The Best Performances of Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand is one of the best actors of her generation, she has three Best Actress Oscars (having just won her third for Nomadland at the very recent Oscars), meaning she is tying with Streep, Nicholson and Day-Lewis and only one behind the current leader Katharine Hepburn. McDormand is one of those actors whose involvement in a film will get my attention, something I think Michael Bay was well aware of when she was cast in Transformers: Dark of The Moon and he was trying to trick me. Here are some of her best performances.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Mildred next to one of her three billboards, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri // Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

McDormand’s second Oscar came for playing bereaved mother Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered and no arrests have yet been made – in an effort to keep the crime in the spotlight Mildred pays for three billboards with a message to the police chief. Mildred already seems to have been a formidable and perhaps unpopular figure before this tragedy but her abrasive plan seems to alienate most of the town. As well as the police her wrath falls on the local priest, a dentist, high school students and more. Mildred is consumed with guilt about what happened to her daughter and when not focusing the resulting anger on herself it is cast outward.

Burn After Reading

This is a more traditional comedic outing for McDormand than some of her roles. Burn After Reading is an odd but enjoyable film and like many Coen Brothers films it revolves around simple mistakes that lead to bigger consequences. McDormand plays Linda Litzke a woman working at a gym and is obsessed with getting cosmetic surgery so she can look younger. When what seems to be classified CIA material comes into her possession Linda and the absolutely hapless Chad try their hands at blackmail. Linda is also in a new romantic relationship with George Clooney’s serial cheater Harry Pfaffer and these two elements of her life intertwine nicely. Her best moments come from acting opposite Richard Jenkins, her boss at the gym who is clearly besotted with her but she is not interested – her declaration that Jenkins’ character’s former job as an Orthodox priest “well, jeez that’s a good job!” always amuses me.

Good Omens

For this TV show, McDormand was cast as God – who is the narrator of the show, which is quite a role.

Almost Famous

Almost Famous
Elaine lambasting a rockstar, Almost Famous // Credit: DreamWorks Pictures

Despite not being the central character by any means McDormand’s performance as Elaine Miller is perhaps the most memorable in Almost Famous, in which her high school-age son goes off with a rock band as a music journalist and she has trouble dealing with this. What is really interesting is that Elaine’s objections to this are not what you expect – she is a very unusual woman, especially by the standards of 1969. Her objections to rock n roll seem to stem from a questioning of the artistic and intellectual value of this music, when Russell the charismatic frontman of the band tries to charm Elaine he is undone within seconds by her forceful and articulate attitude urging him to be better and do better.

Raising Arizona

A small role but McDormand is brilliant. After H.I. and Ed kidnap a baby when they learn they can’t have children they are paid a visit by H.I.’s boss Glen and his wife Dot – played by McDormand. Dot is an over-the-top incredibly excitable parent who jackknifes from proclamations of the baby’s angelic qualities to dire warnings of future problems, with every sentence interrupted by her shouting at her children to behave.


Frances McDormand in her first Oscar-winning performance, Fargo // Credit: Polgram Filmed Entertainment

Quite probably this is the role McDormand will be most remembered for and rightly so. She won an Oscar for playing Marge Gunderson, the heavily pregnant police chief who exudes competence, decency and kindness. Gunderson is not portrayed as “kick-ass” and is actually very gentle throughout but you never doubt she is more than capable at her job. You do worry about the inevitable confrontation between Gunderson and the kidnappers but when that happens she easily apprehends the remaining kidnapper. Two scenes stand out in particular, first the absolutely bizarre scene where Gunderson meets up with an old school friend for dinner who breaks down talking about his dead wife (who we later learn isn’t dead). The second at the end of the film when she finds one kidnapper feeding another into a wood chipper and the ride back to the station with a short monologue about what he did for “a little bit of money”. The last thing to mention is the asbolutely adorable relationship between Marge and her husband Norm, they are a lovely, supportive couple, seemingly always in each other’s thoughts by the small acts of kindness they do for one another. Whilst Marge is dealing with kidnapping and murder Norm is working on his duck painting for a postage stamp competition and because it’s important to Norm it’s important to Marge (incidentally, the postage stamp duck painting competition is real and a Big Deal to some people).

What Next?

So McDormand just won her third Oscar and if we were to examine the trajectory of her career it would seem she still has many great performances to give. Currently in postproduction is Macbeth, in which she plays Lady Macbeth and is another Coen Brothers film which has Oscar contender written all over it.

Also Read: Making A Coen Brothers Film

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Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.