Frances McDormand is one of contemporary Hollywood’s most reliable performers. A power player within independent cinema, McDormand’s career is awash with compelling, multi-layered characters in equally unique and dynamic films.
In part through her collaboration with the Coen brothers and the wonderful characters they write for her, Frances McDormand has emerged as one of Hollywood’s finest character actresses. Her career, which spans over four decades, is peppered with performances of individuality, idiosyncrasy and humane authenticity. Where others would find only caricature, McDormand finds an honesty within her roles that resonates just as well whether they’re played for comedy or drama. She is thus responsible for some of the finest and most memorable characters of contemporary American cinema including, it could be argued, the single greatest female performance of the 20th century.
Frances McDormand’s best films showcase a singularly unique talent
If the Academy Awards are the pinnacle prize for an actor then Frances McDormand probably deserves to be nominated for every role she’s ever played – either as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. She’s that good. Indeed, there are few actors as subtly dynamic and as consistent as she is. She regularly finds a way to bring originality to the roles she plays while always finding a humanity that compels.
She benefits from the offbeat and often idiosyncratic screen tales of the Coen brothers who she has worked with consistently since 1984’s Blood Simple. She’s also appeared in Raising Arizona (1987), Fargo (1996), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Burn After Reading (2008), and Hail, Caesar. For Fargo, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She has also been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Mississippi Burning (1988), Almost Famous (2000), and North Country (2005).
10. Burn After Reading (Coen/Coen, 2008)
Joel and Ethan Coen are responsible for McDormand’s funniest roles. In Fargo they managed to give her the best character she’s ever played as well as the funniest. In Burn After Reading she’s Linda Litzke, a woman obsessed with plastic surgery and who spouts lines like “I’ve gone just about as far as I can with this body”. Along with Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) she hatches a plan to sell what she believes to be secret government documents back to the CIA but the plan backfires and the pair get in over their heads in typically comical Coen brothers fashion. McDormand doesn’t exhibit the usual intelligence her characters possess, instead immersing herself in a colourfully simple-minded woman driven by self-fulfilling vanity. There’s a shallowness to the character that makes this McDormand performance one that’s played primarily for laughs.
9. Blood Simple (Coen/Coen, 1984)
An early indication of her talents, McDormand’s first feature film sees her play Abby, who along with her lover tries to get away with murdering her husband. She is a source of humanity in a world as bitter and nasty as they come. She also grounds the dark, twisting nature of the Coen brothers’ plot in a recognisable sense of fragility amidst plenty of macho male posturing. Its rural setting also gives the Coen brothers the chance to cover their film in the sort of grit and grime that muddies their unsavoury characters’ moral code. The phrase “bleak but brilliant” was made for this.
8. Almost Famous (Crowe, 2000)
The significance of McDormand’s prowess on-screen is often best exampled by how her supporting characters offer some of the most memorable scenes. She is the one you remember despite other actors having far more screen time. Take for example Almost Famous when she plays the lead character’s mother. Writer-director Cameron Crowe based this woman on his own mother. It gives McDormand a telling authenticity which she makes more potent with an unsentimental sense of tough but enduring love for her children.
7. North Country (Caro, 2005)
McDormand’s acting talents really come to the fore in North Country. In another unsentimental turn she plays Glory Dodge, one of the few female iron mine workers at a site in northern Minnesota who helps her fellow women battle sexual harassment and discrimination. It culminates in Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) taking the case to court despite protestation from her fellow female co-workers who fear losing their jobs. Based on the true stories of Lois Elaine Jenson, Patricia Shannon Kosmach and others, the film charts the path forged to change sexual harassment laws in America. McDormand is excellent throughout but it’s the finale when Lou Gehrig’s Disease has taken its toll and she’s able to communicate only through eye movement and facial gestures that underlines her subtle effectiveness.
6. Laurel Canyon (Cholodenko, 2002)
A characteristically dynamic but beautifully authentic character for McDormand, Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon sees her play free-spirited Californian record producer Jane whose hedonistic attitude counters her son’s more conservative lifestyle. Their situations clash when he and his fiancée come to live in Jane’s home while she’s attempting to record a new album with an indie band she’s working with. There are a lot of themes interwoven into this story with McDormand capturing a sense of self-serving narcissism amidst an underlying desperation to cling on to a youth she feels is being lost. Jane could be wholly unlikable if it wasn’t for McDormand’s measured performance.
5. Wonder Boys (Hanson, 2000)
An understated performance from McDormand in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys as the lover of Michael Douglas’s downtrodden novelist Grady Tripp. It’s a bit-part but McDormand still stands out in an ensemble cast which includes Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes, Richard Thomas and Tobey Maguire.
4. Mississippi Burning (Parker, 1988)
This is a tough film to watch. Mississippi Burning concerns the FBI’s investigation into the murder of civil rights activists and the bureau’s run in with the Ku Klux Klan. McDormand is phenomenal as the wife of one of the corrupt town cops, her loyalties to her husband conflicted by doing what she knows is right. Courageously she reveals to the investigating agents that the missing activists have been murdered despite living not only in fear of her husband’s wrath but a largely white county, rampant with racism, distrust and ignorance, still struggling to come to terms with equal rights. It’s a small but significant role for McDormand who personifies a groundbreaking moment in American history. In a bleak, unsettling but absorbing drama, her character arc is one its defining beacons of hope and optimism.
3. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (Nalluri, 2008)
McDormand’s ability to underplay is so crucial here as she is transformed from a down on her luck nanny into a glamourous high society figure in World War II era London. The actress’s ability to tackle various accents is also evident here as her British tones are completely convincing.
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh, 2017)
McDormand is relentless in her delivery of top notch performances and 2017 was no different. In writer-director Martin McDonagh’s film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri she plays a determined mother who calls attention to her daughter’s unsolved murder. The actress finds an inner strength that manifests itself at times in understandable rage as she fights to learn the truth about her daughter’s horrible rape and murder. She’s not instantly likeable, and despite the events that have befallen her, McDonagh’s characteristic subversive approach manoeuvres away from pandering to tragedy. Not many actors could make this character work but McDormand does.
1. Fargo (Coen/Coen, 1996)
The best performance of Frances McDormand’s career appears in the Coen brothers’ brilliant crime-thriller Fargo. Her character Marge Gunderson should be considered one of the greatest female performances of the 20th century. Yes, it really is that good. In a film that’s as dark as they come – including you may remember dismembered bodies shoved in wood-chippers – McDormand adds a light touch that impressively avoids caricature despite the seemingly cartoonish quirks of the character.
She’s a heavily pregnant police chief on the search for cop killers, her verbose personality proving to be a neat interrogation technique as she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery through various witnesses. Her positive outlook is the film’s counter balance to the ugly criminality on show, a sense of hope pervading through Marge that cuts through the dark despair oozing from those she’s trying to put behind bars.
Written and Compiled by Amilia Totten
Over to you: what are your fave Frances McDormand films?