Fargo star Frances McDormand suddenly goes from character actress to Oscar favorite.
March 1997
Photography by MARY ELLEN MARK


Six months ago, Frances McDormand was a quirky, working character actress with occasional flashes of brilliance in movies like Mississippi Burning-when she registered on the Hollywood radar screen at all. Next thing you know, she does a little movie called Fargo, winds up the Oscar front-runner, and everyone in Hollywood says they always loved her.

Anybody other than McDormand would be amazed. Because this year she just did what she's always done throughout her 17-year stage-andscreen acting career: played the hell out of a great character. Only this character was the lead in a movie aimed at arthouse Siberia that instead landed in critics' heaven. "The Coen Brothers [who wrote and directed Fargo] just tell great stories, from some weird place inside their heads," is how McDormand sums up Fargo's success-seven Oscar nominations. "And they've always had artistic control of their projects."

There's no underestimating the power of the Coen cult. Their fan base has grown throughout making Blood Simple (1983), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). The Coens wisely keep their budgets low, their box-office expectations modest, but take a lot of chances in terms of plot and style. And they've got great taste in actors: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Gabriel Byrne, John Goodman and John Turturro all excelled in the Coen's murky offbeat film noirs, on their way to certified Hollywood stardom. But none fared so well from one particular pic as McDormand, who sat back and watched, bemused, as the L.A. Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and countless other critics' associations pile awards (plus Golden Globe and SAG nominations) on her. All for her portrayal of one of the movies' plainest and sanest women: Marge Gunderson, a pregnant small-town cop in Brainerd, Minnesota, who singlehandedly solves a kidnap caper that leads to mass murder-without ever once losing the odd demeanor McDormand calls "Minnesota Nice" and her heavy hayseed accent.

And Marge never takes off her clothes, commits adultery, becomes a serial killer, does a courtroom scene, gets a terminal illness or has a nervous breakdown. How many female Oscar nominees can say that?

The 39-year-old McDormand did not have to kill for the part other actresses are now calling the best female role of the year, and one of the most unique ever for a leading actress. That's because she's married to Joel Coen. "Yeah, Joel and Ethan pretty much wrote Marge for me," she admitted the day after The Golden Globes-one of the few awards she didn't win (Madonna did.) But you can't accuse McDormand of nepotism. She and her writer/director husband met when he gave her her first movie role in his first movie, Blood Simple, and after they meandered into becoming a couple, didn't work together again 'tii now.

"During Blood Simple, we felt it was very unprofessional for two people who were working together to get involved," she says, over a coke with lemon in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills ("it breaks up the nicotine"). "So we admitted our attraction, but didn't really act on it 'til the movie was finished. And then, after we got involved, we made a conscious effort to work separately, to try to establish our identities independently of each other. Anyway, I couldn't expect Joel to cast me in every single one of his female parts," she says, understandingly. "Although they're all such great parts, I kinda wish he had."

She didn't ask, but McDormand couldn't resist hinting. Eventually, when they were finished writing Fargo, Joel and Ethan handed it to her without prefacing it in any way. She had no idea what to expect. And she wasn't exactly flattered.

"But when I first read Fargo, she says, "I laughed, but I was a little miffed. 'Ha, ha, ha, OK you guys, you want me to play Marge?' There's a certain amount of my background that's a lot like Marge. I grew up in the corn belt, in Illinois, and of course, they're very aware of that. They grew up as fish out of water, as Jewish kids in Minnesota. The movie is sort of their homage to their childhood. But as an actor, you're looking for something that's far away: give me a good psychokiller, a good prostitute. It wasn't until I started working on Marge that I realized that it was about truly transforming yourself into another person. And that was a bigger stretch than anything I'd done before."

But McDormand can't explain or articulate Fargo that much better than anybody else. At several public appearances, the Coen Brothers uttered few and nearly unfathomable monosyllabic responses to questions about Fargo's meaning-and the brouhaha that it was based on a real event that turned out, as the New York Post concluded, not to be so real. No one in Minnesota could find anything on the books about a small-town bloodbath related to a kidnapping that had occurred in the last 30 years.
Joel and Ethan said it was based on a true story," says McDormand, "because they didn't want anybody to say, 'Oh, that could never have happened.' They didn't want there to be a credibility gap in the audience's mind. What can I say? I can't really explain the way they think; they're geeks. Please. They're two nerds! They don't want to expose where those stories come from. Although, trust me, they do talk a lot in the privacy of their own homes. They have their own idiosyncratic logic." McDormand, an admitted former geek, believes geeks are deep down the coolest people-but is dead sure the Coens don't get that. "They have no idea, believe me," she chuckles. "They don't think they're cool. You know, you go through high school and college and young adulthood kinda accepting your role as an 'outsider'-whether you chose it or not. Arid you learn how to survive as that, to promote yourself as that. But when a very large club says, 'C'mon, join up'-you say, well I don't know how to. And anyway, the Coen Brothers have made a very successful career out of that aesthetic. They've cultivated their geekhood, and done it very well." want to do it every day for two months." Yet today, McDormand, having just come from picking up yet another critics' award, is dressed quite well: a knee-length gray coat, a hip shirt and a short skirt with high-heeled boots. She's got a chic little short haircut, wire-rim glasses, and a really cute structured small handbag. It's not anti her image because she simply doesn't have any image. She never bothered to create one. "Whadda ya think?" she says, in a very non-Fargo New York accent. "I was gonna be a big frump? I know! Everybody thinks that after Fargo, which I actually take as a compliment. They even thought I was really pregnant, cause Joel and I are married. How funny! "But in fact, I really love clothes. Even down-to-earth people like clothes, y'know. You wouldn't know it from any of the characters I've played. This coat is Morrissey Edmiston, the Australian designers. I picked it up in Northern Australia, when we were shooting Paradise Road for Bruce Beresford. And Collette Dinnegan, how 'bout her stuff? It's great, all that lingerie and lace. But I don't go for the teddy-on-the-outside look, that works better on Demi. I'd rather see it on her. But, hey-I've learned how to dress myself!"

McDormand proved that at the Globes, announcing with savvy as she strutted down the arrival line that she was wearing a vintage Haiston black jersey halter jumpsuit-then admitting later she borrowed the real one and had it copied by a local tailor. "Oh, dahling, I am a New York girl." she said to all the photographers, showing off the faux Halston and swirling around. "I am workin' the Emma Peel thing." The Golden Globes themselves were not quite what she expected."It was a very strange event," McDormand laughs. "As all these things go-they're all strange. It's not about work, it's about everybody slappin' themselves on the back. I thought it was great Madonna won. Then somebody told me Madonna said backstage to all the reporters that she voted for me, and Fargo was her favorite movie of the year. Isn't that sweet? And I've never even met her." Well-they're not exactly soul sisters. Only by the standards of the Hollywood Foreign Press could these two wind up in the same acting category. McDormand is a self-admitted feminist, with just the right amount of hip swagger one's come to expect from streetwise New York stage actresses who went to Yale Drama: the accent, the cigarette, a pronounced lack of makeup and pretension, but more important, a refusal, in fact a dismissal, to go with the rules for success Hollywood has laid out before her. "I really wouldn't enjoy playing 'The Girl' in a movie," she admits, "even though it could be fun to be some terribly glamorous character. But the problem is, supporting roles-for men and women-are written better. Writers have more fun with 'em. The job of the leading actors is to tell the story, and basically, to look good. When Sam Raimi, an old friend, cast me as "the girl" in Dark Man (with Liam Neeson), all I had time to think about after each take was, did I look good. That's pretty boring. It makes Marge all the more amazing."