Actor Appreciation Day: Frances McDormand

Why can’t more angry white women be like the characters she plays?

Movies Features Frances McDormand
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Actor Appreciation Day: Frances McDormand

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an influx of overprivileged, self-centered, pale-faced ladies (or, as they’re better known, “Karens”) raising a ruckus, usually about the wrong thing. Whether it’s being forced to put on a mask in public or calling the cops on Black folk because they’re minding their damn business and mostly having a good time without them, these white girls are making it their business to let everybody know it’s all about them and everyone needs to pay attention to that.

Frances McDormand is also an angry white woman, but unlike these batty gals, she doesn’t make a big show out of it. And when she does, she usually wins a lot of awards for it. (And when she does accept those awards, she uses the time to shout-out things like “inclusion rider.”) McDormand is one of the most acclaimed, American actresses working today, a veteran of stage and screen. She’s amassed a bunch of awards—Oscars, Emmys, a Tony, etc.—for her work, and it looks like she may get a lot more for her lead turn as a van-driving vagabond in Nomadland, which people can currently see in theaters (even in IMAX!) and on Hulu.

McDormand has had a chameleonic acting career where she mostly took on roles which had her stealing the show when the audience wasn’t really expecting it. When she won an Oscar for her portrayal of pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo, she didn’t show up until halfway through. And when she did, the audience was ready to follow this keen, intelligent and quite fascinating crimefighter to the ends of the earth.

Fargo was directed by her husband Joel Coen—who is, of course, one-half of the Oscar-winning Coen brothers—who has put her in credited and uncredited roles in Coen bros. movies for years, including their noirish 1984 debut Blood Simple, where she basically served as the film’s femme fatale. But McDormand has also worked with everyone from Robert Altman (Short Cuts) to Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning) to Sam Raimi (Darkman) to John Sayles (Lone Star) to Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) to—believe it or not—Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon). She also devoted equal time to female filmmakers like Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give), Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon), Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money), Niki Caro (North Country), Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux) and Chloe Zhao (Nomadland).

In recent years, McDormand has gotten more front-and-center in roles, mostly playing cantankerous ladies who are defiantly choosing their own path. And she’s gotten trophies for those roles. When she got together again with Cholodenko to play the cranky, titular character in the 2014 HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, she got an Emmy for her performance. She nabbed her second Oscar for her role as the angry mom who wants to know how her daughter was killed in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2017. For her performance in Nomadland, McDormand literally goes where the road takes her, as her lone wolf of a character continually finds a comfortable spot across this open land to park and perch.

But even when she’s out of character, McDormand is someone who can be best described as endearingly crabby. She doesn’t do autographs, often offering instead to have “a human exchange” with fans by hugging them or some other form of interaction. She doesn’t do talk shows and rarely does interviews. A New York Times profile mentioned that she has a publicist whose job mostly consists of politely telling journalists to go away.

But despite being an actress who doesn’t care for the spotlight, McDormand has become an actress you can count on to play women audiences can easily see out there in the real world. Surly, argumentative, complicated, relatable—McDormand has mastered the art of playing women people know all too well. They’re your wives, your mothers, your sisters, your exes, your co-workers. They can be badasses one minute, and maternal as hell the next. (I’m reminded of that scene in Billboards when she’s busting the balls of Woody Harrelson’s interrogating police chief and immediately gets into mom mode when dude starts coughing up blood.)

As combative and difficult as they may be, McDormand usually plays women who are genuine, honest and ultimately sympathetic. Even when she played cheating spouses, as she did in Blood Simple, Moonrise Kingdom and Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, you never judged her for it. They’re also caring as hell. I mean, who wouldn’t want a mother as loyal and dedicated as the ones she played in Billboards and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (which landed her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress)? These women wouldn’t be caught dead bitching about wearing a mask inside a Whole Foods or Black people having a fun barbecue at the park.

McDormand’s women are not out to persecute or punish those who aren’t in the same race and/or class. Many of her characters (especially the one she plays in Nomadland) know we’re all in the same boat and we all need each other if we’re gonna get through this shit. And they’re all played by a woman—an anti-Karen, if you will—who feels the same way.

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.