As she once again mesmerises us on screen, this time in her film “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”, it might be worth paying closer attention to the insurmountable force of nature that is Frances McDormand. As an actress, we know that she is talented – she is one of the very few actors who has managed achieve to the much coveted “Triple Award” for acting (that is, she has won an academy award, an Emmy, and a Tony – no mean feat!). However, we also should recognize the fact that she is also an indie queen worthy of such a title; she has managed to achieve an almost unprecedented array of awards without straying much into the burning lights of mainstream Hollywood.
With a glance at her childhood, we can perhaps see how it was McDormand would become such a dominant force in the indie cinema; it’s unconventionality might have stemmed an early disdain for the ordinary and the archetypal. She was raised by a “Disciples of Christ” pastor and his wife, whom adopted her when she was 18 months old. She grew up surrounded by a mass of other children, one adopted brother and several foster siblings, who would all travel around with the couple for the pastor’s work. it was seemingly a loving, if naturally chaotic, upbringing.
Yet, even within this gingham framed picture of loveliness, McDormand could never have been twee; there was too much fire in her soul, an angry spark left from her birth mother’s abandonment. She herself explains that, despite having the opportunity to meet her biological mother in her late teens, she refused; she was too aware of how important that rage was to her as a person. It gave her that toughness, that power, that aura of indestructibility so recognisable in her acting as well as in her personhood. It gave her the enviable ability to take on the world and come up champion every single time.
It wasn’t until she was 14 years old, however, that these strengths would have been used within her acting craft. It was after being cast to play “Lady Macbeth” in her high school production of “Macbeth” that McDormand fell in love with acting. It was the first time that her great love, literature, “took [her] to a public place” one where she could “share it with other people”. From this first amorous encounter, her romance with acting only grew stronger, majoring in theatre at Bethany College West Virginia (a place she was able to attend on a scholarship through her father’s church), before attaining a M.F.A at Yale.
She wasn’t long graduated when she only secured her first big film role, the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple”. This truly was a pivotal moment in McDormand’s life for two reasons. The first is that this truly was a catalyst for her career; McDormand has not stopped working since, and her acting portfolio includes her impressive roles in Raising Arizona, Almost Famous, and, of course, Fargo. However, as well as being her first stepping stone into the world of lights, camera, action, the second transformative power this role had on her life was that it allowed her to meet the love of her life, Joel Coen. In their 33 years together, the couple has done an astonishing amount of successful film collaborations together, (including Fargo, Blood Simple, and Burn After Reading to name a few) as well as raising their adopted son, Pedro.
It is part of McDormand’s charm and brilliance as an actress that she fails to ever conform to Hollywood’s expectations. She claims that there is always something holding her back from being a Tinsel Town leading lady, whether it is because she is “too old, too young, too dark, too blonde” etc. So, instead, she got “really good at being the other”; that is, she mastered in being that alluring figure who cannot be fully understood, fully pigeonholed, as a stereotype. We never see her simply be the “pretty girl” or the “funny friend”; her characters are always robust, strong, attractive in their inability to be constrained rather than in having a cutesy demeanour or in their physical attributes alone. If we take Mildred (Three Billboards) as an example, she fails to be the psychopathic woman, the grieving mother, the estranged wife. She rejects all of these archetypes and is something in between; that is, a real, complex person. This is truly why McDormand is so important as an actress; her characters reveal the complexities of women as real people, and to highlight “the variety of ways in which women can express their emotion”. Her characters never just cry, as we have come to expect of most female roles nowadays.They kick, scream, fight, sing, laugh, without ever apologising for any of it. They encompass every emotion on the spectrum, which is exactly how it should be.