Stoic and alone, Fern crosses state boundaries and time zones every few months, finding temporary work and a fresh patch of ground to stay on. In middle age she finds herself in that old American habit of “moving on”, although, unlike the early pioneer settlers or the migrants of the Great Depression, Fern travels in a converted white van she has named “Vanguard”, and not in a covered wagon or battered jalopy.
Played by Frances McDormand, Fern is the heart of Nomadland, a film heavily tipped to win Oscar honours this spring and to secure a third golden statuette for the actor.
Whether or not McDormand, 63, achieves this hat-trick, she has certainly equalled the impact of both her pregnant Marge in Fargo and her angry Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: performances that so impressed the academy in 1996 and 2018. In the eyes of Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw “This quiet, self-effacing performance may be the best of her career so far”.
The film, released in the UK in early April, won three gongs at the London Critics’ Circle film awards last week, including actress of the year for McDormand. Based upon the revelations of a 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, director Chloé Zhao’s film follows ageing travellers who lost a foothold on the financial ladder in the 2008 crash and for whom hope of a secure retirement has dissolved. Jessica Bruder’s book identified this new breed of economic pioneer, people living alongside the orthodox American dream, a proposition that had either failed to appeal or to deliver. By the time Zhao’s film finishes, its final dedication line “to the ones who had to depart” makes poignant sense.
Nomadland will surely join the great tradition of American road movies, from John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, through to the maverick journeys undertaken in films such as Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, The Sugarland Express and Thelma and Louise. And like the best of the films on this long roll call, it also has something particular to say about its own era.
McDormand’s Fern is a fictional heroine in a cast of real-life nomads and a few seasoned actors. She holds the story together, mesmeric and moving. As the New Yorker critic Anthony Lane put it: “I tried to imagine another actress in the role, but soon gave up. Only someone as rooted and as resilient as McDormand, perhaps, can play so rootless a character.”
McDormand was born Cynthia Smith in 1957 in Gibson, Illinois, and adopted by a religious couple, Noreen and Vernon McDormand, who shared a missionary zeal for starting new churches and looking after children. In her teens she turned down a chance to meet her birth mother, wedded to her identity as a lucky foundling. “I identify as gender-normative, heterosexual and white-trash American,” she joked three years ago to the New York Times in a rare interview. “My parents were not white trash. My birth mother was white trash.”
Cinemagoers may feel they have always known McDormand’s face, but her first screen role came in 1984 in the Coen brothers’ suspenseful, violent debut feature Blood Simple. She was offered the part of a naive Texan sidekick at the age of 24 as a graduate from an acting course at Yale. The thriller started a fruitful partnership both in the industry and at home. McDormand has starred in six of the directors’ films and been married to Joel Coen ever since. Expressing her joy at finding him she has said: “Oh, my God! I can actually love and live – not subvert anything, not apologise for anything, not hide anything.”
In 1995, the couple adopted a baby, Pedro, from Paraguay, and they live in homes on the California coast and in New York. Professionally, McDormand believes her gift to the Coens has been the ability to fill out a sketchy characterisation. “The one thing that I’ve always been able to offer them is a complexity that fills out an idea they have of something,” she said in an interview given for the re-release of Blood Simple in 2016.
Key roles for other directors have included Mississippi Burning, with Alan Parker in 1988, which earned her a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, and parts in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012). She also appeared alongside Brian Cox in Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and as the dowdy heroine of the British romantic comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.
More recently she won plaudits for playing Olive Kitteridge in the 2015 TV adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s hit novel. The character of Kitteridge, uneasy with sentiment and troubled by social norms, was something of a natural fit. If there is a developing theme in McDormand’s career, it is for defying any cosy expectations of womanhood and motherhood. “My politics are private, but many of my feminist politics cross over into my professional life,” she has explained. “Because I portray female characters, so I have the opportunity to change the way people look at them. Even if I wasn’t consciously doing that, it would happen anyway, just because of how I present as a woman, or as a person. I present in a way that’s not stereotypical, even if I’m playing a stereotypical role.”
In British director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards she pulled this trick off to alarming effect. Her Mildred is fiery in the pain of bereavement. “We both liked her, we both loved her,” McDonagh has said of the attitude to the character he and his actor shared, “but didn’t want to do anything to make her more likable or lovable. For once, we don’t have to show the female side or the light side or the nurturing, mothering side.” A co-star in the film, Clarke Peters, has spoken with admiration of McDormand’s focus and concentrated “physical invention” in the role.
McDormand’s personal convictions also mark her out. In an age when lots of actors affect embarrassment at Hollywood hoopla, she takes the proverbial cookie. Known to friends and colleagues as Fran, she never wears makeup off set and hates the showbiz fashion for cosmetic procedures. She has refused to attend most press events since Fargo and has an idiosyncratic stance on selfie requests from fans. Instead of agreeing to pose she will offer a short conversation. “I’m not an actor because I want my picture taken,” she has said. “I’m an actor because I want to be part of the human exchange.”
It is the kind of thing stage actors say, and that makes sense, because McDormand is still committed to theatre. At 14 in high school she took the role of Lady Macbeth and she has not stopped, winning a Tony on Broadway for David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Good People in 2011. After her Fargo Oscar, she flew off to Dublin’s Gate theatre to appear in a Tennessee Williams revival, requesting that her recent award was not mentioned in the programme notes. And after making Three Billboards she appeared on stage in Paris with the Wooster Group, an experimental company she has belonged to for 20 years.
The unconventional looks that McDormand feels she has, forcing her to become what she describes as “other” on screen, instead of a standard movie star, matter less in theatre. Yet screen beauty is also a function of charisma, as the golden era stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford showed. McDormand is their match.