YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Staying in Character

Actress Frances McDormand's post-Oscar year hasn't been like most people's. But that's the way she likes it.

July 19, 1998|David Gritten | David Gritten is a regular contributor to Calendar

LONDON — Actresses who win an Oscar usually move swiftly to capitalize on their success. With their agents they seek high-profile, lucrative screen roles to ride the wave of their new-found visibility. For who knows how long it will last? Acting is precarious, especially for women; this year's hot face easily becomes next year's "remember her?"

That's how most Oscar-winning actresses react to their triumph. Frances McDormand, it's fair to say, follows another path entirely.

Last year she held aloft her Academy Award for best actress, given for her extraordinary performance in the Coen brothers' film "Fargo" as Marge Gunderson, the heavily pregnant, shrewd but slow-talking ("you betcha!") police chief in rural Minnesota.

McDormand effectively stole the Oscar show that night with her determined stride on and off stage, and for a hugely articulate acceptance speech in which she congratulated Working Title and PolyGram, the companies backing "Fargo," for "allowing directors to make autonomous casting decisions based on qualifications and not just market value."

But consider what offers of work McDormand has accepted since winning that Oscar. Here's a hint: She won't be showing up playing anyone's mom in this year's crop of high-budget summer action movies.

* She agreed to play Blanche Dubois in the classic Tennessee Williams play "A Streetcar Named Desire," on stage, far away from Hollywood--in Ireland, at Dublin's Gate Theatre, where it just closed.

* McDormand also opted to take a role as a department store clerk in a "Sesame Street" video for children, "Big Bird Gets Lost."

* She accepted another stage role, off-off-Broadway, in a reworking of the Oedipus myth by playwright Dare Clubb, an old friend from Yale Drama School.

* Her one film role is playing the kindly nun Miss Clavel in "Madeline," the recently released adaptation of the classic children's book by Ludwig Bemelmans. She teaches and cares for "the 12 little girls in two straight lines" at a private boarding school in Paris.

And as McDormand points out, even Miss Clavel is essentially "a supporting role. It's just that I'm taller than everyone else."

Why is "Madeline" the only film she has taken on since her big Oscar night? "It was the best choice I could have made. I hadn't done a play in five years, so I specifically chose to go back to theater. I needed to balance my professional life against something that was out of my hands.

"The only control I have is to choose to do the work I want to do, not to follow the Academy Award with something that's predescribed for someone who wins an Academy Award. There's always that sense of anticipation: What will she do next?

"I cashed that in by playing Blanche. I'm not the traditional idea of the character, and our interpretation of the play was a success. As for the 'Sesame Street' video, it's part of a series that helps kids negotiate life. If they get lost, what do they do? I had a certain profile, so I was asked to do it, and it was really satisfying. It was something that concerned me, and it helped teach my 3-year-old son to learn his phone number."

She mused over all this over lunch at a Chinese restaurant within a five-star London hotel. McDormand, 41, entered with her customary feisty stride, apparently reveling in her arresting appearance--red shoes and a lime-green outfit by Dublin designer Lainey Keogh. She is taller than one might expect from seeing her on screen, but every bit as forthright and humorous. She asked permission to smoke, and rather than picking fastidiously at her food like some actresses, attacked it with relish: "Mmmm!" she exclaimed between mouthfuls. "This is heaven!"

She's a lot of fun, then, and seems refreshingly unimpressed by the trappings of success. Indeed, McDormand has long insisted she does not trust fame and celebrity, preferring to regard herself as a character actress.

"I'm trying to use the clout [of the Oscar] in my way, not someone else's prescribed way," she insisted. "By saying I'm a character actor and that I play supporting roles on film, I'm not being self-deprecating. That's my agenda--because character actors work until they decide not to work. Leading woman can work for ever on stage, but they have peaks and valleys in film work. By saying this is what I am, I have control."

Certainly her characters have been memorable. Marge Gunderson in "Fargo" might have finally made her a household name. But McDormand also stood out in two earlier Coen brothers movies: in "Blood Simple," as Abby, an adulterous wife being hunted down by a murderous private eye; and in "Raising Arizona," as Dot, a shrill vulgarian offering Holly Hunter child-rearing advice. She was also notable (and Oscar-nominated) as a meek Southern woman abused by her Klansman husband in "Mississippi Burning," and as an addled football fanatic in John Sayles' "Lone Star."

Los Angeles Times Articles