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Frances McDormand Biography


Home > Actresses > M > McDormand, Frances > Biography


Birth Name: Frances McDormand
Born: 06/23/1957
Birth Place: Chicago, Illinois, USA


Born June 13, 1957 in Chicago, IL, McDormand was raised by her adoptive parents, Vernon, a minister for Disciples of Christ, and Noreen, a registered nurse. Her father specialized in restoring failed congregations across the country, which forced the family to move around small towns in Illinois, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky before finally settling in Pittsburgh, PA. While going to high school in Monessing, PA, McDormand was taken under the wing of her English teacher, who saw her student's interest in Shakespeare and encouraged her to participate in school theater productions. After high school, McDormand attended Bethany College, a small Disciples of Christ in West Virginia, and graduated with her bachelor's in theater. She spent the next three years earning her master's in drama at Yale University, where she was awarded the Carol Dye Award for Excellence. With her degree in hand, McDormand moved to New York City and waited tables to make ends meet, while struggling to jumpstart her acting career. Joining her in the struggle was fellow up-and-comer, Holly Hunter, with whom she shared an apartment in the Bronx.

McDormand began making strides, appearing in several plays, notably "Painting Churches" (1984) and "Awake and Sing!" (1984). But she made her first substantial impression on film, starring in the darkly comic and hyper-violent neo-noir, "Blood Simple" (1984), the first feature directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Originally, Hunter earned the leading role, but ran into a scheduling conflict which prompted her to suggest her roommate as a replacement. Without any film experience, McDormand was scared to death of acting in front of a camera, but nonetheless delivered a solid performance as the cheating wife of a Texas bar owner (Dan Hedaya) who hires an unscrupulous private eye (M. Emmett Walsh) to murder her and her lover (John Getz). Aside from making her big screen debut, McDormand developed a romantic relationship with director Joel Coen, whom she married that same year. After dipping her toe into television waters with the made-for-television showbiz drama "Scandal Sheet" (ABC, 1985), she appeared as a nun in Sam Raimi's slapstick noir, "Crimewave" (1985), then played a shrill, swinging Southern wife who offers a baby-napping couple (Hunter and Nicolas Cage) child-rearing advice in the Coen Brothers' wildly funny "Raising Arizona" (1987).

After a regular role on the short-lived cop drama "Leg Work" (CBS, 1987-88), McDormand remained a virtual unknown until she earned an Academy Award nomination for playing a meek Southern woman abused by her Klansman husband (Brad Dourif) in Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning" (1988). Her character's unconsummated relationship with Gene Hackman's FBI agent produced scenes that were a stunning tutorial on how to express emotion without words. She played one of her few up-market characters - a lawyer - to Liam Neeson's comic-book vigilante in Raimi's "Dark Man" (1990), then won the admiration of Ken Loach for her turn as an American human rights activist in his political thriller set against the battleground of Northern Ireland, "Hidden Agenda" (1990). The British director was prompted to tell her as she was wrapped from the production, "Not only have you changed my opinion of actors, you've changed my opinion of Americans." After reuniting with Holly Hunter in the made-for-television movie "Crazy in Love" (TNT, 1992), she offered tense comic relief as the ex-wife of Peter Gallagher and lover of Tim Robbins in Robert Altman's classic "Short Cuts" (1993).

McDormand endured her share of failure early in her career, namely with failed comedies like "The Butcher's Wife" (1991) and "Passed Away" (1992); roles she chose to play "to prove that I could be funny." After a lackluster performance as Patricia Arquette's sister in "Beyond Rangoon" (1995), McDormand returned to form as the alcoholic hooker June in the heist comedy "Palookaville" (1996), a football-crazed divorcee in John Sayles' acclaimed "Lone Star" (1996), and a psychiatrist interviewing a potential killer in the courtroom thriller "Primal Fear" (1996). But it was her turn as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant small town deputy sheriff tracking down the murder of a highway patrolman in the Coen brothers' "Fargo" (1996) that earned McDormand her spot in cinema history. Both folksy and sharp as a razor, Marge tracks the murder to a pair of thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) hired by a desperate car salesman (William H. Macy) who concocts a phony kidnapping involving his wife (Kristen Rudrud) in order to take the ransom to pay off his embezzlements from the dealership. As the moral center of an immoral universe, McDormand imbued Marge with sunny optimism and astute detective skills, deservedly earning an Academy Award for Best Leading Actress.

After her Oscar win, McDormand turned up as Gus, a tough-talking mechanic in the acclaimed drama about the working poor, "Hidden in America" (Showtime, 1996). Back on the big screen, she portrayed a German Jewish doctor incarcerated by the Japanese during World War II in "Paradise Road" (1997), before courageously essaying the role of Blanche in a Dublin production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1998). Back on film, she donned the habit as Miss Clavell, the headmistress of an all-female boarding school, in the family musical, "Madeline" (1998), which was adapted from the children's books of Ludwig Bemelmans. After returning to the New York stage in a modern adaptation of "Oedipus," McDormand teamed with acclaimed director Curtis Hanson for his first foray into comedy, "Wonder Boys" (2000), an adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel of the same name. McDormand excelled in the quiet, understated part as a college chancellor who carries on an affair with an author (Michael Douglas) struggling to finish a novel. She next surfaced amidst the huge ensemble of Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (2000), playing the overprotective, unintentionally funny mother of a 15-year-old journalist (Patrick Fugit) traveling with a famous rock band who writes for Rolling Stone.

McDormand joined forces with her husband and brother-in-law once again for the Coen Brothers' ode to film noir, "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), playing the hard-drinking, cheating wife of a dour barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who hatches a blackmail scheme in retaliation for her infidelity, only to see his plan spiral out of control and end in murder. McDormand then played the downstairs neighbor of a New York City cop (Robert DeNiro) who realizes that the killer he has been searching for is his son in the crime drama "City by the Sea" (2002). The following year, she portrayed an entirely different kind of mother from her "Fargo" and "Almost Famous" roles in the indie feature "Laurel Canyon" (2003), a lackluster drama that was ignited by McDormand's fresh and fearless performance as a sexually confident, 40-something record producer whose sketchy personal choices and innate desire to stay youthful, hip and edgy has alienated her son (Christian Bale) and intrigued her future daughter-in-law (Kate Beckinsale). McDormand followed with an equally appealing performance, but all-too-brief turn as Diane Keaton's tell-it-like-is sister in the romantic comedy hit, "Something's Gotta Give" (2003).

After a supporting role in the blockbuster bomb, "Aeon Flux" (2005), McDormand again appeared with her "Flux" co-star Charlize Theron in the far more competent and emotionally involving "North Country" (2005). She played a smiling, but tart-tongued truck driver at an iron mine who helps her friend Josey (Theron) speak out against the poor treatment of female employees by their male counterparts. McDormand earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by An Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. She also received a nod from the Academy Awards, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Following a supporting turn as a dissatisfied wife married to her business partner (Simon McBurney) in the charming ensemble drama, "Friends With Money" (2006), McDormand starred in the period high comedy, "Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day" (2008), playing a seasoned governess who gets a taste of the more glamorous side of life when she is tasked with working for a nightclub performer (Amy Adams) plagued by numerous unseemly affairs. She then teamed up with Joel and Ethan for "Burn After Reading" (2008), a slapstick comedy about two dimwitted gym trainers (Brad Pitt and McDormand) who blackmail a CIA agent (John Malkovich) after finding a top secret CD he left behind in a locker. Thanks to her performance, McDormand found herself in award contention yet again when she earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in the Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical category.