Coens to Crowe: 5 Favorite Films Starring Frances McDormand

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Today is a film-lovers’ holiday, or it should be, because today is the anniversary of the birth of one of the finest actresses to ever tread the celluloid: Frances McDormand.

After obtaining degrees in drama from Bethany Collee and freaking Yale, McDormand first garnered critical attention for her role in the Coen Brother’s breakthrough BLOOD SIMPLE. McDormand and Joel Coen, the film’s director don’t you know, married that same year, are still together today, and in the process have compiled an amazing list of collaborations that includes BURN AFTER READING, RAISING ARIZONA, HAIL CAESAR, and FARGO, for which McDormand of course won the Oscar for Best Actress.

Outside of her collaborations with the Coens, McDormand has been equally successful. She’s been nominated thrice more for an acting Oscar – for her work in MISSISSIPPI BURNING, ALMOST FAMOUS, and NORTH COUNTRY – and has carved for herself the career of an independent actress in the studio system, bringing clout and gravitas to smaller pictures like LAUREL CANYON that elevate them to mainstream currents, and adding credence and integrity to larger films like TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON that distinguish them as more than mere tentpoles.

In honor of Ms. McDormand’s life and career, here are five of my favorite of her performances (outside FARGO, which we all know she’s incredible in) presented in no certain order.

RAISING ARZONA, directed by Joel Coen
Though her role is supporting, McDormand steals every scene she’s in, which is tough to do given the great actors giving stellar performances around her. But her “Dot,” the baby-crazy, middle-class-trashy, domineering loudmouth is one of the comedic highlights in a film made entirely of comedic highlights. This was basically McDormand’s first significant, out-and-out comedic role, and she nailed it as hard as she had her dramatic work to date, which expanded her prowess as a thespian. You knew she was good after BLOOD SIMPLE; after RAISING ARIZONA you knew she was great.

SHORT CUTS, directed by Robert Altman
It’s tough to stand out in a Robert Altman movie, especially as a supporting character and especially in SHORT CUTS, which is the ultimate solution to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for actors of a certain generation (namely Bacon’s). But as Betty Weathers, ex-wife of helicopter pilot Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher) and current mistress of motorcycle cop Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins), McDormand managed to craft a scrappy, sultry, frazzled single mother looking to latch on to the first man she can find, taken or not. In a film where most of Raymond Carver’s characters feel a little sanitized and upbeat-en, McDormand remains true to the quiet desperation and gritty resolve of the source material, which is why in a sea of talent her wave breaks among the strongest.

MADELINE, directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer
This one is a little out of sync with the others on the list, but it’s another that showcases the breadth of McDormand’s acting ability. Tackling MADELINE as a property was hard enough, the books had been beloved by generations of women at the point the live-action film finally came along, but in taking on the role of Miss Clavel, the strict but well-meaning schoolmistress in charge of curtailing Madeline’s good-natured shenanigans, McDormand had to delicately balance comedy and drama while staying true to a classic character and also imprinting her own persona upon Clavel. Naturally, she pulled it off and then some. If you have kids and have to sit through movies like this, this one won’t drive you out of your mind after the seventh or so viewing, and part of that is because of the tempering of childishness McDormand brings.

ALMOST FAMOUS, directed by Cameron Crowe
McDormand is the perfect everymom in ALMOST FAMOUS, she’s overly-concerned and overly-protective but ultimately willing to sacrifice these instincts for the happiness of her children, acknowledging but bearing the grief it will cause herself. In my opinion, McDormand is more likable as Elaine Miller than she is as Marge Gunderson, because whatever appeal that arises from her performance comes not from the script, in which the character reads flatly as shrewish, but from McDormand’s interpretation of her, which adds empathy, understanding, and buoyancy. This is one of her most powerful, most endearing and most human of performances, and she – with all due respect to the great Marcia Gay Harden, who I’ve always appreciated and who totally should have been nominated more recently for THE MIST – should have gone home with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year, and yeah, that’s acknowledging that Kate Hudson was also nominated for the same award from the same film (in fact, that’s why I think Harden won, Hudson split the McDormand vote by being the popular face of ALMOST FAMOUS).

LAUREL CANYON
If ALMOST FAMOUS is McDormand at her sweetest, then LAUREL CANYON is her at her coolest. McDormand stars opposite Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, and Alessandro Nivola as Jane, a super-hip record producer who’s been working on her younger lover’s (Nivola) album too long now, filling most her time smoking hella weed and kicking back with a bottle or three; you know, digging that rock ‘n roll lifestyle. When Jane’s uptight son (Bale) and his repressed but curious fiancé (Beckinsale) come to live with her temporarily, the ensuing clash of lifestyles leads to more than one relationship unraveling, and more than one beginning. McDormand is pitch perfect as Jane, turning what some actresses would have made into a caricature into a nuanced persona equal parts joie de vivre and regret.

Honorable Mention: OLIVE KITTRIDGE
Technically this is a HBO miniseries and not a feature film, but I added it because a) it’s one of McDormand’s strongest performances yet, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe and won a Primetime Emmy, and b) it’s for anyone who looked at the above list and thought, “yeah, but what has she done lately?” Don’t worry, she hasn’t lost a step and in fact has gained a few more. McDormand will next be seen in Martin McDonagh’s (IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS) highly-anticipated THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI alongside Peter Dinklage, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

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