Best Actress of the Decade, Entry No. 17: Frances McDormand

To celebrate the last decade 2010-2019 we are counting down the best actresses and discussing some of their most notable and memorable performances of the last decade. With the help of Film Twitter, the ITOL team have selected 30 actresses. Entry No. 17 is Frances McDormand, and writer Akie Kutsunai discusses Frances McDormand Oscar Winning performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”.

By Akie Kutsunai 

“So I’m hyperventilating a little bit, if I fall over, pick me up, because I’ve got some things to say.”

We can almost hear the capital letters at the beginning of Frances McDormand’s 2018 Oscar acceptance speech. She had just won her second Best Actress award for Martin McDonagh’s incendiary drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), and she seized the moment to redirect attention back out onto all the other female nominees in the audience. She ended her speech with the simple words “Inclusion Rider”, picked up her Oscar, and neatly curtsied before leaving the stage.

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Frances McDormand at the Oscars – © 2018 Getty Images, Mark Ralston

It is always tempting to conflate actors with their performances on screen and their performances at press and awards events, and with this speech, Frances McDormand the person echoed so many of the characters she has played. She is the strong, practical woman who survives, regardless of the men in her life or the choices she’s made in the past, the woman who is fascinating and magnetic despite not smiling.

Mildred is many things, but first and foremost, she is angry. McDormand conveys so much through her body language, facial expressions, and the lack thereof. Mildred’s stillness evokes Abby from “Blood Simple” (1984).

At home in darker, tragic stories, such as “Mississippi Burning” (1988), she also slips easily into darker comedies, such as “Wonder Boys” (2000). McDormand shines in stories that highlight the endless absurdity of the world, and the resulting messiness, frustration, and joy. In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, McDormand is Mildred Hayes, whose life crumbles after her daughter’s brutal rape and murder. McDormand carries the film through flashbacks, endless arguments, eruptions of violence, and moments of grace.

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Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Mildred is many things, but first and foremost, she is angry. McDormand conveys so much through her body language, facial expressions, and the lack thereof. Mildred’s stillness evokes Abby from “Blood Simple” (1984), McDormand’s film debut and her first project with the Coen Brothers. Abby moves deliberately through this Western reimagining of Dashiell Hammet’s hardboiled detective stories, an apparent enigma with expressive eyes who rarely smiles. McDormand uses Abby’s sparse dialogue and realistic physical reactions to create a woman who desires, acts, and faces the consequences. Even when confronting physical violence, Abby’s determination to survive never wavers. Her apparently contradictory identities—the ingenue trophy wife, the femme fatale, the perfect con—reveal an uncomfortable truth: various men desire her as an object for their own ends, and see her as different women.

Similarly, Mildred is defined by the men in her life, particularly how she stands in opposition to them. McDormand is markedly less sexual and more angry in this later role, and she brings a weariness and resignation that comes more naturally to an older, experienced performer. She also uses her considerable skills to turn the mood on a dime, veering from slapstick comedy to withering scorn to heartbroken denial in a single intense scene. There is considerable fallout from Mildred’s billboards, and this poignant breakfast scene illustrates the fault lines that ran through the family even before the billboards went up.

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Frances McDormand, John Hawkes, and Lucas Hedges in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The scene begins with stony silence as Mildred’s teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) sits down to eat a bowl of cereal. Mildred manages to break this tension with an escalating series of pranks; given the subtlety of McDormand’s performance, we can infer that these are family jokes, between a loving mother who wants the best for her son despite all the problems in his own life. Unfortunately, this brightness is shattered with the arrival of Charlie (John Hawkes), Mildred’s ex-husband. He invades the house with aggressive bluster, and Mildred’s posture instantly changes to be more contained, her expression more shuttered. Tension builds as she carefully answers Charlie’s angry questions, and she only verbally lashes out after the reveal that Charlie’s new girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) is waiting in the car outside.

McDormand maintains Mildred’s silence as Charlie explodes in turn, flipping the breakfast table over and grabbing Mildred by the throat, backing her into the doorframe of the dining room. McDormand’s stillness here speaks volumes about the length of the abuse Mildred must have endured for this response to become a habit. Similarly, after the furniture is silently reset, she easily comforts Charlie about their daughter’s death, illustrating the complexities of abusive relationships even after they have apparently ended.

Instead of giving in to nihilism, or wallowing in platitudes, McDormand gives life to a character who desires and acts to make those desires real, no matter the cost.

Charlie’s vindictive revelation that their daughter had asked to live with him because Mildred was so impossible, is his final attempt to reassert control, and we see it penetrate Mildred’s steely determination to see justice done. McDormand masterfully descends into grief, with tears in her eyes and her voice cracking, but she doesn’t dignify Charlie’s manipulation with anything more than a flat denial.

This scene is a testament to McDormand’s strengths as a performer. Here is a realistic woman, facing the bleak universe that includes a murdered daughter for no apparent reason. Here is an ordinary woman who holds our attention because of the strength of her convictions and her dedication to seeing things through, shifting to respond to consequences as they arise. Instead of giving in to nihilism, or wallowing in platitudes, McDormand gives life to a character who desires and acts to make those desires real, no matter the cost. Mildred is not only a survivor of an abusive marriage; she will survive her daughter’s death by fighting for justice, not only for her daughter but also for herself.

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Frances McDormand is here to make a statement, and to carve out room for the complex female characters. Is she a femme fatale? Is she a battered woman? Is she an authority figure? Is she a vigilante? Through her skill and craft, she can be all of these things, and best of all, she can add that sly bit of humour to lighten the mood. No matter how dark and absurd the world becomes, no matter how violent, there’s always tomorrow, and she wants to see everyone show up for that next sunrise.

What’s your favourite performance by Frances McDormand? Let us know in the comments.

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