Maria Bello's Anti-Marriage Vows

Maria Bello's Anti-Marriage Vows

Intellectually and cosmetically, Jocelyn’s at least a nine. But she lives alone, and her deepest relationship with a male is with her dog. Worse yet, when we meet her, that dog has died, and she is marking the event with both a funeral and a tear-stained reception.

Even among the cast of The Jane Austen Book Club—the new film that burdens the genre of chick flicks with actual ideas—Jocelyn is an extreme case. Which makes her an ideal role for Maria Bello, the actress who, in her real life, is addicted both to reading and her independence.

For women who aspire to be brainy beauties, Bello could be the ultimate. She’s best remembered for highstakes dramatic roles in World Trade Center, The Cooler, and A History of Violence, and one satiric turn, in Thank You for Smoking. But her career is not all-consuming.

A self-described “novel whore,” she not only reads three books a week, she writes; between movies, she’s revising her first novel. Then there are her personal commitments. She has motherhood covered via Jackson, her 6-year-old son with a former boyfriend. And although there’s not a lot of time left over for romance, she’s exuberant about her new flame, Bryn Mooser, “a musician and a writer and an unbelievable person.”

Like her character in the Austen book club, Bello does not lack for opinions. Unlike Jocelyn, she’s clear eyed about herself and her situation. And she has long thought—in a way that Jocelyn wouldn’t quite understand— that long-term commitment may not be for her.

In past interviews, she has delivered eye-openers that now strike her as inoperative. For example, “I never want to get married. I’m like a guy that way.” And nothing against monogamy, but she has wondered how fidelity makes sense when modern medicine keeps us alive two or three lifetimes longer than our ancestors?

And then there are her myriad interests and obligations. Acting, parenting, reading, writing, spiritual exploration—so, isn’t even the most compelling guy doomed to get this woman’s leftovers?

Now that bar may be lowering. “My friends sometimes tell me, ‘Learn to love yourself first,’” she says. “Bullshit! You learn in a relationship. It brings up all of your stuff, the good and the bad. I find that in every relationship I grow more and more, become more and more, become someone I didn’t know I was. I’ve been in this relationship for just five months, but I’m already opening up, questioning what I think.”

Then comes a flash of classic Bello: “I’m not saying I want to marry and have five kids.”

And, softening, a return to the new: “I feel the mix of security and longing, and I hope for that to continue.”

In this back-and-forth, we see the tension that surrounds the woman who’s single and okay with it—even if she didn’t quite plan it that way. As Anne Marie O’Connor notes in “Portrait of a 21st Century Spinster," the idea that single women are losers is a media conceit; in real life, more women are getting comfy with the reality of living alone and having the occasional casual relationship to add spice. Marketers tiptoe around this attitudinal shift—a high-placed female executive told me she recently saw research about a category called “women on their own.” Seems condescending. And odd. Single men are offered a neutral descriptor: “bachelor.”

Why is the only one-word noun for single women of a certain age...spinster? “We need to come up with another word,” Bello suggests.

But two language mavens come up blank. “Maybe,” she says at last, “let’s reclaim ‘spinster.’”

But Bello hasn’t wasted her time worrying about labels or status. “I grew up in a family without money,” she says, matter-of-factly. “My dad broke his back on a construction site when I was young. He was never able to work, and we lived on the edge financially. I realized early on that I could survive.” After high school outside of Philadelphia, she moved on to Villanova University, where she studied political science and set her sights on law. But you know the story: All it took was one acting class. And then, as soon as the ink was dry on her diploma, she hurried off to New York. Her worldly goods were in a trash bag. Her bankroll was $300.

Once on the golden isle, Bello tended bar, walked dogs, took classes—the stations of the cross for beginning actresses. At the same time, she was searching, and in the most disciplined way. “When I wasn’t working, I was studying [spirituality]: goddess, Native American, Buddhism,” she says. But when I ask where she found her wisest teacher, her formal reading falls away.

“My mother. All my searching came back to her.” Mom’s wisdom: “‘To thine own self be true’—and do laugh.” Her mother gave her other invaluable and extremely practical advice: “She always said, ‘When you’re at the edge of a cliff, choose the jump.’ So I tell myself: Be afraid and do it anyway. I’ve always chosen the jump.” Bello chose “the jump” in Los Angeles, when she and screenwriter Dan McDermott decided to have a child without benefit of clergy. And she regularly flirts with danger when she tells producers and interviewers that, as a lifelong reader, she rarely goes to the movies or watches television.

“Because I’m an actress, people ask, ‘Don’t you love film?’ And I reply: ‘No, I’ve always wanted to be a character in a book.’ And by that, I mean a character in the romances and swashbuckler adventures I devoured as a kid. The character I’d most like to be is...Indiana Jones.”

And then there is the “jump” that all artists, writers, actors, and musicians take, which is to reject the life of company-supported health plans and 401(k)s and bet everything on yourself. My life is like that, and I find it terrifying. So I ask Bello, “Don’t you ever have that 3 am moment, when you think: ‘I am alone,’ and ‘spinster’ might just not be a joke?”

“We all have that moment,” Bello says. “Fortunately, I have an amazing Jungian analyst—and prayer. The truth is that every relationship ends, everyone will die. I accept that, but sometimes it’s hard, and I find myself digging my nails into any security blanket that’s handy—my boyfriend, whatever. And then I realize, of course this will change, and the less I hold on, the better.”

“Considering the Jane Austen movie,” I point out, “I really thought you’d say: ‘Thank goodness for my indispensable network of girlfriends.’”

“I do have that. Especially my best friend, my ‘everything’ person. She makes me see things differently. We’ve been passing a 25-pound barbell between us for 12 years.”

“Any male friends?” I ask, half-expecting to hear that “friendship” with men is at best a fond fantasy.

“As for my best guy friend,” Bello says, “he’s a 77-year-old mover-shaker producer-artist. We tell each other: ‘Thank God there’s someone I can share my pain with.’”

Okay, she’s got perspective on men. I think of Maria Bello’s good looks—she’s at least the young Faye Dunaway— and of all the guys who surely hit on her years ago when she was tending bar in New York. To say nothing of the interest she generates now among men who can’t quite recall the last book they’ve read. “Is there,” I ask, “a burden of beauty?”

“Absolutely not—as long as we’re talking about internal beauty,” Bello says. “There are a lot of people who shine and glow wherever they go because of their internal beauty. And on days when internal and external come together, that’s terrific. People look at Jackson and say, ‘Oh, your son is beautiful.’ I reply: ‘Yes...inside and out.’ I want him to know they’re both important.”

I can see why Bello was the first actress cast for The Jane Austen Book Club—she’s so genuinely strong, she would have no problem portraying her character’s self-sufficiency. And then setting it aside again. This is a comedy, after all, and comedies end in union—if Bello’s character, Jocelyn, is alone at the end of the movie, she didn’t come to properly understand her Jane Austen. “WHAT WOULD JANE SAY?” a traffic signal flashes, in one of the film’s more inspired images. Well, when it comes to love and romance, Jane would say, “GO FOR IT.”

Jane Austen would also say it’s okay for a woman to be the smartest person in the room. Indeed, were she alive now, she would almost surely endorse a woman’s right, on a random Tuesday night, to go home with a man she has no intention of marrying. And, after all that, she’d see no reason why a smart, experienced woman couldn’t find enduring love.

“Jane Austen was a woman breaking the mold in a puritanical society,” Bello tells me. Takes one to know one.