Frances McDormand is that mythical creature in Tinseltown, a thespian who – despite her advancing years (she turns 64 this month) – has managed to not only stay relevant to audiences the world over, but also regularly out-perform actresses of all ages. Proof positive of this staying power can be found with even the briefest perusal of her laundry list of awards. She clinched her first Best Actress Academy Award in 1997 for her starring role in the black comedy, Fargo, while just this year, she nabbed yet another Oscar, a Golden Globe, a British Film Academy Award and a Screen Actors Guild win for her widely acclaimed performance in Nomadland.
Yet, despite having lived in the media limelight for nigh on a quarter of a century, the Illinois-born star’s penchant for evading almost all discussion of her personal life means that little is known about her aside from her onscreen performances. Over the years, though, the enigmatic actress has let a few interesting gems drop…
Her First Name
Frances McDormand was actually born on 23 June 1957 as Cynthia Ann Smith in Gibson City, Illinois. It wasn’t until she was adopted at the age of one by pastor Vernon McDormand and his wife, Noreen, that she acquired the name that would emblazon billboards promoting some 40 films since 1984. To date, she still doesn’t know who her birth parents are. She was given the opportunity to meet her real mother as a teenager, but turned it down, though she harbours suspicions that Smith Sr. may have been one of her father’s parishioners.
Bible Belt Travels
Since her adoptive father’s responsibilities as a minister of the Disciples of Christ church included revitalising flagging congregations across the United States, much of Frances’s childhood was spent relocating to various Bible Belt communities. In addition to his religious duties, Vernon and his wife also found time to take in nine children over the years, meaning that the actress grew up in a large family.
Freedom Through Expression
As the adopted daughter of a minister, she was required to behave with a certain amount of respectability and restraint. So, when her English teacher suggested the teenager take on the role of Lady Macbeth for a workshop, she leapt at the chance to leave propriety at the door. Speaking of this formative experience, she recalls: “That was the hook. It was the power of being a really shy, slightly suspect seventh-grader who could stand in front of a group of people and keep their attention.” Thus, the seeds of her acting career were sown.
In an industry where cosmetic surgery and impossible beauty standards reign, Frances McDormand is an unabashedly non-compliant standout. Not only does she frown upon award shows – she’s known to be highly sceptical of any ceremony where actors are dressed up like dolls – she also forgoes make-up and jewellery, preferring instead to display a bare-faced charisma. Borrowed haute couture is yet another facet of red-carpet life that she shuns, having worn her own denim jacket to one such glamorous event.
Brothers Plus One
The long-standing leading lady has been married to Joel Coen – half of the smash directorial duo, the Coen brothers – since 1984. In fact, the couple met when she auditioned for a role in their directorial debut, Blood Simple. Twelve years later, another collaboration between the trio, Fargo, would garner McDormand her first slew of critical awards, finally and permanently catapulting her into the big leagues. Speaking of their happy meeting, she divulged: “It was a revelation that I could have a lover who I could also work with and I wasn’t intimidated by. I thought ‘Oh, my God! I can actually love and live – not subvert anything, not apologise for anything, not hide anything!’”
A Mother’s Love
Though the couple don’t have biological children, they adopted a son, Pedro McDormand Coen, in Paraguay when he was just six months old. “As a mother, you live on the edge of disaster; you just do,” she has said. “I didn’t give birth to my son, I met him at six months old, but from the minute I held him and smelled him, I knew it was my job to keep him alive.” Interestingly, despite having Hollywood hotshots as parents, young Pedro has largely chosen to eschew the entertainment industry, and, instead, is a certified massage therapist and personal trainer.
And the Awards Go To…
Few actresses have as storied a CV as Frances McDormand. The chameleonic star’s seemingly effortless ability to portray a wide array of characters has garnered her widespread critical acclaim, not to mention a treasure trove of awards. She has won three Academy Awards and two Golden Globes for big-screen performances such as Fargo, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the recent Nomadland. If that weren’t enough, she also nabbed an Emmy for her role in the 2014 TV miniseries Olive Kitteridge, and garnered a Tony Award for treading the boards in the 2011 play, Good People.
Grand Theft Oscar
Interestingly, the Oscar she won for Three Billboards in 2018 made headlines in its own right when it strayed from McDormand’s possession during the Governor’s Ball after party. A paparazzo at the event, Terry Bryant, posted a Facebook video of himself clutching the golden statuette while gloating, “This is mine!” The award was returned to its rightful owner that evening, and Byrant was arrested for grand theft. He denied the charge and the case was dismissed before it went to trial.
Frances McDormand has never made a secret of her desire to leave Tinseltown and set off in an RV once she reached her sixties. This wish was further inflamed following her performance as Fern, a woman who loses her husband and her home, and journeys across the US picking up seasonal work in Nomadland. “[The movie] tapped into the truth of it,” she explains, “which was that at different points of my life, I’ve said to my husband, ‘I can’t take this anymore, I’m dropping out.’” Thankfully, while she has reportedly invested in a camper van, she hasn’t turned her back on Hollywood just yet, but that time may come sooner than the world expects – and is ready for.