Leading Lady: Frances McDormand, Three-Time Oscar Winner
The cover photo for the January 2021 U.S. edition of Vogue is a striking one. Set against a desert backdrop of blazing orange sand and deepening blue sky stands a woman dressed in a loose-fitting brown suit and a hoodie. At first glance, you might mistake her for a Jedi Master, but the steady inquisitive gaze and the famous dimpled chin is a giveaway. Here is Frances McDormand, without makeup, in her 60s, on the cover of a fashion magazine usually obsessed with the conventional idea of beautiful young things.
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, she looks every inch the movie star. A few months after the shoot, she completed a hat-trick of Best Actress Oscars with her soulful turn in Chloe Zhao’s Best Picture winner, Nomadland, adding to the gold statuettes she won for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s fair to say McDormand is hot right now.
She has now overtaken Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Jodie Foster, Robert De Niro and Ingrid Bergman, drawn level with Daniel Day-Lewis and is one award behind Katherine Hepburn, who leads the Oscars league table with four wins in a lead role category. That is all before you consider McDormand's various other BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Emmys and her Tony Award for her stage work in Good People on Broadway.
So what is it about Frances McDormand that makes her so appealing? She doesn’t seek the limelight, and when she does grant interviews she is chatty, intelligent and down-to-earth. When she used her Oscar win for Three Billboards as a platform for inclusion riders (a clause in an actor’s contract demanding greater diversity during a film production) she was frank and passionate but never sanctimonious. There is something inherently decent about her, a little like James Stewart - she seems like someone you could trust. It may sound like a backhanded compliment, but there is a motherliness to her, and many of her most notable roles see her explore various facets of motherhood - expectant (Fargo), over-protective (Almost Famous), surrogate (North Country) and grieving (Three Billboards).
She goes against the grain of typical Hollywood glamour, hitting the red carpet of award ceremonies and accepting the highest prize in showbiz without makeup and with her natural hair colour. With her current success, it is easy to forget that she has almost as many duds as hits on her filmography (including the unfortunately titled Johnny Skidmarks). Yet when she gets a good role, she always becomes the character and creates a vivid impression. Calmly and unobtrusively, she has become one of our greatest living actors, graduating from respectable character work to a bona fide Hollywood leading lady who can now open any movie she chooses.
McDormand made her screen debut in Blood Simple, the first film from the Coen Brothers, where she played an adulteress pursued by a contract killer hired by her jealous husband. Foreshadowing the underlying grit that would become a key quality of her signature role in Fargo, she outwits the hitman by pinning his hand to a windowsill with a large knife. She also met her future husband, Joel, while making the movie.
She played a nun in Crimewave, Sam Raimi’s notorious flop, which was co-written with the Coens, and had another eye-catching role as a comically pushy mother in Raising Arizona. It wasn't long before an Oscar-worthy part came her way - next was Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, where she earned a Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as the wife of a deputy sheriff who helps the FBI uncover three murders by the Ku Klux Klan.
She lost out to Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist and it was five years before another role of any note, during which she played uncredited parts in two more Coen Brothers films, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, and kept up the Sam Raimi connection in the forgotten superhero movie Darkman. Then came Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, where she kept up her end among an acclaimed ensemble.
A few more roles in mediocre films followed before she got the lead in Fargo, a part that won her critical acclaim, the adoration of fans and defined her screen persona. For many, that certain Frances McDormandy-ness that is key to all her best roles found its purest form as Marge Gunderson, the heavily pregnant police chief following a trail of bodies after a bungled kidnapping. Before the film, some critics wrote off the Coens as smart-alec misanthropes who were all cynical style over substance, but Fargo and Marge changed that. She brings so much warmth and heart to the film - without her, it might have just been another one of the Coens’ blackly comic tales of greedy men scrambling for a bag of cash.
The part was written specifically for her, and McDormand leant into some of the zanier elements, such as its stylised Minnesota Nice dialect and mannerisms (in her Vogue interview, she says people still yell “You Betcha!” at her in the street), but it is Marge’s natural goodness that sticks with you. Take the scene where she meets an old school friend who still holds a candle for her. It is a masterclass in awkwardness as she maintains her friendliness while firmly but kindly rejecting his advances. Later, she faces down Peter Stormare’s dead-eyed killer without backup. You get the sense that somewhere deep in his withered soul, he respects Marge for her decency and bravery.
While filming Fargo, she and hubby Joel were awaiting the arrival of their adopted son, Pedro, from Paraguay, which informed the last line of the film - “two more months”. That was how long they had to wait before they welcomed their baby boy.
She received her second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as a cheerfully over-protective mother in Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age tale Almost Famous and a third playing the unlikely-named Glory Dodge in North Country, a mine worker with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
McDormand worked again with the Coens on The Man Who Wasn’t There, Burn After Reading and Hail, Caesar! and gave some astute performances for Wes Anderson and Paolo Sorrentino in Moonrise Kingdom and This Must be the Place respectively. For all her indie and award-winning credentials, she isn't above making a few bucks in big-budget Hollywood fare, lending some class to otherwise vacuous spectacles like Aeon Flux and Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. Her distinctive cadence has also made her a natural for voice work in Madagascar 3, The Good Dinosaur and Isle of Dogs, again with Wes Anderson.
Her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tapped into a rarely seen darker side of the McDormand screen persona. She plays Mildred Hayes, an enraged grieving mother who goes to war with the local police department for failing to catch her daughter’s killer. Mildred is gritty, blunt and foul-mouthed, where Marge Gunderson was folksy, diplomatic and unerringly polite. We almost feel sorry for Woody Harrelson’s besieged police chief when she rides into town. Written with McDormand in mind, Martin McDonagh’s pithy screenplay gives her plenty to work with, and it is a barnstorming performance that overshadows some of the dodgier elements of the film.
For all the show stopping moments in the movie, it is the quiet moment where Mildred talks to a deer that lingers. It could have turned out so mawkish in other hands. Just imagine how Meryl Streep might have played it, for example - she would have Streeped the hell out of that scene with one eye on the Oscar nom. Without sacrificing the character’s steeliness, McDormand also gives us all of Mildred’s kindness, world-weariness, heartache, humour and existential dread wrapped up in one beautifully written monologue.
This brings us to the present and Nomadland. Her performance as Fern might be the closest we get to the real McDormand up on the screen. Based on Jessica Bruder’s book about modern-day nomads in the United States, McDormand worked with Zhao to build the character around her own pipe dreams of packing up, dropping out and taking off for a life on the road. It is such a naturalistic performance without grand moments and McDormand inhabits the role so fully that we instinctively know everything we need to know about Fern within a few minutes of meeting her.
She is at her best when Fern simply experiences her new environment and feels her way into the ramshackle community of travellers she becomes a peripheral part of. Zhao used non-professional actors in her previous two projects and I was worried that McDormand’s star power might unbalance the film, but much of the joy of Nomadland is watching her hang out with the people she meets. It is a generous performance too, supporting the real-life nomads and letting them have their turn in the spotlight - Fern is a character who tells you more about herself by how she listens rather than the way she talks. The only unnatural moments are when McDormand is acting with fellow professional David Straithairn. While beautifully performed, those scenes have a starriness and actorly quality absent from the rest of the film.
So what's up next for McDormand? There is The French Dispatch, the latest star-stuffed film from Wes Anderson that was long-delayed by Covid-19. Then she plays Lady Macbeth in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, which will almost certainly benefit from the afterglow of McDormand's latest Oscar victory.
Could she go on to match or exceed Katherine Hepburn’s four lead Academy Award wins? I’ll stick my neck out and say… you betcha!