Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning film Nomadland felt like a monolithic moment for mainstream American cinema, documenting the spiritual landscape of the country’s dusty outback with powerful grace. A glowing portrait of the country’s contemporary culture following four years of tumultuous jurisdiction, Zhao’s film is led by the potent vigour of Frances McDormand, guiding the story through a maze of the country’s most forgotten locations. Her performance in Nomadland is one that few other actors could have replicated, requiring a delicate touch as a wise observer of the lives of the nomad. Together with recent performances in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, she may just be the greatest living actress.
Growing up in Gibson City, Illinois, McDormand was the adopted daughter of a Disciples of Christ pastor, with both her newfound parents originally coming from Canada. Attending Bethany College in West Virginia, McDormand would earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre in 1979 before receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama in 1982. An astute and highly intelligent individual, McDormand saw the opportunity for potential success when a small audition arose for a film called Blood Simple, the debut film of the now-iconic directing duo of the Coen brothers.
Fatefully, she of course proved successful in the audition and would go on to play the key role of Abby standing out to Ethan and Joel Coen for her acting prowess, but also for her reported aloofness, initially saying she could not make it to a call-back audition as she had prior commitments. The audition would turn out to be the making of the actress in more ways than one, as a professional relationship would quickly blossom between her and the directors, with a personal relationship with Joel Coen also sparking.
Speaking of her working relationship with her husband and filmmaker Joel Coen, McDormand stated: “I think it’s having different stories to tell each other. Although we have often collaborated on films, we have both had really autonomous careers and so we have always had new things to tell each other”. This likely explains how their relationship has been so mutually beneficial, keeping each other constantly creative no matter if they’re working together or apart. Of course, the couple’s most successful collaboration remains Fargo, arguably the directing duos best film to date in which McDormand plays a polite and well-mannered police officer tasked with bringing down a bunch of bumbling criminals.
Officer Marge Gunderson is one of cinema’s most iconic characters in fact, a character they poorly imitated for the TV series of the same name, even though many try, you can’t get better than Frances McDormand. A character carefully lined with wonder, curiosity, vulnerability and fear, what makes Gunderson such a memorable character is that she’s so human, yet crucially no fool. It is in the intricacies of McDormand’s performance that all of this truth comes to light, with careful nuances exposing new secrets about the character.
It stands together with her heart-wrenching performance in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland as one of her very greatest outings, with both films showing McDormand as an actress able to allocate such impressive natural humanity that fiction seems to become reality. There is simply no other working actress that is able to tune in to such a specific frequency of performance, where every glare, every point and every step serves the character at play. With a clear perspective toward her life and career, McDormand states, “I’m a character actress, plain and simple…Who can worry about a career? Have a life. Movie stars have careers — actors work, and then they don’t work, and then they work again”.
Whilst she remains Hollywood’s greatest leading lady with three Oscar wins for Best Actress to her name, she takes the crown for the coolest too.