The character actor is often considered a vestige solely for male performers – Paul Giamatti, Gary Oldman, Steve Buscemi, J.K. Simmons; the list goes on. Often the bridesmaid, rarely the bride, these side players become renowned for their ability to steal spotlights from their more generic starring colleagues through their chameleon-esque ability to totally inhabit a part – to let the actor disappear and the character take over. Female contemporaries are rarely spoken of in the same breath, to our shame.
Enter Frances McDormand, spearheading an expansive cohort of great female character actors, like Tilda Swinton, Emma Thompson, Allison Janney, and Alfre Woodard, often putting in their work far more thanklessly than the men they work with.
From her onscreen beginnings, debuting alongside the Coen brothers in 1984’s Blood Simple, McDormand has been a beacon of nuance, depth and variety from one great movie to the next. With an almost unassuming workmanlike approach to her craft, she is a constant example to her peers on how to make great art without ego.
What grounds and connects each performance McDormand gives is her relatable nature – she is the everywoman in whom we can all see our hopes and desires, our flaws and foibles. But this is not to write her off as a one-note performer. McDormand’s appeal is that this recurring quality is a solid bedrock on which she has built a number of transcendent, wholly unique characters.
Take for example an early turn, in Alan Parker’s visceral civil rights drama Mississippi Burning (1988). As the wife of a compromised, malicious policeman, she is measured and thoughtful. Wellsprings of pain and terror simmer beneath the surface in her stark one-on-ones with Gene Hackman’s FBI investigator. For survivors of domestic abuse, her turn is all too vivid and relatable. For the rest of us, it is a harrowing window into an ever-present blight on society made all the more accessible by McDormand’s humanistic work.
On the other end of the spectrum is her comic part in latter-day Coen ensemble piece Burn After Reading (2008). Her skittish, floundering Linda works at a gym and longs for stereotypical Hollywood good looks through plastic surgery. The acquisition of incriminating CIA files seems like just the ticket to make her dreams come true, but she and her idiot colleague, played by Brad Pitt, are in way over their heads tussling with spies and assassins. What could have been a superfluous, just-for-laughs job is given intricate human detailing both by the Coens’ fabulous script and especially McDormand’s staggering commitment to the smallest details of her deeply flawed character.
Usually playing second fiddle to a more straightforwardly “Hollywood” lead, McDormand most memorably got her chance to truly shine in the seminal Fargo – for which she won Best Lead Actress at the Oscars in 1997. Her considered, affectionate work as police detective Marge Gunderson is some of the best work she, or any other performer, has ever put onscreen. Marge is a hero for the ages, impossible to imitate and so much more than the surface amusements of her cutesy Minnesotan accent and cheeky chipmunk smile. Marge is the result of an actor and a script working in perfect harmony, giving the chaotic caper its dependable, lovable touchstone.
Since Fargo, it’s been largely a string of top dollar side gigs for McDormand. Her supporting turns, all fantastic, are beyond count. While almost synonymous with her perpetual collaborators the Coens, to one of whom (Joel) she has long been married, she has appeared on the sidelines of many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ absolute prime cuts. Primal Fear, North Country, Moonrise Kingdom – there are more than enough gems there to forgive appearances in duds like Aeon Flux or a quick sojourn into Michael Bay’s Transformers clusterfuck (which probably earned her a fatter cheque than any ten indie darlings combined, in all fairness).
But now, we can only hope, McDormand’s time to truly shine has come again. Martin McDonagh, until now yet to top his revelatory In Bruges, returns to cinemas this week with the superlative Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – and our Frances finally gets another long-deserved starring turn. In a film populated with dynamite performances from celebrated character actors such as Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, McDormand is once again the solid centre of the swirling anarchy.
Where this black dramedy veers down unexpected tonal side-alleys and often bites off a little more than it can chew, it remains a roaring success thanks to McDormand’s blinding performance as grieving mother Mildred Hayes, who seeks retribution for the murder of her teenage daughter a year earlier. Raging against an apathetic police force and a township with its priorities skewed in exasperating directions, Mildred is an irrepressible firecracker and a defiant warrior.
McDormand’s awards success must surely be inevitable, and Three Billboards serves as testament to her sheer power as a character actor of nuance, depth, and humanity and her status as absolute screen royalty. She is one of the greatest performers of this or any era. Long may she reign.
Top Five Frances McDormand films:
5. Almost Famous (2000)
One of the finest movie mothers, McDormand here captures the mixture of pride, melancholy, and fear that goes into single parenthood as your children stake their own claim on the world and finally let go of home.
4. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)
While Amy Adams explodes off the screen in Bharat Nalluri’s sweet comedy, McDormand’s quiet, unassuming portrayal of the titular character slowly expands into a nuanced and deeply moving portrayal of a woman longing for more from life.
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
A travesty if this isn’t McDormand’s ticket to an awards sweep across the board, she is the stoic, verbose, smouldering centre of this rich, sublime black comedy. Dark humour, sweet pathos and absolute tragedy go hand-in-hand through her deft work here.
2. Mississippi Burning (1988)
One of a handful of great early turns, here McDormand is quietly fierce as the long-suffering wife of a racist, abusive deputy sheriff in a town poisoned by its racial tensions.
1. Fargo (1996)The definitive McDormand performance and the quintessential Coen hero, Marge Gunderson is truly one of a kind in the cinematic pantheon. Wholesome, humble, funny and sharp as a knife, she won McDormand her first and only acting Oscar so far.