Tom Jolliffe celebrates the career of Frances McDormand…
I have a number of favourite actors. If I had carte-blanche to cast a film it would probably be filled up with characters. Maybe brilliant underachievers, who never quite hit their heights for one reason or another (Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Rutger Hauer), or maybe they just died before their time like John Cazale. It’s those chameleons that I find most engaging though, those who are occasionally a lead, but often find themselves as second billing (if that). People like John Goodman.
I’m staunchly proud of a lot of our finer British talents too, like Helen Mirren, a national treasure. So yes, we’re establishing here a pattern and whilst I can always sit and watch Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks, or the ‘leads’ doing their thing, I’ve always liked the character artists. One of those legends who, no matter what I see her in, is always brilliant, is Frances McDormand. She’s not the atypical Hollywood glamour girl. You wouldn’t cast her to play Monroe. It’s not a big deal if you see her dress down or ‘go ugly’ as it might be for Nicole Kidman donning a rubber nose, or Charlize Theron turning into a Monster. We can all pretend it’s not the case, but it is, if you’re consistently a leading lady, you’re probably magazine pretty. Glamorous, gorgeous, etc, etc. As far as the guys go, there’s been more leeway (Hanks you wouldn’t say is a chiselled example of masculine chick bait by any stretch). So to an extent this means the plum leading roles are at something of a premium for someone like McDormand, who doesn’t fit the sex symbol box. At the same time I suppose many leading ladies over the years may bemoan the show-stopping scene stealing support roles which they don’t get through the years.
This isn’t to say McDormand’s talents haven’t been recognised. They most certainly have. She’s just picked up Oscar nomination number 5 (Her second in a leading role). She won one of those for Fargo (deservedly). She’s a very solid bet to win a second for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Her closest rival is likely to be Sally Hawkin’s for The Shape Of Water (another great actress). In actuality it’s a remarkably strong year in the Oscars, particularly as far as Best Picture, Actor/Actress and Directing goes. You can’t discount anyone. McDormand is more than worth her place among them this year.
It all started for McDormand at the same time it started for the Coen Brothers (she later married Joel). Blood Simple is one of those films that gets progressively better with every watch. A stylish, beautifully written and involving noir tale of adultery, murder and double crossing. The more I look back, the more I think to the film and it’s visuals and indeed the magnetic performance by McDormand in it, I consider it to remain one of their strongest works. To an extent it gets forgotten but this film paved the way for Fargo and No Country For Old Men. Similarly, Barton Fink was another which gets better and better with every reappraisal (McDormand appears in a cameo in this one). Unless you’re a Coen aficionado or completist, Blood Simple isn’t one you’d necessarily know of, or think of watching. You may accidentally catch on TV perhaps, but really and truly, it’s well worth sourcing a good copy and watching. It’s exceptional.
Only a few years later she received her first Oscar nomination for her role in Mississippi Burning (Note…I spelt Mississippi right first time. Yay), cementing her reputation as an actress to watch. I could probably reel off her entire CV at this point because she’s always good. She’s also reached a stage where she is able to pick and choose exactly what she wants, balancing her time with her passion for theatre work. In truth she’s never been a relentlessly non-stop actress as far as cinema. There aren’t many years you’ll see her doing 2-3 films, these days in particular, and even then there’s a balance between virtual walk-ons, vocal roles or supporting parts. She won’t do any old crap (okay…Transformers: Darkside of The Moon and Aeon Flux aside). My first introduction to McDormand and still a role I really love of hers, was Darkman. It’s a brilliant film. For me, it’s still Raimi’s great comic book film, made in a period around the release of Tim Burton’s Batman where every comic book film green-lit wanted to be Tim Burton’s Batman. The film was fairly low-budget and McDormand was fairly high calibre by that point, so it goes without saying that the Coen’s connections with Sam Raimi probably helped in persuading her to take that role (Joel Coen helped edit The Evil Dead). She elevates it massively of course, ably aided by a fine leading performance by Liam Neeson (pre-Schindler).
Fargo is still her most iconic role as heavily pregnant Marge Gunderson. It’s a superb performance. Endearing, complex and engaging. Indeed, the film itself is a master-work. A Sahara dry, black comedy loaded with humour, as a used car salesman’s hair-brained scheme to stage a kidnapping to extort his father-in-law gets progressively out of hand. It’s a master-class in screen-writing apart from every other department. She won the Oscar, not surprisingly. Aside from a couple more Oscar nominated roles in Almost Famous and North Country she also appeared in The Man Who Wasn’t There. An excellent entry in the Coen brothers CV that’s only real failing is that it carries too many similarities (and thus draws comparison) to Blood Simple and Fargo. Regardless, it’s a great piece of cinema and McDormand is on top form again.
More recently we’ve seen her once again under the direction of the hubby in Burn After Reading. A more broadly comedic film in comparison to some of their other recent works (probably more in line with The Hudsucker Proxy or their Ladykillers remake). As well as Moonrise Kingdom and Promised Land. In the last few years she’s certainly slowed with only a mini-series, vocal performance and cameo in Hail Caesar to speak of.
It must have required quite something to tempt her back to the big screen and Martin McDonagh’s script for Three Billboards was certainly that. It’s a magnificent film. From the laconic pace, small town mannerisms and personas nailed down to a tee, to Carter Burwell’s music and a dark tale where redemption always seems out of reach, this is pure Coen. If you watched the film unaware who directed, your first guess coming out would be the Coen brothers. It’s the most Coen film that wasn’t a Coen film ever made. McDormand is possibly career best here which is indeed a bold statement but she’s this richly complex mix of firecracker rage, broken heartedly tragic, determined and vulnerable. She took convincing to take the role too but thankfully she did.
Who knows when and where she’ll next pop up but I look forward to seeing more from Frances McDormand who as well as being an exceptionally talented actress, is a superb role model for aspiring young actors.