Frances McDormand's Best Performances : Pop Culture Happy Hour Over the course of her long, varied and distinguished career, actor Frances McDormand has won two Oscars - and her performance in Nomadland this year could win her a third. Pop Culture Happy Hour explores some of the great work she's done.
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Frances McDormand's Essential Performances

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Frances McDormand's Essential Performances

Frances McDormand's Essential Performances

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

Over the course of her long, varied and distinguished career, actor Frances McDormand has been showered with accolades, including a Tony, an Emmy and two Academy Awards. And with her grounded, unpretentious performance in "Nomadland" this year, she might pick up her third Oscar. McDormand first came to a lot of people's attention as police chief Marge Gunderson in the Coen brothers' 1996 black comedy "Fargo," but she's done a lot of great work before and since that unforgettable role. I'm Glen Weldon, and today, we're talking about some of Frances McDormand's essential performances on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELDON: Welcome back. Joining us is Jeffrey Masters, who is the host of the podcast "LGBTQ&A." That's Q&A with an ampersand. Welcome back, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY MASTERS: Hey, thanks.

WELDON: Also with us is frequent NPR contributor and culture writer Bilal Qureshi. Hey, Bilal.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Hi, Glen, and hi, Jeffrey.

WELDON: It's great to have you both. Let's get the usual caveats out of the way at the top. We are not going to get around to a lot of your favorite McDormand performances. We simply can't. There's too many great ones. I mean, she won a Tony for "Good People," Oscars for both "Fargo" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

What we're trying to do in this series is identify performances that speak to a given actor's unique set of strengths, so the essential factors that set them apart. So let's start by trying to figure out what sets McDormand apart. Jeffrey, no pressure. Big-picture time here. What does Frances McDormand bring to a role that is unique to her, you think?

MASTERS: I think that Frances McDormand brings that Lady Macbeth quality to everything she has, like, for lack of a better word, right?

WELDON: Sure.

MASTERS: She brings that classical gravitas, that Yale School of Drama, you know it's going to be good. And I think it's so interesting because, yes, she is this Lady Macbeth type, but she has, like, the polar opposite, too, which I know we're going to talk about. She can do broad comedy. And I think that is so exciting to see.

QURESHI: Yeah. I think the other thing I really love about her is this kind of sense of authenticity in her performances, this rootedness in whatever character she's playing. They really feel etched out, realized, lived in. And I think even when she's in an ensemble, it feels like you're waiting for her to kind of be the B.S. test or the B.S. meter of, like, who's keeping it real, who's saying what's really happening.

And "Nomadland," of course, blends kind of reality and fiction. And I think that is very much what I always see in her performances, is this kind of air of something that feels beyond acting somehow. And I know that's obviously craft, but it's also something that I think everybody talks about - wanting to be authentic or bringing realness to things - but she just embodies it like so few people.

WELDON: Yeah, I think we're all kind of circling the same topic here. I mean, it's part skill, it's part authenticity. I would say, to me, she radiates empathy. I've said that before. She meets the characters where they are. She lives inside them, which, of course, is - you know, that's the job description. But you never get a sense that she's condescending to the character. And that's true even when the character she's playing is as, I think, underwritten and as undercooked as the character she plays in "Three Billboards."

And it's even more remarkable when you stop for a moment to consider how much work she's done with the Coen brothers over the years. I mean, even I, who loves the Coen brothers more than anyone, will acknowledge that they indulge in a bit of archness from time to time, a kind of satirical artifice. Her first screen role was in "Blood Simple," which was the Coen brothers' first film. Of course, she won an Oscar for "Fargo," as we mentioned, another Coen brothers film. And she's worked with them a lot.

But my pick, the first thing I want to talk about, is her very, very brief work in "Raising Arizona," which is the Coen's second film. It's 1987 film. It is a very over-the-top screwball comedy that they do a lot or they used to do a lot. It's kind of Preston Sturges meets Elmore Leonard meets Flannery O'Connor. And they are in their full arch satirical mode here. They're making fun of the yokels, which is another thing they tend to do.

And there's certainly an element of that in her performance. I mean, she is in only two scenes in this film. Each of those is barely a minute long. And she plays Dot. Now, Dot is a friend of the main couple - played by Nick Cage and Holly Hunter - who have just kidnapped a baby. But Dot doesn't know that. She's just come over to their doublewide with her seven, eight kids in tow. As she sits at a picnic table making 28 bologna sandwiches, she is trying to impart motherly wisdom to a very worried Holly Hunter and a Nick Cage who is almost catatonic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAISING ARIZONA")

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Dot) Then there's the diphtheria-tetanus, what they call the dip-tet. You got to get 'em dip-tet boosters yearly or else they'll develop lockjaw and night vision. Then there's the smallpox vaccine, chicken pox and measles. And if your kid's anything like ours, you're going to have to get all those shots yourself first before he'll ever take 'em (laughter). Who's your pediatrician anyway?

HOLLY HUNTER: (As Ed) We ain't exactly fixed on one yet, have we H.I.?

WELDON: OK. So on one level, that is pure spoof, right? But I think she finds the truth in it. Like, there's an urgency in it. There's a know-it-all quality. And, you know, every new parent knows a Dot who will impart that kind of wisdom. And that character, that performance and, let's face it, that delivery is - it sticks out in that film. And that's saying something because pretty much everything in that film has bits sticking out of it. It's like a sea urchin. It became a cult classic. One reason it did is because it's so eminently quotable. And to this day, whenever I see a baby out in the world or on TV, I just hear in my head, he's got to get his dip-tet. It is a Pavlovian response. What do you guys think of this performance?

MASTERS: I'm so happy you picked it because I think that this is the kind of performance that Hollywood is really reluctant to cast her in because it's the polar opposite of what we give her Oscars for, right?

WELDON: Right.

MASTERS: It's the broad comedy that we've kind of assigned to, like, the Melissa McCarthys of the world. But here we have Frances McDormand in this kind of "Real Housewives Of Arizona" character, and she's delivering broad comedy really beautifully, I think.

QURESHI: The other thing I really loved about that clip, too, Glen, is that it reminds me of how many voices she has. I mean, she is a master of accents, and actually - and accents not in the sense of, like, I think we usually talk about American actors who can do British accents or European accents. She does so many American accents that are so regional and different and really quite well in a way that she also disappears into them. And that also previews the thing that I'll talk about later. But I just love that about her performances, that she gets into kind of the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle differences in American voices, and she's so good at it.

WELDON: Yeah. And again, it's all about empathy. And, Jeffrey, your pick deals with that level of empathy as well. She's playing a very difficult person, but a person that we just kind of fall in love with, yes?

MASTERS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, she's playing this funky record producer in "Laurel Canyon." And the movie, like, loosely is about Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale. They play characters who, you know, go to their mother's house in LA while she's gone. But surprise. Frances McDormand - she's there, and she has to do her job.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAUREL CANYON")

MCDORMAND: (As Jane) I give them a gorgeous record, and they come back, but there's no single. Just go back in and find it. Otherwise, I would not be behind like this. I'm never behind like this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, Jane, you're always behind like this.

MCDORMAND: (As Jane) No, I've changed. Truly, I have.

MASTERS: It's so compelling because this is a character we've seen that, for instance, McDormand plays a thousand times throughout, like, cinema history, but it's always played by men. Like, that kind of character that is a bad parent just obsessed with their job is gendered male. And so when Frances McDormand, like, sinks her teeth into it, she also inhabits it with, like, femininity that I find so compelling to watch.

And, I mean, the other reason I wanted to bring it up, too, is because it is one of those rare roles where we get to see Frances McDormand play someone who is desired by others. It is kind of the closest we get to see her play a sex object. And I think that that is on us - right? - because Hollywood won't cast her in those roles - not because she can't pull it off, not because she can't play it.

WELDON: Absolutely. And I went back and looked at some of the reviews. It got mixed reviews. But every single one of them, the smallest outlet to the largest one, were all like, oh, yeah, the movie's OK, but Frances McDormand.

MASTERS: Yeah, and it's surprising. This is not a movie that I think everyone should be required to see. But it's one of the rare movies where I find myself thinking about it actually more than I ever expected, and that is entirely because of Frances McDormand's performance.

WELDON: All right, now, Bilal, your pick is 2014 HBO series "Olive Kitteridge" - again, a character who is very flinty and kind of downright unpleasant, but it's Frances McDormand, so we kind of fall in love, yes?

QURESHI: Yeah. No, I mean, fall in love is an interesting word because I think you certainly go along with it. She produced this, and it's an adaptation of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. And that also speaks to me about how she's used her power and her connections in Hollywood to get things made that I don't think would exist without her, which I also think speaks to kind of her importance in the industry.

This is also a series that precedes the kind of rise and I think now the dominance in our culture of, like, unlikable, difficult, complicated women, which I feel is now much more of what we expect and want and see. But the series came out - you know, now it's seven years ago, which is crazy to me - like, 2014. But it's before "Big Little Lies." It's before Amy Adams' "Sharp Objects" on HBO. This is an HBO series about this woman who's a mother in a small town in Maine, you know, awful to her kid, to her husband. She's rude to everyone she meets. It's a series about depression, suicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OLIVE KITTERIDGE")

RICHARD JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) Your mother is not depressed.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Yes, I am - happy to have it 'cause it's being smart.

JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) All right, darling.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) We might as well discuss it, Henry. He might have it, too.

DEVIN DRUID: (As Christopher) But you don't think I'm smart?

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Of course I do.

DRUID: (As Christopher) No, you don't. You think I'm average.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) You are plenty complicated, Christopher. Average is someone like Denise the mouse.

JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) For God's sake.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) No, nothing wrong with it. Average people are happier - happy, happy, happy.

JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) You should try it sometime, Ollie (ph).

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) I can't. I'm too depressed.

QURESHI: She is so extraordinary as a kind of portrait of someone who has inherited depression through her family and trauma, through her life. And her relationships with everyone around her in this town, I think, really relays to something very real about the big lives in small places, which I also think she is a kind of master artist of.

I really love this series. It's also an ensemble, right? It's, like, Bill Murray, Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan. Like, there's a lot of amazing actors in this series. And what I love about her in films and in this series is that she always, I think, gives a lot to her partners as well in her performances. And this is a real ensemble piece that she is still, though, of course, the central force in.

MASTERS: I love that you brought the ensemble in that because I think that the husband, which is played by Richard Jenkins - you know, they're polar opposites. And when we talk about chemistry on screen, I think it's a lot more finicky than we give it credit for because they have this dysfunctional marriage, but we still see why they're together and why it works when it doesn't work and, like, why it doesn't work. And their chemistry together, I think, is really this, like, shining example in that TV show. But I find her so, again, compelling in that role because she's saying hateful things, but there's often times where she says something, like, particularly nasty, and then she smiles about it 'cause it tickles her. Like, oh, my God, I was just so nasty. And she's depressed but still delighting in that, and I think that's really fun to watch.

WELDON: The last thing we should talk about is Frances McDormand the actor. You could split hairs and say whether or not she's an activist or just an advocate, but she is kind of a force for good in Hollywood. I mean, I like that when she shows up to the Tony Awards, she's got her denim jacket on. And in her "Three Billboards" Oscar acceptance speech, she asked her fellow nominees to stand up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCDORMAND: OK, look around, everybody. Look around, ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don't talk to us about it at the parties tonight. Invite us into your office in a couple days, or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we'll tell you all about them. I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen - inclusion rider.

WELDON: What I love about that is the smattering of applause the words inclusion rider gets because even in that room, people didn't know what the hell an inclusion rider is. And, of course, an inclusion rider is a provision in an actor or filmmaker's contract that provides for a certain level of diversity in the casting and in the production staff. And I just know that Google was overloaded at that moment with just people typing inclusion rider.

QURESHI: Yeah. And, you know, on that note, I mean, "Olive Kitteridge," she's sort of - her character spans 25 years. She was already, you know, someone who I think by Hollywood standards in 2014 would not have been, like, a leading star of things. She was still in mostly ensemble pieces up to that point, and I had the privilege, frankly, of getting to produce this interview with her about "Olive Kitteridge" for All Things Considered with Melissa Block. And one of the things that I remember stayed with me was that she really talked about kind of how important and how political her kind of politics are on screen of what she plays because I think it is about being quite anti-celebrity, quite anti-sort-of-expectation. And she's so compelling in the way she thinks about that, and I wanted to play a clip from that interview about how she sees her leadership in Hollywood, which has been rumored - you know, then it's reflected in the fact that she produced "Nomadland," and she's continued to be this force of the inclusion that she advocates in her work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MCDORMAND: More culturally, I'm interested in starting the conversation about aging gracefully and how instead of making it a cultural problem, we make it individuals' problems. I think that ageism is a cultural illness. It's not a personal illness.

MELISSA BLOCK: And the rage - where does the rage come in?

MCDORMAND: Because it's not easy to - it's not an easy thing to do.

BLOCK: Yeah.

MCDORMAND: Getting older and adjusting to all the things that biologically happen to you is not easy to do and is a constant, you know, struggle and adjustment. So anything that makes that harder and more difficult - because I don't believe that cosmetic enhancement makes it easier. I think it makes it harder. I think it makes it much more difficult to accept getting older. I want to be revered. I want to be an elder. I want to be an eldress. I have some things to talk about and say and help. And if I can't, then, not unlike Olive, I don't feel necessary.

WELDON: She wants to be revered. I'd say mission accomplished (laughter). What do you guys think?

MASTERS: I also think that, like, you know, everything she's saying, she's backing up with actions, too. Lisa Cholodenko directed "Laurel Canyon," and then, you know, Frances McDormand got the rights to "Olive Kitteridge," and Lisa Cholodenko was brought in to direct that series. She did all four parts. She's worked with a lot of more female directors, I think, than we commonly see. And that shouldn't be something that even stands out.

QURESHI: I mean, she was also the one who brought Chloe Zhao on board to direct "Nomadland," too, as a person who kind of chose the book.

MASTERS: Yeah.

QURESHI: And I feel that that performance chooses to kind of talk about her master performances, which is the jumping-off point for this chat. I mean, it's also - I've loved sort of things that she's done in which she's so clipping and kind of - and sharp-edged. And I found "Nomadland" - it feels like the kind of end road of all of these things that we've talked about. Like, it really feels like a master performance, and it's mostly entirely her face, which I think is also incredible. And it's - so much is said without words. I'm still kind of quite, you know, awed by that film and by her performance in it.

WELDON: Yep. And I think a lot of people have noticed, and I think we will find out. I'm putting my money that we're going to find out on Oscar night that that performance has been received with the gravity and the reverence (laughter) that she requires.

We want to know what your essential Frances McDormand performances are, stuff we haven't talked about - "Almost Famous," "Mississippi Burning," "Madeline," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Good Omens," in which she literally plays the voice of God. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh - and let us know.

That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you both for being here. This was fun.

MASTERS: Yeah. Thank you both.

QURESHI: Thank you so much.

WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you've got a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter, and we'll see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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