Even if Frances McDormand did nothing but make movies with the Coen brothers, she’d be one of our most compelling actors.
Give or take Meryl Streep, she gets the best roles available for her age group, and because she’s always been a character actor, the richest part of her career may be the past couple of decades. Even when she thinks she’s bad — she said she didn’t know what she was doing in a damsel-in-distress part in “Darkman” — she’s still fascinating.
But it’s the Coens who know how to utilize her talent best. McDormand has said she automatically says yes when the St. Louis Park natives — her husband Joel and his brother Ethan — ask her to appear, which means she plays big roles and small roles, smart people and doofs, elegant ladies and down-at-the-heels stragglers.
Hollywood could be said to have a certain type of McDormand role — women who are steely, resourceful and smart — but the Coens cast McDormand as if she can play pretty much anyone. And they’re right: a weary schemer in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” a dimwitted social climber in “Burn After Reading” and, coming next year, the murder-minded Lady Macbeth in Joel Coen’s “Macbeth,” with Denzel Washington in the title role.
I can’t wait to see McDormand’s take on that character, who can be interpreted in so many ways. Will she be a manipulator? A survivor of trauma? A madwoman? Whatever choices McDormand makes, they’re bound to be revealing and original.
That’s been true since McDormand interpreted a character who could have been called the femme fatale of “Blood Simple” but who was much more human and grounded than those femmes tend to be. McDormand always brings unexpected dimension to her roles, whether it’s her deep dive into HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge,” in which she fully embodied a character that lovers of Elizabeth Strout’s book thought couldn’t be captured on film, or even her government wonk in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” a part that was more about a paycheck. Of course, she’s outstanding in both of her Oscar-winning performances, although the rest of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has aged badly.
McDormand walks a fine balance, capturing relatable characters you instantly feel you know but who also remain mysterious, keeping secrets from us that only the actor knows. In movies such as the rock drama “This Must Be the Place” or the adventure “Aeon Flux,” she’s cast because directors know she can bring intelligence and grit to a role that doesn’t look like much on the page. But when she has great material, as she does in these seven, she’s at her secretive best.
Her first Oscar-winning role, McDormand’s Marge Gunderson is simply one of the most surprising, endearing and complex characters ever committed to film. Her baffled delivery of the line, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Dontcha know that? And here ya are and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it,” will never not be moving. (Fun fact: Twin Cities director/actor Larissa Kokernot schooled her on the accent.)
McDormand is essentially an even bossier Mary Poppins in a zippy comedy set on the day that World War II began for England. Her Miss Pettigrew briskly settles the affairs of a madcap starlet (Amy Adams), just in time for a heartfelt romantic finale that (a) underscores how infrequently McDormand has played love scenes, and (b) makes you wish she’d do many more.
It’s hard to think of an actor of McDormand’s standing who has never done a biopic or played an actual person in a movie. Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical comedy about his teenage years as a rock journalist is the closest she has come, and it put her in the odd position of playing her writer/director’s mom. She could have come off like a neurotic disciplinarian, but instead emerges as a tart, curious woman who’s willing (barely) to admit when she’s wrong.
The most timid character that Illinois native McDormand has played is a Southerner whose history of being abused by her husband leads her to feel a kinship with the Black folks in a Mississippi town where ’60s activists are shaking things up. Her character knows about the fate of a murdered activist, and to add to the danger, finds herself attracted to a federal investigator (Gene Hackman).
McDormand may have established herself as a voice of conscience in “Fargo,” but she’s also fun when she’s unprincipled. She has played a handful of terrible people, but none with more zest than her hair-bobbed, dopey evildoer in the Coens’ farce. Runner-up: “Promised Land,” where she’s vile and funny as a big fan of fracking and polluted water.
Back in Minnesota and back speaking truth to power, McDormand has her most moving role as one of several female Iron Range miners who become part of a sexual harassment lawsuit. Niki Caro’s drama was inspired by the excellent nonfiction book “Class Action,” although the actual protagonist, Lois Jenson, was not involved in the movie.
This political thriller — recently available again on Amazon — is prime early McDormand, warm and intelligent. She’s an activist who gets mixed up in Ireland’s Troubles and learns how the rot of corruption filters its way down to the lives of average people.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367