash blood from one’s hands and move on?  How much are we truly defined by past sins that we strive to forget?
A History of Violence
Of course, these questions would be meaningless without a character to bear them, and this is where Bello’s Edie Stall comes in.  In most Cronenberg films, the woman is usually witness to the main character’s unsettling transformations, both horrified yet somewhat intrigued by what they discover (see also: The Fly, The Dead Zone).  Yet Edie also goes through a dramatic change of her own, and it’s arguably far more disturbing.  It’s one thing to go back to a previous life (assuming Tom ever truly left it behind), what does it mean when an otherwise normal human being is confronted with the ugly side of someone they love and not only accept it,  but is turned on by the revelation?  For one brief, combative sex scene, starting off as outright rape until Tom comes back, reeling in disgust, and then is both physically and mentally pulled back into becoming Joey again for a new, darker Edie’s sexual appetite.  But that infamous sequence is certainly not her only accomplishment for the character.  Indeed, it is compelling to watch an assertive actress like her wade through each development even when Edie is not exploring her dark side.  She injects a quiet, believable confidence in her character, which makes her forceful – but rarely outright aggressive – both as a parent and mother, and her revelation (“Tell me the truth…”) of her life being torn asunder makes for a performance deserving of at least an Oscar nomination.

The only possible explanation I have for her being ignored by the Academy was that the film as a whole just wasn’t embraced as it should have been.  Sure, William Hurt got nominated for his interesting but ultimately unconvincing portrayal of the psychotic mob boss Ritchie Cusack (one of the film’s only real flaws), but that kind of media-hyped “comeback” showboating from a legendary actor did not rely on his Academy supporters to actually watch the film.  At the end of the day, A History of Violence was just too unnerving for their tastes, and Bello got the shaft as a result.

I’ve been focusing on A History of Violence as if it’s the only notable performance she’s ever given, and while it is the highlight of her career, she has certainly made positive impressions before.  While I don’t really agree with them, more than a few film fanatics believe she was also snubbed for her performance as the cocktail waitress who falls for William H. Macy in The Cooler…I’ll leave it to actual fans of the film to go further into her performance there.ER

Actually, it’s hard for me to go beyond her work in Cronenberg’s opus because while she is undoubtedly an excellent actress, Hollywood seems unable or unwilling to really capitalize on her assured, voluptuous screen presence.  I mean, really, is there a whole lot I can write about her in regards to Coyote Ugly, Thank You For Smoking, Payback, or The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor?  Yes, she did make her name on television as Dr. Anna Del Amico in ER, but I never really cottoned to that show and certainly didn’t become invested in ER during the relatively brief period she was on it (from 1997-98, a blip in that show’s fifteen-year run).  That’s why I’m relieved to see her tackle a major part in an emotional drama like Beautiful Boy; perhaps that will make studio execs more willing to take advantage of her strengths and give her more interesting parts.

Or perhaps not.  Last fall, she made the unfortunate mistake of appearing in “Law & Order: SVU,” the TV drama where great actors go to die.  Her upcoming films are all in goofy-looking thrillers where she’s forced to act alongside men with not one ounce of the talent that she possesses (Stephen Dorff, Taylor Lautner…you get the picture).  But there is a bright side – she is also slated to star in an upcoming crime drama series called “Prime Suspect.” Executive produced and directed by Peter Berg, the man behind the outstanding TV series “Friday Night Lights,” the show apparently centers on a tough female detective working in a male-dominated precinct.  I have no idea how the show itself will turn out, but if it is a success, then I sincerely hope that she finds the major awards recognition as a TV star that she was denied as a film actress.

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