“So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money… There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t cha know that? And here you are, and it’s a beautiful day … I just don’t understand it.”
Out of context, this speech sounds painfully didactic and preachy, like the denouement of an especially square after school special from the ’70s. In the hands of the Coen Brothers, when given context through their crime drama/dark comedy/“existential study on the dichotomy between good and evil” masterpiece Fargo, it gains an unexpectedly complex form. That takes care of context, but in order to truly sell it emotionally, you need an exceptional actor. That’s where Frances McDormand comes in: As one of the most versatile actors of her generation, McDormand has a unique ability to extract palpable and immediately relatable emotion out of her performances while also keeping herself grounded. In her hands, this minefield of a monologue turns into sheer visual poetry.
With her performance in the dark comedy Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (brought to you by In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths director Martin McDonagh) creating some strong Oscar buzz, it’d be a darn tootin’ shame not to revisit some of her best work throughout her almost four decades-long career. (Note this ranking is based on performances only and not on the quality of the films themselves.)
Here are the Top 10 Frances McDormand performances (not counting Three Billboards—we’ll see what the Academy has to say about that one):
10. Mrs. Pell, Mississippi Burning (1988)
After her breakout performance in a little-known indie called Blood Simple, McDormand scored her first major Hollywood role in Alan Parker’s appropriately incendiary crime drama about two FBI agents (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) investigating the racially motivated murder of three black men by white authority figures (how times have changed!). McDormand takes full advantage of her supporting role, understanding that her character represents the moral conflict of the story. We know where the agents and the racist townspeople stand, but McDormand’s character, who’s married to one of the cops who murdered the men, is in a position of having to choose between her tribalist loyalties and the instinct to make the right moral decision for justice to be properly served.
9. Doris, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Giving new life and complexity to the “cheating wife in a suburban drama” trope is a hard task, but the Coens and McDormand are up to the challenge. In the brothers’ underrated proto-noir crime drama/“character study of a sad sack,” McDormand portrays the sullen wife of Billy Bob Thornton’s lowly barber who’s determined to make a mark in the world. Trapped in a boring marriage and fully aware of her husband’s go-nowhere destiny, Doris strikes up an affair with a burly and successful businessman (James Gandolfini), setting the course for a series of unfortunate crimes. In an understated performance, McDormand provides the mirror in which the barber sees his self-worth, or lack thereof.
8. Guinevere Pettigrew, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)
The odd couple cliché of a square fuddy-duddy and a free-spirited soul devoid of responsible behavior coming together in order to teach each other about letting loose and learning to act like an adult, respectively, is as old as premises can get. As far as the strict and joyless Miss Pettigrew (McDormand), a dutiful servant in charge of reigning in the otherwise unchecked impulsiveness of a ditzy singer (Amy Adams), is concerned, it’s expected that the character’s make-up will gradually move from “street urchin frumpy” to “old Hollywood glamor.” But without the foundation of a performance that deeply understands the characters’ motivations for change, it would be hard to find depth in this overused trope. That’s where McDormand’s always insightful take on this role comes in.
7. Jane, Friends with Money (2006)
We all have someone like Jane in our lives: a professionally successful workaholic whose intense focus and drive has made them a lot of money, but left their personal life in the dumps, leading to a highly neurotic and never satisfied personality. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener is a master in capturing the love/hate relationship within female friendships, and this dramedy about a middle class woman (Jennifer Aniston) struggling to maintain her relationships with her rich and high-strung friends (Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, McDormand) is right in her wheelhouse. The film is elevated by its strong performances, McDormand chief among them, whose inherent pain regarding her broken home life eventually crashes through her carefully formed façade of normalcy.
6. Linda Litzke, Burn After Reading (2008)
Since she’s mainly known for somber dramatic roles, it’s always a fun to see McDormand embrace her silly side. Her turn as a profoundly stupid fitness trainer who gets caught up in a wholly unnecessary but ultimately very dangerous crime web that only the Coens can weave so deliciously, lets McDormand let loose in perhaps her best comedic turn. The chemistry and timing she shares with Brad Pitt, who portrays her even dumber partner in crime, raises the question as to why these two haven’t been paired up in a comedy since. As goofy as the part is, McDormand manages to bring out some depth from the character, eventually letting the audience realize that what lies under her puffed up gusto is a lonely woman desperate for any kind of affection.
5. Jane, Laurel Canyon (2002)
If you need proof of McDormand’s range, look no further than a quick comparison between her mother characters in Almost Famous and Laurel Canyon. I have a feeling that the blunt mother in Almost Famous would have a couple of choice words for the impulsive and narcissistic mother in Laurel Canyon, who is not only her moral antithesis, but the opposite of pretty much everything she stands for. In writer/director Lisa Cholodenko’s blunt L.A. drama that’s not afraid to go to some sexually uncomfortable places, McDormand deftly portrays a middle-aged record producer who’s still desperate to cling to her carefree and libertine youth.
4. Olive Kitteridge, Olive Kitteridge (TV mini-series, 2014)
McDormand reunites with Lisa Cholodenko for an epic HBO mini-series adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel about a bitter, borderline misanthropic woman navigating the many challenges and conflict that life throws at her over a twenty-five year period. Having to capture the evolution of a character over a quarter century is a daunting task for any actor, but McDormand comes through with flying colors, as the character’s seemingly impenetrable emotional wall is cracked bit by bit while the cruelty of the passing years keep showing their scars.
3. Abby, Blood Simple (1984)
No matter how crazy and far-fetched the Coen Brothers’ labyrinthine crime plots become, they can always ground their film by adding McDormand to the cast, as she brings a naturally relatable form of humanity to any role. This is also the case with the first collaboration between McDormand and the Coens, as she’s tasked with expressing the increasing fear and paranoia while all the best-laid plans of her character, Abby, and her lover, Ray (John Getz), turn into a tragicomedy of errors as they attempt to get away with murdering Abby’s husband (Dan Hedaya), who pulls off the rare feat of being both a douchebag and a greaseball. In a sea of unchecked macho prick-waving, McDormand’s character subverts the usual femme fatale archetype by at least trying to be a voice of reason.
2. Elaine Miller, Almost Famous (2000)
God help any up-and-coming rock star from the cold yet intellectually sound wrath of Elaine Miller, one of the most fascinating maternal figures in film history. Based on writer/director Cameron Crowe’s own mother, this character might come across as overbearing and anal—you better know how to spell “Christmas” when you’re in her presence—but her staunch dedication to raise a smart, respectable, and above all good-hearted child comes through in McDormand’s focused yet emotionally charged performance.
1. Marge Gunderson, Fargo (1996)
Did any of you honestly think McDormand’s terrific Oscar-winning performance as the wholesome, no-nonsense pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson would end up anywhere other than the number one spot? Forget about it being the best in McDormand’s career; it’s one of the Top 5 greatest female performances in film history, at least in this writer’s humble opinion. At its core, Coen Brothers’ masterpiece is about the unfortunately necessary balance between good and evil, and how good has to keep going, even in the face of unimaginable ugliness. All of the stupid and psychotic antics of the film’s criminals could come across as thematically barren and present only for shock value, if they weren’t countered by Marge’s doggedly and delightfully positive outlook on life as a literal symbol of ongoing hope in a cold and cruel world.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.