Byline: Merle Ginsberg

LOS ANGELES — Five months ago, Frances McDormand was regarded by those moviegoers who did take notice of her as a quirky, inconsistently working character actress with occasional flashes of brilliance in movies like “Mississippi Burning.”
Next thing you know, she does “Fargo,” winds up with the Oscar, and everybody in Hollywood says they love her. In fact, they say, they’ve always loved her.
As for McDormand, this year she just did what she’s always done throughout her 17-year stage- and screen-acting career: played the hell out of a great character, only this character was the lead in a movie aimed at art-house Siberia that landed in critics’ heaven.
This winter, McDormand sat back and watched, amazed, as the L.A. Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and countless other critics’ associations piled awards (plus Golden Globe and SAG nominations) on her. All for her portrayal of the one of the movies’ plainest and sanest women: Marge Gunderson, a pregnant small-town cop in Brainerd, Minn., who singlehandedly solves a kidnap-murder caper without ever once losing the odd demeanor McDormand calls “Minnesota nice.”
And Marge never takes off her clothes, commits adultery, becomes a serial killer, does a courtroom scene, gets a terminal illness or has a nervous breakdown. How many female Oscar winners can say that?
But then again, the 39-year-old McDormand did not have to kill for the part other actresses are calling the best female role of the year, since, after all, she is married to Joel Coen.
“Yeah, Joel and Ethan pretty much wrote Marge for me,” she admits. But you can’t accuse McDormand of nepotism. She and her writer-director husband met when he cast her in “Blood Simple,” the first movie for each of them, and after they become a couple, they didn’t work together again until now.
“During ‘Blood Simple,’ we felt it was very unprofessional for two people who were working together to get involved,” she says, over a Coke with a lemon (“it breaks up the nicotine”) in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “So we admitted our attraction, but didn’t really act on it ’til the movie was finished. And then, after we got involved, we made a conscious effort to establish our identities independently of each other.
“Anyway, I couldn’t expect Joel to cast me in every single one of his female parts,” she says. “Although they’re all such great parts, I kinda wish he had.”
She didn’t ask, but McDormand couldn’t resist hinting. Eventually, Joel and Ethan handed her “Fargo” without prefacing it in any way.
“When I first read it,” she says, “I laughed, but I was a little miffed. ‘Ha, ha, ha! OK, you guys — you want ME to play Marge?’ There’s a certain amount of my background that’s a lot like Marge. I grew up in the corn belt, in Illinois, and of course, they’re very aware of that. They grew up as fish out of water, as Jewish kids in Minnesota. The movie is sort of their homage to their childhood. But as an actor, you’re looking for something that’s far away: give me a good psychokiller, a good prostitute. It wasn’t until I started working on Marge that I realized that it was about truly transforming yourself into another person. And that was a bigger stretch than anything I’d done before.”
Not that McDormand articulates or explains the movie much better than anybody else. At several public appearances, the Coen brothers uttered unfathomable monosyllabic responses to questions about the meaning of “Fargo” — and the brouhaha that it was based on a real event that turned out not to be so real.
“Joel and Ethan said it was based on a true story,” says McDormand, “because they didn’t want anybody to say, ‘Oh, that could never have happened.’ They didn’t want there to be a credibility gap in the audience’s mind. What can I say? I can’t really explain the way they think; they’re geeks! Please — they’re two nerds. They don’t want to expose where those stories come from. Although — trust me — they do talk a lot in the privacy of their own homes. They have their own idiosyncratic logic.”
Yes, McDormand, an admitted former geek, knows geeks are deep-down the coolest people — but is dead sure the Coens don’t get that — whether they went to the Oscars in Richard Tyler or not.
“They have no idea, believe me,” she chuckles. “They don’t think they’re cool. You know, you go through high school and college and young adulthood kinda accepting your role as an outsider — whether you chose it or not. And you learn how to survive as that, to promote yourself as that. But when a very large club says, ‘C’mon, join up’ — you say, ‘Well, I don’t know how to.’ And anyway, the Coen brothers have made a very successful career out of that esthetic. They’ve cultivated their geekhood and done it very well.”
While the critics gave unanimous raves to her portrayal, her husband did have one tiny bit of criticism about her performance.
“You look like a big turd out there in the snow,” the director said, perhaps lovingly, of her getup: a cop’s furry earflaps and dark snowsuit stuffed with her faux-pregnant rotund belly. Given the wig she wears, and the look McDormand and her makeup man created, Marge is a far cry from a Sharon Stone leading lady — or even a Meryl Streep one. Marge makes “The First Wives Club” look like Victoria’s Secret models.
“Fran — you don’t have to look that unattractive,” was Coen’s advice.
She bravely didn’t take it.
But then McDormand, who grew up traveling throughout the Midwest before her preacher father settled the family in Pennsylvania, prefers playing hard-core individuals on the screen to glamour girls.
“I know I tend toward the too-realistic in my taste,” she says, “but I grew up as a chubby kid and always felt unconfident with the image of femininity I was supposed to live up to. So when there’s a character choice involving vanity, I go for the opposite. I automatically go for the flat pump that makes me look like a Russian peasant, when I could wear a little bit of a heel. But, hey, don’t get me wrong — I’m not antiglamour.”
McDormand did it up for awards season, showing up at lunches for Oscar nominees and the Independent Feature Projects in snazzy long vintage dresses, and at the Oscars in a dark teal satin Richard Tyler (“I couldn’t let Joel look better than me”).
“Whaddya think?” she says, in a very non-“Fargo” New Yawkish accent. “I was gonna be a big frump? I know! Everybody thinks that after ‘Fargo,’ which I actually take as a compliment. They even thought I was really pregnant, cause Joel and I are married. How funny.
“But I really wouldn’t enjoy playing ‘the girl’ in a movie,” she admits, “even though it could be fun to be some terribly glamorous character. But the problem is, supporting roles — for men and women — are written better. Writers have more fun with ’em. The job of the leading actors is to tell the story and, basically, to look good. When Sam Raimi, an old friend, cast me as ‘the girl’ in ‘Dark Man’ (with Liam Neeson), all I had time to think about after each take was, did I look good? That’s pretty boring. It makes Marge all the more amazing.”
When she first got out of Yale, McDormand was flooded by a wave of insecurity when she eyed some of her starlet-styled competition. Years later, after finding a place for herself on stage and screen and getting an Oscar nomination for “Mississippi Burning,” she grew very, very secure about her place in the acting constellation. Although the self-proclaimed “flat-chested former chubby kid” does admit she sometimes sports fake breasts.
“For movies,” she counters. “They’re just for work. And there are breast roles, and there are nonbreast roles. There were directors who wanted me to wear them, and I didn’t feel it was necessary for the character. When I was Stella in ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ on Broadway in 1989 [for which she got a Tony nomination] I thought they were appropriate.”
On “Fargo,” Marge and her husband were expecting their first child, so in the fake breasts went again, along with the pregnant suit over a girdle that zipped up the back. “It was actually pretty light,” she recalls. “And it had little pockets for the prosthetic breasts. But then one of them exploded — it froze. I advise women with silicon breasts who are going to Minnesota NOT to stand outside in the cold.”
Now, post-“Fargo,” McDormand and Coen and their adopted toddler son, Pedro, have taken up a several-months residence in Santa Monica for the duration of the spring while the Coen brothers shoot their new movie “The Big Lebowski,” with Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro.
“Santa Monica seems like the L.A. equivalent of the Upper West Side,” says McDormand. “Kinda like a big suburb.”
In other words, not exactly Hollywood glitz but not New York edgy, either. More like self-consciously, suspiciously normal. A little bit like a Coen brothers movie. Yes, one might think that life with Fran and Joel might be, well, a little odd, but the way she describes their relationship, it sounds cute and corny.
“I initially developed a crush on Joel while we were making ‘Blood Simple’ because — if anybody saw him on a film set — in his environment — he is so sexy. He just loves what he does, and he becomes alive in a way from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. It’s like a cat, like a feline — it’s so attractive.
“We actually courted each other in a very old-fashioned way. We talked about books. I made him hot chocolate. He was 27, I was 24. It was the first grown-up relationship either of us had ever had.”
And it went on for 10 years before either of them really noticed. And that’s why they eventually decided to make it official.
“I woke up one day,’ says McDormand, “and he was still there! He’d stuck it out all those years. Our original contract was based on a mutual love of what we did, and there was never ever any question that one of us couldn’t go off and make a movie if we wanted to. Not every relationship can work that way, can handle that much separation. Now that there are three of us, we have to have a little more structure.”
So now Fran and Pedro will be home in Santa Monica while Joel is off every day shooting his movie. While she’s getting ready to star in another independent film, she reads, cooks, sees friends and shops at flea markets. Nothing’s really changed. She isn’t suddenly rich. The scripts are not piling up at the door. And McDormand doesn’t have any driving ambition to become a star. She never did.
“In my mind, I am one,” she smiles. “I already knew what I wanted to do. And I’ve done it. I have control over when I don’t work. I can work with independent directors, first-time directors, and I’ll do really small roles if I like them. More important than being a star — I have the respect of my peers. My only other goal was to work as an actor as long as I want to. And I think I can. Bimbettes can only be a certain age. Parts like Marge prove there other things for actresses, a way they can avoid hitting the wall.”

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