Frances McDormand: Portrait of a “Forever Relevant” Anti-Muse

With her recent Oscar for Best Actress for Nomadland, Frances McDormand entered the very private club of three-time Oscar-winning actresses, alongside Meryl Streep as well as Katharine Hepburn and her four statuettes. But the comparison stops there.

A double feat since she received her last two Oscars in just three years, in 2018 and 2021, proof that the years in no way alter her ambition. She says it herself, her most daring roles, she had them after 50 years. Perhaps because contrary to Hollywood custom, she accepts to grow old. And above all, because it has not let ageism do its work. Fearing that interesting projects would become increasingly rare, she became a producer and thus created tailor-made roles for herself.

“After a few wedding anniversaries, one drenched evening, I asked Joel [Coen, son mari, ndlr] : “Am I your muse?” He replied: “No!” And all in all, I’d rather be his producer. “

If public and critics easily agree on the fact that she is one of the most talented and unique actresses of her generation, she remains a real enigma in the Hollywood landscape. So let’s try together to decipher the McDormand mystery.

The Coen’s anti-muse

Next year, the actress will be 64 years old and will complete a symbolic loop. She will sign her eighth collaboration with Joel Coen, her husband in the city for nearly forty years, in The Tragedy of Macbeth, his first solo production, without the collaboration of his brother Ethan. Alongside Denzel Washington, the actress will play Lady Macbeth, in the adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy. And ironically, the Queen of Scots was the leading role of Frances McDormand when at 14, she made her debut on the stage.

Passionate about theater, she then graduated from the prestigious Yale School of Drama. It is thanks to the defection of her roommate that she will get her first film role in Blood for Blood, first feature film by the Coen brothers. During his masterclass at the Lumière Festival in 2019, the actress will remember:

“It was a great experience because everyone was starting out. I was the most experienced, because I came from the theater, but I had never worked for the cinema and I was afraid of overplaying. So I never did. nothing. A friend said to me: ‘I love your bias to stay like this with your mouth open.’ I confessed that it was not a conscious choice… “

She would fall in love with the eldest director and twelve years later, she would bring her first Oscar home to the siblings for her portrayal as a determined Minnesota cop and ear-to-ear pregnant in Fargo. A role of pure composition for the one who, during the filming, awaited the response of her adoption request. Green light, the couple will adopt in Paraguay Pedro McDormand Coen. Frances McDormand is also an adopted child, raised by a pastor father and a nursing mother, in a conservative, strict and religious environment.

“The whole first part of my career, I was content with supporting roles where I promoted others, because I wanted to have time to raise my son. But when he left home, I decided to be protagonist.

Thus, over the course of her impressive filmography, an appetite for the roles of women emerges, defying all the expectations of society concerning femininity and motherhood. From Linda Litzke to Mildred Hayes, via Marge Gunderson, it’s a constant: she never makes an effort to be loved, her, her game, or her characters. At New York Times, she will confide:

“I used to ask Joel, ‘Why don’t you write better roles for women? Well, why don’t you write a role for a man that you let me play?'”

The art of dodging

The one that official and formatted speeches do not interest them prefer side steps. On the Oscars stage last April, she concluded her brief speech with a wolf howl, a tribute to Michael “Wolf” Snyder, the sound engineer for the film who recently took his own life.

She is one of the most awarded actresses but does not like to bow to the game of ceremonies with great pomp, yet customary in the middle of the seventh art. When her husband and brother-in-law were asked to produce the Oscars, she suggested they relocate the party from Los Angeles to Coney Island, “to force Hollywood celebrities to mingle with the people“.

If she seems to be a simple personality and in no way inaccessible, she nevertheless refuses the majority of media requests since Fargo. The actress also has a very strict policy when it comes to selfies. She never accepts them, preferring to offer her fans a short conversation instead. One could fear for its survival in the Hollywood jungle but this requirement has on the contrary fueled a saving scarcity.

And Nomadland was a real consecration for its director, thought through the prism of this desire for anonymity, it is also for Frances McDormand. She is the instigator and the producer of the project, it is she who went to seek Chloe Zhao to bring to the screen the book of Jessica Bruder. She was then convinced by the director to play the leading role and thus became the first professional actress directed by the Chinese filmmaker. It is therefore surrounded by non-professional actors, mainly from nomadic communities and who were unaware that she was a multi-Oscar winner, that she lived these months of filming, like a fish in water.

She therefore carried this project financially and personally but also took the opportunity to realize an old fantasy, that of leaving Hollywood once you reach sixty, to regain anonymity by changing your name and settling in a van to live on roads.

McDormand, a film by Chloé Zhao

So, Nomadland could prove to be an effective reading grid to unravel the mystery of the actress. Always on a tightrope between benevolence and rigidity, gentleness and misanthropy, Fern and Frances trace their route in the American West, one in his van, according to the meetings, the other thwarting all the Hollywood traps. Oscar winner for composition performance roles, in Fargo and 3 Billboards, The panels of revenge, she is this time rewarded for a completely different role, which plays with the borders of reality without erasing them.

In Nomadland, Fern’s life responds to that of Fran (ces) and Zhao has infused his film with little touches of reality and interwoven certain details of his actress’s life into his story. So Fern’s precious dinner service was truly given to Frances by her father when she graduated from college, and Fern’s sister is played by a dear friend of McDormand’s. To best prepare for the shoot, the actress also lived with nomadic communities and held various seasonal jobs harvesting beets in Nebraska or in a warehouse in California.

But fearing that Nomadland becomes “McDorland”, a kind of documentary to her glory, the actress preferred to set limits. As she recalls in her Oscar acceptance speech, Frances is not Fern. She therefore refused that her son Pedro and her husband Joel appear in the film, initial will of Chloe Zhao.

It is therefore difficult to define Frances McDormand. It may be in the columns of the New York Times that we would find the beginning of an answer. These are the words of Chloé Zhao, which are both the most beautiful of compliments and the best definition of the actress: “Frances McDormand has never lived up to the criteria of an ageist industry and that’s why I think it will be relevant forever.