the new yorker
Out of character
Frances McDormand changes roles.
March 3, 2003
Joan Acocella
Mary Ellen Mark

McDormand in New York City. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark.

The kidnap victim is lying dead on the kitchen floor. The murderer is out back, feeding his accomplice’s body into a wood-chipper. Slowly, crunching through the snow, the police officer comes around the house. She is a woman, and she is hugely pregnant. “Police!” she yells. “Hands up! Police!” The killer doesn’t hear her. The wood-chipper is making too much noise. Finally, he turns around, and she, thinking—though she is aiming a large firearm at him—that perhaps he hasn’t understood, takes one hand off the gun and points to the police medallion on her cap. He gets the message, and runs. She shoots, and brings him down. The scene ends with a long shot of this dark, busy creature running through a frozen whiteness to collar her man.

The movie is “Fargo” (1996), by Joel and Ethan Coen, and the officer—Marge Gunderson, the chief of the Brainerd, Minnesota, police—is Frances McDormand. The jokes—the pregnant cop, pointing helpfully to her medallion as she faces a psychopathic killer—are typical of the Coen brothers, whose movies often tell of a nasty crime breaking through the surface of a comically normal world, and treat the crime as wittily as they treat the world. That’s what has made the Coens controversial: unlike Hollywood product, their films usually have no clear moral center. But, in “Fargo,” the Coen brothers, whose movies often tell of a nasty crime breaking through the surface of a comically normal world, and treat the crime as wittily as they treat the world. That’s what has made the Coens controversial: unlike Hollywood product, their films usually have no clear moral center. But, in “Fargo,” the Coens supplied such a standard, in the person of Marge. Lest we miss this fact, she is given a small speech, as she drives the miscreant to the station. He has killed five people, she says. “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you. Don’t you know that? And here you are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” Apart from Marge, only a Sunday-school teacher could have delivered this homily. The Coens mean us to take it seriously, though, and that is probably why “Fargo,” alone among their films, gained a large popular following, and Hollywood’s blessing. They won an Academy Award for the screenplay. But they couldn’t have made “Fargo” the hit it was without McDormand, who won the best-actress award.

That prize, as McDormand suggested in her acceptance speech, was a gift not just to her but to all women in the movie industry, for it seemed to say that an unglamorous woman, playing an unsexy role, could still be a star, by dint of good acting. This week, a new movie is being released—Lisa Cholodenko’s “Laurel Canyon”—in which McDormand, at forty-five, at last plays a glamorous role, that of a rock-music producer, and she is sexy in it. She even has a nude scene, and a cute rock-star boyfriend. But this is not her usual sort of project.

When McDormand consents to see a journalist, she will generally make the appointment not at Le Cirque but at the Fairway Café, a noisy eatery above the popular New York grocery store. If she is on location, she will meet her interviewer in any old dusty corner she can find, and bring a sandwich. “I’m gonna eat lunch and talk at the same time,” she once announced to a surprised interview in Dublin. “So what do you wanna know?” After a first session at Fairway, my conversations with her took place in a handsome penthouse, with river view, that she maintains for business meetings and houseguests above the apartment she lives in with her husband, Joel Coen, and their eight-year-old son, Pedro, on the Upper West Side. Still, I saw sandwiches, twice. As for the woman eating them, she wears no makeup, and her blond hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail. She dresses in jerseys and jeans. She smokes; she cracks jokes. She is simple and direct. Her face is beautiful but severe—long and planar. It is like one of those pointy-chinned faces—the merchant’s wife, the burgher’s daughter—that stare out at you from old Flemish paintings. This is physiognomy; together with her no-nonsense manner, has won McDormand many unseductive roles: nuns (“Crimewave,” “Madeline”), browbeaten wives (“Blood Simple,” “Mississippi Burning”), put-upon girlfriends (“Wonder Boys,” “City by the Sea”), widowed mothers (“Almost Famous”), wise doctors (“Paradise Road,” “Primal Fear”), sad lesbians (“Talk of Angels,” “The Butcher’s Wife”). She casts a movie-star spell all the same. She tells me that, since “Fargo,” strangers stop her on the street and try out their Minnesota accents on her. “You betcha!” they shout. She can’t stand this. Why don’t they leave her alone? She thinks it’s because the character of Marge was so “nice,” so approachable. I think it’s because of her face. As with those Flemish ladies, you want to meet the mind behind it.

McDormand’s father, Vernon, was a minister of the Disciples of Christ, an offshoot of Presbyterianism; her mother, Noreen, worked as a receptionist. Vernon specialized in remobilizing failing congregations, with the result that McDormand’s early youth was spent in a succession of small towns in the Bible Belt. Vernon and Noreen had not biological children, but over the years they accumulated nine foster children. “They take in strays,” McDormand says. “They also have nine cats.” They managed to adopt three of their foster children, and McDormand was the last. She came to them at the age of one and a half, in a town in Illinois. Her birth mother may have been one of Vernon’s parishioners.

Frances didn’t like school much, apart from English. Because she was so often the new kid, she didn’t have a lot of friends. Also, she wore glasses, and she was chubby and shy. Being an outsider, she thinks, was a useful experience: it taught her to see beneath surfaces. “I never trusted good-looking boys,” she once said. “I mean, they never talked to me, but if they had I never would have trusted them.”

Then came the figure who so often appears in the story of the solitary, awkward artist-to-be: the adult who took an interest. The high-school English teacher noticed that Frances liked the selections from Shakespeare that were part of the syllabus, and she asked her if she’d like to read more Shakespeare with her after school, and memorize some speeches. Frances said yes. That teacher also directed the annual school play. “They were stupid plays,” McDormand recalls, “written specifically for high-school kids. So there was always the part for the popular girl and the popular boy, and then the friends of the popular girl and boy, and then the nerds.” The teacher gave Frances her choices of roles. “ ‘You can either play the lead girl,’ she said, ‘or you can play the girl who wears a cowgirl outfit and sings a song.’ For me, there was no choice. It had to be the cowgirl.

“During that production,” she goes on, “I realized I was sitting in a chair in the wings, listening for my cues, when everyone else was whispering and joking and seeing if they could hold people down when they were supposed to go onstage. I remember sitting there, and the popular girl came up to me and said, ‘You take this seriously, don’t you?’ And I thought, ‘Well, yes, I guess I do.’ It was the only thing I had that set me apart for myself.” Also, the ethics of the theatre—community, cooperation—corresponded to her family’s ethics. During her childhood, she embraced her parents’ faith wholeheartedly: “You know, Christian youth camp, during the summer, and the epiphany you would have under the stars, about your relationship with Jesus. I also French-kissed for the first time at youth camp, and that just added to it.” The minute she left home, she forgot about the church, but her parents’ values were still a force in her mind. Today, she is on the board of an organization, the 52nd Street Project, where children from Hell’s Kitchen gather after school to put on plays. She says that she joined the project not so much out of a wish to do good but because when she moved to New York she needed a community. Her best friends, she says, are the theatre people she met there.

McDormand went to Bethany College, a small Disciples of Christ school in West Virginia. The head of the theatre department told her that she should go on to Yale Drama School, and there she spent three years preparing for a career in classical theatre. Then she did what most aspiring young actors do: she moved to New York and got a job waiting tables. She took an apartment in the Bronx with another young woman looking to break into acting, Holly Hunter. Quite soon, McDormand landed her first big job, but it was not in classical theatre. It was in a murder movie, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Blood Simple” (1984)—their first film00which told of a Southern woman being hunted down by the husband she has been cheating on. Hunter had auditioned for the lead and been offered the job, but then she ran into a scheduling conflict, so she suggested her roommate. McDormand had had no training in film acting, and she says that the reason she spends so much of “Blood Simple” standing around with her mouth open is that she was scared out of her mind. One day, having reached a pitch of terror that she thought would be useful for the scene they were filming—the last scene, a real cardiac-inducer—she was faced with a problem common in movie acting: she had to wait while the crew set up the shot. Desperate, she crawled under a table and sat there crying: “Then I heard Joel say, ‘Where’s Fran? Anybody know where Fran is?’ Someone told him, and he got down on the floor and crawled under the table and said to me, ‘O.K., the next thing we’re shooting is such-and-such. Do you want to stay here until we do it?’ I’m nodding and sobbing. And he goes, ‘O.K., I’ll be back in a minute.’ He figured that was the way actors prepared.” (He had never directed anyone before.) They have been together since that conference under the table. After ten years, she recalls, she looked at him and thought, “I can’t believe he stayed. It was like, ‘You? Ten years? Let’s have a party!’“ So they got married, and, since then, another ten years have passed.  “He’s a funny, intelligent, decent person,” she says, “and he made me feel that way.”

After “Blood Simple,” McDormand looked for more movie jobs, but she did not have an easy time at auditions. She came of age in the seventies, and she was a feminist. Movies exploited women, she felt. At the same time, she worried about not being the kind of woman the movies wanted to exploit. “I was too little this, not enough that. I’d look through women’s magazines, or at TV and films, and I’d say to myself, ‘What can I be pleased with? Is there anything I can be pleased with?’ So it wasn’t just my beliefs—it was also my modesty and my insecurity—but I became very strict.” That process began early. In college, she says, she went around in overalls. She held her body in. (She showed me a photograph of herself in a college production of “A Little Night Music”: “Look, my shoulders are up around my ears.”) Her oldest friend, Melissa Smith, now the conservatory director of San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre), says that when she first laid eyes on McDormand on registration day at Yale, she said to herself, “‘That must be one of the techies.’ She was heavy, maybe twenty pounds more than she is now. She wore jeans, and she had short, short hair.” McDormand persisted in that look during her early casting-call years in New York. “I would sent out these headshots with no makeup and my chipped tooth. The casting people would be going, ‘What are we supposed to do with this?’” The presentation was not naïve. McDormand says that she went to auditions with an attitude of “Fuck you—you don’t want me.” Often they wanted her anyway.

But only as the cowgirl, not as the popular girl. McDormand has played a couple of floozies in her time, but in the twenty-odd feature films she has made most of her characters have been plain, virtuous women. However much she may have asked for this, she was discouraged by it. “I got put on the ‘good actor’ list,” she says—the list that directors turn to when they’ve exhausted the box-office list. She became a character actor. In interviews, she spoke proudly of that calling. Character roles, she said, were generally better written than starring roles. Also, they offered longevity. Glamour girls are here today, gone tomorrow, but the flat-shoe types can still get work in their fifties.

McDormand seems to have decided that character acting was an outpost of professionalism in what was otherwise the fatuous world of filmmaking. She always felt like an outsider in Hollywood, and not just because she and Coen lived in New York. A lot of scripts looked to her like nothing more than sketches. The dialogue was hopeless, “a sort of wash and of words coming out of people’s mouths between the visual spectacles.” And all this was surrounded by an orgy of flummery: perks, fuss, money-wasting. She resisted. She never brought her own hair and makeup people to the set. Many actresses do, and insist on it, but she felt that the director should have the right, and the responsibility, to decide how the characters’ faces would look, “so it’s consistent with the rest of the movie, not just with the vanity of the actors.” When, as has happened in recent years, she arrived on a set and found that she had been assigned a trailer that could sleep twelve—“There I am, sitting with my book and banana, in a giant motor home”—she asked for a smaller one.

Again, there is a note of perversity mixed in with the modesty. Concerned that she was too small-breasted for certain roles, McDormand got herself a pair of prosthetic breasts—“lovely, big, C-cup, jiggly things”—which she would haul around with her, in a box, to auditions. (She wore them in “Fargo,” because her character was pregnant, and on the subzero set one of them froze and exploded. “I advise women with silicone breasts who are going to Minnesota not to stand outside in the cold,” she told W.) But, whatever the dark comedy of her reaction to the film world, it was based on seriousness. I asked her whether her decision not to use her own makeup artist was an act of self-abnegation. “Maybe,” she answered. “But you’re hoping to earn by it. You’re hoping to earn artistically, and have a more interesting life.” She may also have earned more character roles.

But what kept her in character acting was probably her brilliance at it. McDormand, like most film people, has made her share of dogs, such as “Chattahoochee” (1989), a political movie about mental patients’ rights in Florida. I would watch that movie again, however, for the sake of the five minutes when McDormand’s character—Mae Foley, a no-account small-town woman—goes to visit her husband (Gary Oldman), a Korean War veteran who, having had a breakdown and shot up the neighborhood, has landed in a state mental hospital. She has come to tell him that she wants a divorce. He is a reformer; she, by contrast, is a regular person, on the slutty side, in a dress embroidered with flowers. She tells him that she can’t bear to wait for him, and throw away her youth. “I’ll die,” she says. She confesses that she has a new man. She blurts out that she wishes her husband had killed himself in the shootout. She repents of that instantly. She feels guilty. How can she divorce him? Still, could she please have a divorce? She wheedles; she vacillates. In the larger context of the movie, she is a villain, a representative of the forces in life that make people want a little pleasure—a new man, a nice dress—more than justice. Nevertheless, she is the most poignant thing in the movie. Political filmmakers should not hire McDormand to play their villains.

As for the better sort of movie in which McDormand played character roles, often she was the thing that made it better—for example, Alan Parker’s “Mississippi Burning” (1988), the story of two F.B.I. agents, Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, investigating the disappearance of a trio of civil-rights workers in a Mississippi town in the sixties. However grave its subject, this was a pretty standard buddy movie--and also an action movie, ending ina spree of violence. In it, McDormand plays Mrs. Pell, the wife of the town's police deputy, who, in the course of a shy flirtation with Hackman, tells him where the bodies are buried. For this, her husband beats her to within an inch of her life, and that is what sets off the good-guys-kick-ass orgy at the end of the picture. It’s all pretty fraudulent. Yet somehow it manages to keep standing, and McDormand, playing much the same role as in “Chattahoochee,” but the good version, is a large part of the reason. Watching her hesitations—indeed, just watching her honest, ordinary body, and how she’s tried to make it pretty (the pointy bra, the carefully ironed dress, the curl she’s put in her hair)—and then, when Hackman honors this, watching her decide to do the right thing, you, too, would beat up half the men in town for her, forget about the civil-rights workers. It was for this role that McDormand got her first Academy Award nomination, as best supporting actress.

Twelve years later, for “Almost Famous” (2000)—Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical tale about a fifteen-year-old journalist who is sent on tour with a rock band—she was again nominated in that category. She played the boy’s other, Elaine Miller, and the scene where she gets the band’s lead singer, Russell, on the phone and tells him, basically, that if he corrupts her son she’ll kill him, has gone down in film history:

"Hey, listen to me, mister. Your charm doesn’t work on me….This is not some apron-wearing mother you’re talking to. I know all about your Valhalla of decadence, and I shouldn’t have let him go. He’s not ready   for your world of compromised values and diminished brain cells…Am I speaking to you clearly? If you break his spirit, harm him in anyway…you will meet the voice on the end of this telephone, and it will not be pretty. Do we understand each other? I didn’t ask for this role, but I’ll play it. Now go do your best. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid—Goethe said that. It’s not too late for you to become a person of substance, Russell. Please get my son home safely. You know, I’m glad we spoke."

Billy Crudup, as Russell, begins the conversation by condescending to her. At the end of it, he looks like a child standing over a puddle on the floor. McDormand didn’t often get a speech as good as this—the Goethe quote! (Elaine is a college professor)—but, whatever she got, she made the most of it.

Some of her best assignments have been in the Coen brothers’ movies, but although her name is frequently linked with theirs, she has had important roles in only four of their nine films: “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona” (1987), “Fargo,” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001). She and Joel Coen decided early on that they would work independently of each other. “It was important to me that no one say I got a job because my boyfriend gave it to me,” she says. She was torn, though. She wanted to lead role in the Coens’ 1990 “Miller’s Crossing.” (It was given to Marcia Gay Harden.) She adds that that wasn’t the only one. She loves being in the Coens’ movies, she says, because they are so skillfully written: “Even when Joel and Ethan are bad, they’re good. The lines are funny. They’re economical. There’s a script. There’s meat on the bone.” She also likes working with the Coens because, having collaborated with each other for so long, they collaborate with others as well. They listen to suggestions. “You feel it’s your movie, too,” she says.

But the Coen films weren’t McDormand’s only escape from Hollywood. She worked onstage, as she was trained to do. She did “All My Sons” and “Three Sisters” (once as Irina, another time as Masha). In 1988, she played Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with Circle in the Square, and got a Tony nomination. She has also acted in experimental theatre—for example, the Wooster Group’s 2001 “To You, the Birdie!,” a free adaptation (the cast crawled around on the floor; videos were shown) of Racine’s “Phèdre.” When interviewers asked her which she liked better, film or theatre, she couldn’t really say. Theatre, she seemed to feel, was “work,” something you could get your teeth into. Film jobs were less satisfying. Still, she wanted to be in the movies. She just wanted better roles.

In the mid-nineties, there came a change in McDormand’s life, beginning with “Fargo.” The role of Marge Gunderson, which the Coens wrote for her, was actually another one of her schoolmarm assignments, and, in a sense—the sense that Marge undergoes no conflict or change—it was another character role. (Most roles in Coen movies are character roles.) She remembers that when the Coens showed her the script she didn’t like the part: “I felt like, Do I have to? Can’t I be somebody else?” But as they were making the movie she realized how good it was. “It’s our family movie,” she now says. “It has our sense of humor, our sense of strangeness, our background.” (The Coens, too, are Midwesterners. They were brought up in Minneapolis and, according to McDormand, felt like weirdos there, because they were Jews. They consoled themselves by watching movies many hours a day.) But “Fargo” was more than a family testament. It made McDormand a celebrity.

Then she got the Academy Award. She says she accepted that prize no so much with gratitude as with defiance. She received awards from better organizations, she figured—juries of her peers. “I thought, Well, we did this very good film, so thank you for your acknowledging it, but don’t assume that you have changed my professional life.” Actually, the award did change her professional life, a little. No directors who wanted to cast her in their movies had an easier time getting financing. (She told the Coens that she’d be happy to help out if they were in a jam.) But, whereas most Oscar winners immediately try to parlay the award into splashy new film roles, the next movie she appeared in was a children’s picture, “Madeline.” Then she went off and did two plays.

Around this time, something else happened. She and Coen had applied to adopt a baby, and in 1995 he arrived: Pedro, 6 months old, from Paraguay. She became a doting mother. (She had sworn that she would never be a slave to a man, she said: “Now I’m a slave to my child. I hold my hands out and let him vomit in them.”) Also, the fact of having a child finally defined her, in her mind, as a female. What maternity didn’t do, aging did. When young men stop looking at you, she tells me, this is a loss, but also a gain: you stop looking at yourself through their eyes. As she approached her forties, she decided, “Oh, fuck it, already. I’ll just be. I just am.”

One of the theatre jobs McDormand took after getting her Oscar was “A Streetcar Named Desire,” at the Gate Theatre, in Dublin. This time, she wasn’t Stella; she was Blanche, and she played it earthy. (In the final scene, when the doctor comes to take her away, she rubbed her leg against his. Some reviewers disapproved.) “That role,” she says, “was the punctuation mark on my turning into a woman as an actor. From then on, it’s been about my body, my age, my information.” As I understand it, the change she is describing is not the old scenario of motherhood conferring femininity on a shy girl, nor is it exactly a case of second-stage feminism, though it sounds a little like both. When she describes the factors involved in her decision to use sexuality in acting, the one that seems to make her voice rise is acting itself, her gathering sense that she was very good at it, and could now dare to put into it whatever she had. Simply, she felt a new sense of power.

There remained the problem of landing a movie role in which she could use that power. The Coens cast her as a tough broad in their most recent film, “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” but that character (the hero’s adulterous wife) was very stylized: an homage to the bad girls of film noir. Almost more sexy, McDormand thinks—or more forceful, more “out there”—was the role of the mother in “Almost Famous.” She remembers, however, that when, in the movie, her son goes on the road with the band, all she could think was that she wanted to go on the road with the band. She was tired of playing mothers and sisters. “Give me a good psycho-killer, a good prostitute,” she said to an interview at the time.

In the past few years, a number of young female director-screenwriters—Nicole Holofcener, Rebecca Miller, Karyn Kusama, Lisa Cholodenko—have begun turning out a new kind of “women’s picture.” Most women’s pictures, McDormand says, “are as boring and formulaic as men’s pictures. In place of a car chase of a battle scene, what you get is an extreme closeup of a woman breaking down. I cry, too, maybe three times a week, but it’s not in closeup. It’s in wide shot. It’s in the context of a very large and very mean world.” In Cholodenko’s “High Art” and Holofcener’s “Lovely & Amazing” and Miller’s “Personal Velocity,” women cry, but for complex, possibly even ironic reasons—not because their daughter is dying of cancer—and their sorrows don’t always find a resolution. McDormand was interested in these young filmmakers. “I knew they knew actresses their own age,” she says, “but they were going to need older women, too. They were going to need me.”

“Laurel Canyon,” Lisa Cholodenko’s second movie, is the story of Jane, a successful rock-music producer in her mid-forties. Jane had a child while she was quite young, and her son, Sam—a doctor now—is as conventional as she is freewheeling. In the first scene, he and his fiancée, Alex, are leaving Harvard for Los Angeles, where he will take up a residency at a local hospital and Alex will finish her dissertation on genomics. Jane has told them that they can life in her house in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles’s arty neighborhood; she’ll be elsewhere. But when they arrive she’s still there, with her rock-singer boyfriend—indeed, with his band. Many complications ensue. Basically, Alex falls in love with Jane, or with her world—to the intense discomfort of Sam, who thinks his mother and her cohort are a bunch of shiftless dope-hounds. He knows that Jane is charismatic, though, and, as played by McDormand, she certainly is.

The movie stresses Jane’s age—we’re repeatedly reminded that her boyfriend Is about the same age as her son—and yet McDormand is treated with all the dazzle that would be lavished on a starlet. Her clothes hang on her wonderfully. She is beautifully lit, almost haloed. In the nude scene, shot in a swimming pool, her hair is matted at her neck, but amid the rising vapors of the water and the whiskey sours, and with her pink body shining up through the ripples (“I wanted so much to do a nude scene,” she says), we seem to be looking at the birth of Venus. The sexuality is not pushy; it is free, relaxed. As events develop, it is also a source of difficulty. In another scene, Jane lies back on a couch, and undoes her boyfriend’s belt. The boyfriend (Alessandro Nivola) tells her he’s in this relationship for the long haul. She brushes this off. She’s playing the wise older women: easy come, easy go. And then a look of worry passes across her face. Not so easy go. She’s in love. It’s a wide shot. The movie has its problems. (For example, preachiness, of the counterculture variety.) Still, it is a gift to McDormand. She finally got to go on the road with the band. And her performance, as exuberant when she is stuffing melon into the juicer (she offers some to Alex—“it’s great for the colon”) as when she is rocking with the band, is a gift to us.

Soon after finishing “Laurel Canyon,” McDormand accepted a role in the play “Far Away,” a dystopic drama about ethnic cleansing—written by Caryl Churchill and directed by Stephen Daldry—which opened at New York Theatre Workshop last year. She played an old aunt, explaining to a child why people were being killed in the shed in the back yard. McDormand says that, at the beginning, she did not want this assignment: “Frump again! The frumpy clothes, the ugly wigs, the old-age makeup!” But she liked the play, and wanted to help put it onstage.

Looking back on her career, she is a little pained. She feels that much of it was cramped, misguided. But she comforts herself. She tells me to go see a movie, “Rivers and Tides,” about the English artist Andy Goldsworthy, who makes sculptures, in nature, out of nature—webs of twigs, ribbons of leaves, cones of stones—that, like nature, being dying as soon as they are born. Going out before dawn on a cold morning, he’ll put together a construction of thorns—“gluing them together with his spit,” McDormand says. "His frozen spit." Then, as the sun rises and the earth warms up, the sculpture falls apart. He accepts that. In the same way, McDormand tells me, she accepts the work she has done: “Goldsworthy says, ‘I don’t know this rock yet.’ And so he keeps working on that rock. That’s the way I feel about the past twenty years.”