The daughter of first generation Italian-Americans, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was born in Oak Park, IL. Oak Park was also the home town of Ernest Hemingway; some of his "don't mess with me" spirit seems to have been passed on by osmosis to Mastrantonio, who has made her career playing a number of feisty, strong-willed women. Trained for an operatic career, she studied voice at the University of Illinois, Champaign, and had one of her first gigs in an Opryland production of Showboat. Once in New York, Mastrantonio was hired for the 1981 revival of West Side Story, and was lauded in the press for her peppery portrayal of Viola in a New York Shakespeare Festival staging of Twelfth Night.
Mastrantonio's first film was Scarface (1983), in which she played Al Pacino's sister (the incestuous subtext was just as pronounced here as in the original 1931 version). She then essayed the role of Benito Mussolini's embittered daughter Edda in the TV miniseries Mussolini: The Untold Story, which starred George C. Scott in the title role. In both of these productions, Mastrantonio tended to be overshadowed by her male co-stars, but she more than held her own opposite such heady company as Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in The Color of Money (1986), an assignment which won her both a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe nomination.
After appearing in a few more films -- most notably The Abyss, in which she played Ed Harris' estranged engineer wife -- she starred as Maid Marian in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991. As a mark of the impression the actress had made in strong, self-reliant roles, her transformation into a damsel in distress during the film's final scenes were greeted with audible audience groans. Unfortunately, following the huge commercial -- if not critical -- success of the film, Mastrantonio's visibility receded; over the next few years she could be seen in a number of relatively obscure films, perhaps the most notable of which was Two Bits (1995) with Al Pacino. However, in 1999 Mastrantonio reemerged in the public -- or at least art house -- consciousness, thanks to lead roles in My Life So Far, in which she played Colin Firth's wife, and John Sayles' Limbo, in which she portrayed another strong-willed woman, an itinerant lounge singer who meets an uncertain fate in deepest, darkest Alaska.
In the years to come, Mastrantonio would appear in many successful projects to come, most notably on the TV series Without a Trace and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.