A-List: Frances McDormand
By Sean Collier
September 11, 2008

They're all incendiary! Seriously, rent Almost Famous or BOP will have you beaten.

Typecasting is tricky. As an actor, there's no sure way to prevent it; as a filmmaker, it benefits you to do it. Early in a career, it's a good thing; then, suddenly, it's a bad thing. The only escape, for a performer, seems to be to ensure that there's absolutely no type that you could possibly fit into; to play such a wide variety of roles that every person who sees you thinks of a different character (or better yet, is just impressed.)

Frances McDormand is a performer like that. A lesser actress would've gotten lumped into the "character" bin, doomed to always play the friend, the aunt, the sidekick; worse yet, a lesser actress might've been trapped by her most significant characters, and repeated those roles ad infinitum. (And there are only so many parts for tenacious, folksy North Dakotans.) McDormand, however, has accepted widely divergent parts throughout her career, and somehow, nothing's ever felt like a stretch for her. She can do anything.

More impressive still, as her career moves through its third decade, she actually seems to be reaching further. By no means should anyone ever watch Æon Flux, but seriously – I have no idea what she even was in that movie. It sure as hell wasn't Miss Pettigrew. Or Marge Gunderson, for that matter. There aren't many actresses that can pull off a range like this, but to be fair, she is ridiculously, preposterously good.

In honor of the Coen Brothers saving the month of September with Burn After Reading, The-A List presents the best of Frances McDormand.

Mississippi Burning

Mississippi Burning is a movie full of large, angry men. The vast majority of the film consists of large, angry men looming large and being angry at one another, and expressing that large anger through various means. This, like all conflicts between two parties that are both large and angry, gets nowhere. It's the intervention of McDormand's character, the soft-spoken wife of Brad Dourif's murderous Deputy Pell, that ends the conflict; McDormand's performance is also the balance the movie needs. The film simply wouldn't work without her. As a side note, Mississippi Burning is now the first film I've put in two A-Lists. If you haven't seen it, put it on the top of your queue now.

Short Cuts

For some reason, Nashville is almost universally accepted as the late Robert Altman's masterwork. I defy anyone to actually make it through Nashville in one sitting; for me, it takes about an hour before any intrigue kicks in. I'm much more fond of the structurally similar Short Cuts; the intrigue that Nashville lacks for long stretches never lets up in Altman's 1993 character piece. McDormand plays the realtor mistress of Tim Robbins' sleazy police officer in one of the complex film's most compelling plot threads. The cast also includes Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Lemmon, Lily Tomlin, Lyle Lovett, and Tom Waits. You should probably be sold by now.


The role that won McDormand her Oscar, Fargo holds up perfectly well...dammit, I can't even TYPE this without hearing that accent. I'm typing my own words, from Pennsylvania, and yet, my mind is reading everything in that North Dakota voice. I will get through this without a single movie quote. I will. I made it through like three Coen Brothers speeches at the Oscars last year without quoting her, and I'm going to make it through this paragraph. Not going to type it. Not going to....OH YAH YOU BETCHA! Aww, crap.

Almost Famous

In the midst of all of the groupies and golden gods, McDormand's role as the loving, protective parent in Almost Famous is sometimes overlooked. Take a moment, though, to consider the acting challenge. She had to take this incredibly over-protective, cautious character, and somehow make her allow her son to travel around with a rock band. She's restraining panic and covering it with this unconditional love in every scene of the film, and it works perfectly. This is a very underrated performance.

Laurel Canyon

A mostly overlooked indie drama from 2002, Laurel Canyon stars McDormand as an aging record producer enjoying a fling with her client-boyfriend (Alessandro Nivola,) and sharing a house with her adult son (Christian Freakin' Bale) and his new wife (Kate Beckinsale.) Angry mother-son stuff and unfortunate sexual combinations ensue, and the gorgeous SoCal setting works overtime. This is maybe the youngest (at heart) character McDormand ever played; a Peter Pan complex in full swing allows her to be more playful and irreverent than we've become accustomed to.

Friends With Money

McDormand takes another tough character – the successful, money-soaked housewife who's furious all the time for no good reason – and hits a home run in this under-seen 2006 comedy. It's basically the same role that Sandra Bullock couldn't quite handle that same year in Crash – the middle-aged woman, full of rage and prone to uncharacteristic outbursts, who somehow has to make sense of a perspective that simply doesn't. This was meant to be a Jennifer Aniston vehicle, but the rest of the cast (also including Joan Cusack and Catherine Keener in leads) grabs the attention.

One To Watch For

McDormand hasn't picked a project beyond Burn After Reading yet, so this section is fairly pointless this week. Take the 15 seconds you would've spent here and buy your Burn After Reading tickets, why dontcha? Dammit, I did it again.