Frances McDormand’s 10 best performances – ranked!

Shortly to be seen on our screens in Women Talking, the actor is enjoying a fruitful – and Oscar-hauling – career third act, creating work that is empathic, political, and often doesn’t look like acting at all

10. Wonder Boys (2000)

As the pregnant married lover of Michael Douglas’s silver-fox creative writing professor, this is the kind of fairly thankless ancillary role that McDormand does so well: giving us a subtle insight into the human frailties under the surface of an otherwise tough-nut authority figure.

9. Mississippi Burning (1988)

McDormand impressed the Oscar voters for the first time in this impassioned study of small-town racism, inspired by the real-life murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. Giving an early hint of her progressive politics (which would later see her link up with radical directors Ken Loach and John Sayles), McDormand plays the pivotal role of the cop’s wife who helps to break open the case, and gets a severe beating for her trouble.

8. Laurel Canyon (2002)

McDormand’s early roles tended to be of the hardscrabble, blue-collar serious variety, but a certain mid-90s thriller unlocked her gift for comedy and allowed her considerable leeway to cut loose. In this Lisa Cholodenko tribute to the LA music scene, McDormand plays a free-spirit record producer inspired by (but in truth not all that similar to) Joni Mitchell, embarrassing her son Christian Bale and freaking out daughter-in-law-to-be Kate Beckinsale.

7. Almost Famous (2000)

Another rock’n’roll epic, but McDormand is back in the somewhat-thankless corner, playing a 70s smother-mother to Patrick Fugit’s wannabe music journalist. More offspring-embarrassment – yelling “don’t take drugs” as she drops Fugit outside a Black Sabbath concert; berating longhair rock god Billy Crudup over the phone – but as ever, McDormand’s ability to empathise with characters that would be one-dimensional caricatures in others’ hands turns this into a minor tour de force (and got her another Oscar nomination).

6. Blood Simple (1984)

McDormand’s first film role in Blood Simple
‘She knocked it out of the park’ … McDormand’s first film role in Blood Simple. Photograph: MCA/Universal/Allstar

McDormand’s first film role could hardly have gone better: the lead in the Coen brothers’ neo-noir, as the cheating wife who is the only survivor of the welter of gruesome killings sparked by her waltzing off with one of her husband’s bartenders. (Director-star chemistry was confirmed when, shortly after the film’s release, she got married to Joel Coen. Looking at it now, there’s a certain (and entirely understandable) tentativeness to McDormand’s performance as she is asked to basically carry a feature; this accords with the Coens’ own uncertainties over pacing and other casting decisions. All things considered, though, McDormand knocked it out of the park.

5. The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Nearly four decades later, Joel Coen (sans brother Ethan) didn’t have to look far for the female lead for his tremendously styled adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy; as the Guardian’s chief film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote, Lady Macbeth is a role McDormand was “born to play”. Both McDormand and Denzel Washington exude a later-life weariness, concentrating on textual clarity in what is frankly an amazing-looking film, owing something to the old Soviet Shakespeare adaptations. McDormand shows impressive fixity of purpose, even if the actors’ contributions are slightly overshadowed by the production design and lighting.

4. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

One of the Coens’ most underrated films, anchored by a taciturn Billy Bob Thornton in a career-best performance. McDormand has a relatively small role, another cheating wife, but makes it incredibly vivid: from bathtime domesticity to dinner-party entertainer, to raddled jailbird. A pitch-perfect homage to film noir of the Double Indemnity school, this is a film stuffed with one delight after another – and McDormand makes every second count.

3. Fargo (1996)

Frances McDormand in Fargo
‘Slam-dunk brilliance ‘ … McDormand mastered ‘Minnesota nice’ as police chief Gunderson in Fargo. Photograph: Polygram/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Once again, the Coens didn’t have to look far; this was McDormand’s fifth film with the pair, but her first lead for them since Blood Simple. And it was revelatory: as pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, McDormand gave a comic performance of slam-dunk brilliance, negotiating a series of horrible murders with unflappable calm and ingenuity. And it’s safe to say her mastery of “Minnesota nice” – all that “you betcha”, “really super”, “oh jeez” – influenced an entire generation of comedians and actors. McDormand won her first best actress Oscar for this, and thoroughly deserved it.

2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Oscar number two arrived via Martin McDonagh’s undeniably Coens-esque drama, set in the fictional midwest small town of the title, and ushering in an extraordinary career third act that elevated McDormand to perhaps the greatest American dramatic performer of this generation. Her daughter murdered, McDormand’s Mildred Hayes takes on the local police department, triggering an increasingly desperate chain of circumstances that spreads out into the town. McDonagh’s writing allows McDormand to access a well of rage and grief that – arguably – the more restrained Coen films don’t; battered and bruised by life, Mildred’s avenging fury is an acting masterpiece.

1. Nomadland (2020)

Frances McDormand in Nomadland
‘Salt of the American earth’ … Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Photograph: AP

McDormand entered Daniel Day-Lewis territory with this, her third best actress Oscar win, for a film that counts as an unprecedented personal triumph: she optioned the source material, hired the director (Chloe Zhao) and was one of the producers as well as the star. Whatever you may think of the film’s starry-eyed portrayal of van-dwelling disposessed retirees, McDormand’s incarnation of the central role is entirely free of actorly self-consciousness, to the point she appears to be hardly performing at all. Utterly without vanity, seamlessly inhabiting a persona she apparently developed herself, McDormand makes her jobless widow Fern into a righteous icon of the salt of the American earth, resolutely making the best of a difficult situation without bitterness or blame. Zhao’s light-as-a-feather directing style plays its part, but McDormand’s work here is almost miraculous in its affect, making us wonder if we’ll ever be lucky enough to see its like again.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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