Frances McDormand is an actor truly in her own league. She is known for embodying the roles of powerful female characters with endearment and charisma, giving enigmatic, harrowingly convincing performances that leave any viewer transfixed. Time and time again, she is drawn to tragic yet formidable characters, women that have witnessed tremendous loss and struggle and yet will not cease to surrender what they believe in. Perhaps this is a coincidence, or perhaps this is reflective of McDormand herself. Her acting not only seems to repeatedly have a way with the public, but the critics too. This month, she was awarded her third Academy Award for Best Actress, this time in Chloe Zhao’s latest realism-inspired film Nomadland, which also received Best Picture from the Academy.
Based on the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, this latest docu-film is an inside look into life on the margins of America’s modern-day west. McDormand portrays the character of Fern, a woman, or ‘nomad’, who is forced to leave her old life behind and begin a life living on the road. She represents a group of very real and very prevalent Americans, whose lives were catastrophised by the financial crisis in 2008, leaving them economically ruined with few options for the future. Despite the somewhat tragedy of McDormand’s character, there is something blissful about the simple way of life that she portrays. Her performance is truly raw and unfiltered. It is not surprising that critic Peter Bradshaw has coined it the “performance of her career”.
McDormand is by no means a recently celebrated actor of our screens. Over the years, she has starred in numerous majorly successful films and defined them as her own. She is perhaps most idolised and commended for her indelible performance in the Coen brothers’ cult classic crime picture Fargo. A slightly more youthful McDormand plays the role of pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson, a chief investigator in a series of road homicides taking place. Her performance in the film is understated and yet utterly memorable, to the extent that the film was placed in the top 100 films in American history by the American Film Institute. This was the performance that won McDormand her first Academy Award of three for Best Actress. There is such emotionality to the simplicity in which Marge approaches the complexity of the events that life presents to her; the performance she gives is powerful and formidable.
Before Nomadland, her other most recent critically acclaimed performance was in 2017, aptly playing yet another dynamic female protagonist in the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand’s character Mildred Hayes wages war on the police of a small Missouri town following their failure to catch her daughter’s murderer. Unsurprisingly, her performance is once again epic and emotional, and it is no surprise this won her a second Academy Award.
McDormand’s formidable nature through her roles onscreen only extends to the persona she projects to the wider public in real life. Her unconventional and idiosyncratic public image powerfully rebels against Hollywood’s standards and this only furthers the fascinating image she presents. Not conforming to the celebrity and actor stereotype, she is known for refusing to take pictures with fans and offering a short conversation instead, stating “I’m not an actor because I want my picture taken. I’m an actor because I want to be part of the human exchange”. Perhaps McDormand will be a figure to shape many more changing attitudes to acting and embracing life in the limelight, all whilst promoting the portrayal of future rich and complex female characters.
Image: Suhaib Hassan via Flickr