By Joe Valdez
Frances McDormand was born June 23, 1957 in Chicago, Illinois. Adopted by a Disciples of Christ minister and his wife, McDormand grew up in towns across Illinois, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee due to her foster father’s work setting up congregations. At the age of 8, the family settled in Pittsburgh. McDormand attended high school in Monessing, a voracious reader, but otherwise unremarkable student. An English teacher noted her passion for Shakespeare and suggested she consider theater arts.
Playing Lady Macbeth, McDormand recalled, “I did the sleepwalking scene and it was the first time I’d ever done anything that I felt was mine. I took it much more seriously than the other kids. When we were backstage, for example, I knew it was important to be quiet when other people were acting. It seemed like I knew the ethics of the theater environment intuitively. It became clearer and clearer to me that acting was the only thing I knew how to do.”
McDormand earned her Bachelor’s Degree in theater at Bethany College, a liberal arts school in West Virginia affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. She recalled, “I was completely naive about the business of being an actor. My family didn’t go to the theater or to the movies. We watched television, like every 1960’s small-town American family, and I certainly never thought about being on TV. I thought I was going to be a classical actor in the grand tradition.” McDormand was accepted into Yale Drama School, where she befriended a classmate named Holly Hunter.
Receiving her master’s degree in theater, McDormand moved to New York in 1982, where she shared an apartment with Hunter in the Bronx and eked out a living waiting tables. Hunter had already made a Broadway splash in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and had even been offered the female lead in a low budget film noir shooting in Texas. Hunter informed rookie director Joel Coen and co-writer/ producer Ethan Coen that she wasn’t available, but suggested to her roommate that she go read for the part.
In 1984, McDormand made her film debut in Blood Simple — the critically acclaimed debut from the Coen brothers — and launched her New York stage career in Tina Howe’s Painting Churches. 16 years later, the actress would muse, “It’s a scary thing going into the workforce with a $50,000 debt and you’ve been trained as a classical theatre actor. There’s always a depression in the theatre. There’s only two givens with choosing acting as a profession: one is you will always be unemployed, always, and it doesn’t matter how much money you make, you’re still always going to be unemployed; and that you have no power. The only power you have is the word ‘no.’”
In short order, McDormand would say ‘yes’ to a six episode arc on one of television’s most prestigious dramas (Hill Street Blues, 1984), a tongue-in-cheek drive-in flick written by the Coens and directed by Sam Raimi (Crimewave, 1985) and a Coen brothers comedy (Raising Arizona, 1987). By this time, McDormand was also married to Joel Coen. While McDormand’s run on a promising cop show called Leg Work only lasted seven episodes on CBS in 1987, the following year, she would reap a lion’s share of attention playing the battered wife of a Klansman (Brad Dourif) in Mississippi Burning, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 31.
Accepting work in a number of high profile movies — the female lead in Sam Raimi’s big studio ticket (Darkman, 1990), Demi Moore’s gal pal (The Butcher’s Wife, 1991), a part in a Robert Altman ensemble (Short Cuts, 1993) – McDorman would be impossible to miss in ‘96. She played a boozing hooker in the heist comedy Palookaville and had an unforgettable scene as the “highly strung” football crazed ex-wife of Chris Cooper in John Sayles’ Lone Star. Appearing as a criminal psychiatrist in Primal Fear that same year, McDormand virtually disappeared into the fabric of the legal thriller starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Edward Norton.
McDormand would receive an Emmy nomination for her performance as a soulful mechanic in the 1996 Showtime movie Hidden In America. Holly Hunter had this to say about her friend at that time: “Frances always had wonderful instincts. She’s grown into herself mightily over the last several years, but even when I first knew her I felt she had a real strong sense of who she was. Some actors say they don’t know themselves at all and that’s why they act, because they can disappear into other people. But with Frances I think it comes from a sense of self.”
McDormand had popped up in four of her husband and brother-in-law’s films, but her starring role as Marge Gunderson — the very pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota — in the Coen brothers 1996 masterwork Fargo cemented her place in film history, earning McDormand an Academy Award for Best Actress in the process. Frances McDormand has grown into an actress whose exuberance and subtle willpower are impossible to miss, or forget: as a German Jew interned in a Japanese prison camp in Paradise Road (1997), a Tony nominated turn as Blanche Dubois in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire staged in Dublin in 1998, starring off-Broadway opposite Billy Cudrup in Dare Clubb’s Oedipus, or Academy Award nominated performances in Almost Famous (2000) and North Country (2005).
McDormand has also stayed active in the 52nd Street Project, a non-profit theater group that mentors kids from Hell’s Kitchen. She summed up her career in 1998 by commenting, “By saying I’m a character actor and that I play supporting roles in films, I’m not being self-deprecating. That’s my agenda — because character actors work until they decide not to work. Leading women can work forever on stage, but they have peaks and valleys in film work. By saying this is what I am, I have control.”
Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“How Frances McDormand Got Into ‘Minnesota Nice’” By Graham Fuller. The New York Times, 17 March 1996
“I’d Love To Play A Psycho Killer” By Michael Ellison. The Guardian, 26 January 2001
Frances McDormand. Turner Classic Movies