In the French film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about a man who is incapacitated and has the use of only one eye, there are at least three lovely women, all probably in their mid-to late thirties, fussing around our central character as well as a younger woman who was his lover whom we see in flashback. While the young woman is Marina Hands, and in a first full flush of youthful comeliness, what might seem so surprising is less her beauty, which is astonishing in the glow of her skin, the robust general health and the clearness of her eyes, than the other women's attractiveness. Could American cinema conjure up three women of equally delicate but not youthful beauty, and if so, who would these women be? One proposes Maria Bello, Ashley Judd and Naomi Watts - no matter if the latter is of course an English born Australian working in American film. We want to concentrate here though on Maria Bello, and suggest that her best work resides in three films, The Cooler, A History of Violence and Assault on Precinct 13. David Thomson sensibly believes in a review of A History of Violence in Have You Seen...? that Bello is "one of the most attractive women in cinema", and the word attractive is much more accurate than beautiful it seems. For beauty is closer to an a priori state than attractiveness, and can often best be expressed in a picture or on a catwalk where the originality of the self is secondary to the fundamental aspect of the beauty. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger interestingly writes "...one reason why expressive photographs of the naked are even rarer than paintings...is that nakedness is a process rather than a state." He believes "the easy solution for the photographer is to turn the figure into a nude which, by generalizing both sight and viewer and making sexuality unspecific, turns desire into fantasy." Maybe we can say much the same in relation to beauty and attractiveness where beauty lends itself well to the general, while attractiveness demands the specific. When watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly one senses Hands would look as good in a still photograph as in the film's moving images; the other women, who include Anne Consigny and Marie-Jose Croze, are attractive not least because their attractiveness comes through as readily in what they do as in what we could call the cosmetic impact.
Beauty, then, is cosmetic impact; attractiveness 'permeating impact', a subtler, less immediate comeliness, and is perhaps not so much given as earned. When one thinks of Hands' beauty in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and also in her role in Lady Chatterley, it seems no more than genes and upbringing: the good looks say so little about the person possessing them. If Thomson is right that Bello is one of the most attractive women in American film - "a honey" - then one feels in his compliment he is saying a great deal about Bello, not only about the plastic aspect that is still photograph or catwalk display.
What Bello does especially well is vulnerability. This might seem odd considering she plays tough throughout Thank You for Smoking and her feistiness is central to the spats with Ethan Hawke in the early stages of Assault on Precinct 13, but how can we forget her brutal removal before the end of the latter film, and how vulnerable she seems in almost every scene in The Cooler? In The Cooler the combination of her character's sensitivity, her emotional vulnerability, physical asides alluding to her appearance, and the cellulite we see in one scene where Bello and her co-star William H. Macy sit up on the bed and bang the headboard to annoy the usually annoying neighbours, all hint at the vulnerable. As she says "I'd given birth to my son the year before and I was about 40 llbs overweight. I had cellulite on my ass, which I still do, but I thought that was a good thing to show." An example of the physical aside comes from one of the bosses of the club Bello and Macy work in, where he reckons waitresses should have bigger breasts, obviously larger than those of Bello's Natalie.
That takes cares of the physical vulnerability, but there is also the emotional. In one scene in The Cooler Bello sees a young child at the fair, and though this gives space for a predictable moment of back story reminiscence, Bello offers a touch that goes beyond the clich. As the boy some yards away turns and faces in her direction, she smiles back, allowing a brief "hi" to exhale from her mouth, as she feels her estrangement from the child she had years before. Yet nothing is quite so moving as when she sits up in bed and admits to herself that she is in love with Macy's character, Bernie. "I think that I love you" she says hesitantly. Before adding "I don't think. I'm pretty sure of it". She says that he blind-sided her, completely took her by surprise, and this is evident in a comment earlier in the film where Bernie's son arrives in La Vegas and can't believe the father's landed so lucky, saying to Natalie that he must be paying for her ass. It also turns out to be a true statement because, as we find out later in the film, Natalie's ass was bought: the boss at the club basically persuaded Natalie to hang out and seduce Bernie to keep him working in the club. Bernie is what is called a cooler: a guy with such monumental bad luck that he's employed to go over to winning tables in the casino and make the gamblers lose by his mere bad luck presence. He wants to leave the job; the boss wants him to stay. Natalie is employed by the boss to persuade him to do so by any means available.
Natalie's love though transforms him from a loser to a winner: knowing that Natalie really is besotted changes Bernie's fortune, and people start winning in his presence. Maybe a 'beautiful' actress couldn't have pulled off the role; that the cosmetic impact of her presence would have led to an egoistic attitude on Bernie's part. Though obviously Bernie's son can't believe Natalie's with him, and at one stage the boss asks incredulously what she sees in the hapless Bernie, the role needs to be played by somebody a little lived in. For example when Natalie admits she initially went out with him for money, she adds that she thought it was just another opportunity to make a buck, yet another moment in her life where she's looked after number one. This is consistent with the back story info she has provided earlier in the film: where she tells Bernie she had a baby when she was really young, looked after him for a year, and then had him adopted because she wanted her life back.
Now there is perhaps a certain internal logic to the character that the film wants to deny - if Natalie adopted her child at around eighteen and she is still hustling more than ten years later - can we believe that she would be so transformed by Bernie's decency? The answer in this instance is a cautious yes, and chiefly through the idea of permeating impact; that there is enough of this permeation in Bello for enough of it to come through in the character. Obviously for many this would be a dubious line of reasoning, where it seems one's equating the actress with the role, and yet this has nothing to do with who Bello happens to be in 'real life', but the physical presence she unavoidably brings to the role. When she first propositions Bernie as she stands waiting for him after he's finished work, her head is tilted slightly to the side as if in acknowledgment that he possesses qualities that she's summing up. It resembles the moment where Bernie first seems to make an impression on her: earlier in the film after she smiles as a casino customer cusses at his bad luck. As Natalie smiles, the customer turns on her and Bernie comes between them before the bouncers throw the loudmouth out. As Bernie walks away, the shot is held and Natalie tilts her head in momentary admiration.
It is a gesture we find also in A History of Violence, even if it serves a different purpose. Here Bello's character Edie early in the film tilts her head seductively where she has dressed up as a cheerleader for hubby Tom Stall. Yet what is so charming is that this isn't an unequivocally erotic moment; it is couched in the vulnerability of a woman who is still clearly extremely attractive but for whom sex is part of a busy, easily interrupted life. Shortly before, we've seen Tom and his wife woken by their daughter's screams as she awakes from a nightmare.
Bello, whether playing the busy, lawyer wife in A History of Violence, the waiting wife whose husband has been trapped in the twin towers in World Trade Centre, or the neurotic psychologist in Assault on Precinct 13, knows how to offer not only vulnerability, of course, but a firmness within the vulnerable: someone who can play at the same time assured, mature and exposed all at once and thus convey range. The apparent pity is that she has generally only been allowed to offer this range in secondary roles, or, more appropriately, supporting ones: roles in which she is not the narrative drive but more the emotional support, even love interest. Where Judd and Watts have occasionally played leading or joint leading parts - in Ruby in Paradise, The Passion of Darkly Noon and Bug, in Judd's case - Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams and Funny Games in Watts's - Bello's occasional leading roles in films like the horror film The Dark have been much less memorable than the supporting ones. She may claim on the DVD extras to The Dark that she liked the range of emotions she was allowed to express in a genre piece, but though she gets to play yet again a woman for whom others are immensely important, she does so here playing a selfish mum who hyperbolically and supernaturally goes to great lengths to save her daughter and prove how much of a caring mother she happens to be. But we might say she is much better at plausible support than in implausible leading parts. Where Judd seems fine but wasted in Heat, and Watts superb in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Bello supports brilliantly in a twin sense of the term. She is extremely good at suggesting an emotional core beyond the centre of the frame, and, even if we may wish to see her given more screen time than she usually receives, perhaps that edge of frame emotional centre is really her forte.
In Secret Window, for example, Johnny Depp is clearly our central character, with Bello very much the ex-wife hooked up with her new man elsewhere. But on at least a couple of occasions she phones and asks how is doing, and we may wish for more of the emotionally confused Bello than the increasingly solipsistic Depp, whose self-absorption turns out to be the very subject of the film: it is a film basically from inside the character's head. The solipsistic central character is also there in Auto-Focus, in the very title and in Bob Crane's masturbatory habits. At one moment in their marriage, Patty Crane (Bello) says "I just want someone here. You're never home anymore, and when you are you are downstairs editing your videos." It echoes a line from Secret Window where she says that ..."you weren't there anymore...even when you were with me you were gone...up in your head"
One of Bello's great strengths as an actress is her emotional engagement with the film, and generally a rational core at that. When she says friends give her DVDs of Truffaut and Bergman and that she never watches them, she prefers watching escapist films, theGuardian interviewer Ryan Gilbey admits he finds this ironic. The films she makes are often serious or she offers a serious dimension within them: the sort of aspect Gilbey believes would make Bello interesting in a Bergman role. But Bello isn't an especially neurotic actress, no matter her part in Assault on Precinct 13, saying in an interview with Rebbeca Murray in About.com, "I think she has to go more off the deep end and I think that just because she is a psychiatrist, she doesn't have to be straight." But this seems consistent not especially with an actress looking to portray the twisted; more the complex. Though she says in the Guardian interview that she likes escapist films, she is often the least escapist aspect of the movie, and do her characters not so often countenance confronting reality and not escaping from it? It is there in her characters' comments in Auto-Focus and Secret Window, and is vital to A History of Violence when she realises that her husband is not who she believed him to be. "Tell me the truth...please, you can do that can't you?" she asks.
Now there are several things that we have worked towards here. The first concerns the attractive as opposed to the beautiful; the second that Bello often plays the emotional core of the film though this is often manifested in supporting roles that nevertheless give to the word support its emotional significance, and the third is that she is often the character most given to exploring the texture of the film's reality. If Secret Window proves so minor and silly a film, and a waste of Bello, it lies in what the film could have been if it had been turned inside out. Imagine if it wasn't a thriller with a twist where Depp is the writer lost in his own head, but a film from the position of the ex-wife who still has strong feelings for both men trying to start a new life with one, while worrying about the sanity of the other. That this alternative narrative can be extracted from the one we're given, though, says much about how Bello can give texture to a role that remains mainly off screen.
This capacity for the complexity of feeling is also what makes Bello so attractive. Certainly writers and critics mention Bello's beauty - in an interview by Paul Fischer in Film Monthly.com, he calls her a 'beautiful actress' - while there is an interesting anecdote she tells in the same interview that brings out a quality that seems more consistent with beauty than attractiveness as we're choosing to define it. When she was a struggling actor in New York a man come up to her while she was catering at a party and said he would like to paint her. She thought all he wanted was to get her to take her clothes off, but the painter said that wasn't what he was looking for: that he simply had never seen anyone so on the verge of insanity. She explains that she was a "very sad, sad person at that time, so I ended up going through this man's studio for three months, sitting in this one position for four hours a day and he would paint me." This is closer to La Belle noiseuse, the crazy courtesan of Jacques Rivette's film with Emmanuelle Beart, where beauty and madness co-exist, and this is a common narrative in French cinema, evident in Isabelle Adjani films like One Deadly Summer and Camille Claudel; and in Beart works like J'embrasse Pas and Nathalie. Here the actresses play less the emotional core than the hermeneutic centre: the tension in the film often resides in complex inner motivation that the filmmaker or another leading character within the film searches out. But even in a film like The Cooler,where initially Natalie is playing Bernie (even though we don't know at this stage that she has been hired to do so), Bello creates little inquiry around the apparent anomaly of so attractive a woman being with so apparently uncharismatic a man as Macy's character. She quickly convinces us that she sees qualities in Bernie nobody else can see. It goes back to that moment where she tilts her head in appreciation of Bernie's fairness.
This is the attractive quality of observation, over the beauty of egocentricity, and Bello may be a great example of a sort of concentric attractiveness - a sense of self that is larger, more observant and realistic than the egocentricity that may often drive the narrative but not give it very much emotional texture. This is present even in a film that actively seems deliberately to be a work of no redeeming features: the Mel Gibson starring Payback, which she made early in her film career, back in 1998. This is a remake of Point Blank with a steely, grey colour scheme to match the grim brutality of its leading character. Bello, though, gets to play the humanity around the hard-men and the hardware: she's the woman who acts without self-interest to help Gibson's character out. When she helps him kidnap the son of the head of the crime outfit he is seeking money from, Bello's high-class hooker still seems more concerned for Gibson's well-being rather than worrying about the mess that she is also in. There is a nice moment in the film where, as in the old days when they knew each other, and Gibson was her chauffeur, they are driving along with Bello in the back of the stretch limousine and Gibson driving, when she looks at him, her head slightly tilted, clearly intrigued and attracted. Once again she provides the emotional core, no matter the generally brutal stupidity of the proceedings.
Perhaps we can generalise here: a supporting character, at least in mainstream film, ought to possess qualities different from a star, if we assume that the star is the agent of the film, and the supporting player the reactor to the events. Thus central to good support is the capacity not so much to act but react, to absorb the narrative elements that more prominent characters get to interact with. In most of Bello's films she has to react to another's actions. In Secret Window, Amy is seeking a divorce from her unstable husband, and shows constant concern for his mental well-being; in A History of Violence Edie needs to decide whether to stand by her man when she finds out that he is a man with a violent past. In The Cooler, near the end of the film, Bernie is inside gambling, while Natalie waits outside in the car not even sure whether he will come out of the casino alive. In Paybackthe situation is similar: Bello's character stays with the kidnapped son, pacing the room, while Gibson's character tries to get his money back off the main movers in the firm. In each instance Bello's support, though often thankless, is far from irrelevant.
If we're correct in saying that she frequently plays the emotional core, then her reaction can give texture to the fore-grounded action. Would A History of Violence have the density it possesses without Bello's support? In one scene Edie is trying some shoes on and suddenly she realises her daughter is no longer in the shop. As she kicks off the new shoes that the shop assistant won't allow her understandably to walk out of the shop with, Bello goes and finds her daughter nearby. This is clearly an obvious scene (and Cronenberg's film has many similarly 'conventional' ones) and yet it is a though Cronenberg wanted to make a film full of convention yet with plausibly 'deep' emotion. Like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, there is a post post-modernist element here as the conventions become clear, but the emotions are still complex. Bello gets to play the dutiful wife but instead of playing with this dutifulness to generate greater brutalization - as we find in The Long Kiss Goodnight, for example, as it offers a post-modern would be feminism as Geena Davis becomes the leading character and gains credibility by acting like a man in a man's world - the dutifulness remains but an emotional complexity replaces the post-modern feminist tweaking. In yet another example of Bello waiting at home while a man has to do what he's gotta do, Tom goes off to take on his brother back in Philadelphia, while Edie waits at home. Yet she gives meaning and purpose to that waiting in the closing shots of the film. As Tom returns to the family fold, Edie serves up dinner but this is a series of cold cuts as the family must re-acquaint themselves after the violence that begat so much violence. As Edie spends most of the time with her head down as if in prayer, it isn't until the second last shot in the film that she looks up and her face beseechingly gazes at Tom with a mixture of deep love and disbelief. Tom looks back and it is the closing shot of the film, as Bello once again extracts the core emotions.
This is also true of Assault on Precinct 13 as Bello plays a psychologist caught in the precinct of the title. Two thirds of the way through the film Alex is alarmingly dispatched after making an escape with one of the others on the say so of the group in the precinct. This death is surprising as Bello's character has been set up in the romantic action tradition of one half of a sparring potential couple, la Out of Sight. But it is also resides in Bello's performance, which is textured to give her death meaning. It resembles in some ways Famke Potente's death at the beginning of the second Bourne film, The Bourne Supremacy, but Potente has been given an entire film first to lay out her character and make her death meaningful. She has also become Bourne's lover and thus her death has immense impact on his character. In Assault on Precinct 13, Bello's been given only around sixty five minutes to engage the viewer emotionally, and Ethan Hawke and Bello's characters have not become lovers. Yet her death is the most significant moment in the film. As she is shot in the head the film offers an overhead shot of Bello lying in the snow, the blood turning the snow red, as it cuts to an overhead shot of Hawke at his desk, clearing it in a fit of anguish.
Yet what we've noticed in so many of Bello's films is that she has played supporting roles, no matter if she has given them a complexity equal to a leading one. In certain instances one suspects the films would have been subtler and more interesting works if the supporting role had become central (as in Secret Window), but generally what makes Bello so intriguing an actress is how she gives significance to a supporting part. Could Tom's return to the house have had the impact it does were it not for Bello's ability to indicate the emotional rupture in A History of Violence, would the death of the token love interest at the end of the second act in Assault on Precinct 13 have been as effective with another actress in the role, and would Natalie have just been another tart with a heart in The Cooler if she were played by the numbers?
At the beginning of the article we mentioned The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and the three supporting actors who are attractive rather than beautiful, and central to this was the attractive gesture over the beautiful pose: the degree to which the three characters support the multiply disabled central figure. There is a potential conservatism to this; that the woman is the carer in an essentially man's world. This we've noticed time and again in Bello's films, from Auto-Focus to Secret Window, from A History of Violence to The Cooler, but for better or worse there are truths in these qualities, often much more so than a would be militant progressiveness that much cinema in recent years has practised. InThe Long Kiss Goodnight, GI Jane, Terminator 2, Out of Sight and others, the women have been as tough as the men, but have they gained in action but lost in reaction, lost that emotional centre that can allow a woman to live in a man's world but call that world into question as they wonder what the limitations of this man's world happens to be? Bello's look at the end of A History of Violence says a great deal. It is neither the look of the woman as beautiful icon who becomes the hermeneutic centre, nor at all the woman who replicates the man in violent intensity. She is instead the deeply attractive woman who can show what matters: the emotional life that can give a film its heart even if she does not quite provide it with the narrative focus.
© Tony McKibbin