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The mother of all roles

In the upcoming 'Laurel Canyon,' Frances McDormand plays a freewheeling rock producer whose lover is half her age. She's waited only 45 years for a challenge like this.

March 02, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

New York — "Wait a minute," says Frances McDormand, thrusting her hand forward in a "halt" signal to stop the tape recorder from being switched on. "First let's talk about this fat thing."

It's a Marge Gunderson moment. That's her Oscar-winning role from "Fargo," in which McDormand assumed the persona of a determined, no-nonsense small-town Minnesota police chief on the trail of two ruthless kidnappers. Marge had a dazzlingly offbeat charm, being very dry, very observant and very pregnant as she investigated.

McDormand isn't pregnant, but she has that same lookie-here admonishment in her tone. A moment ago, she had explained that she had chosen this little Italian hangout on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for its delectable thin-crusted pizza, and then promptly ordered one with sausage topping, no apologies, to go with her beer. The interviewer made the mistake of saying she loved pizza, "but it's fattening."

So now she begins her lecture, "Now women just tend to put on a little weight in certain places, especially as we get to be women of a certain age. There's nothing wrong with that. We shouldn't be knocking ourselves out about that, we should celebrate it, got that?"

The interviewer nods, sheepishly. Lecture over.

But in fact, this was merely a preamble to the topic of the evening -- McDormand's deliciously freewheeling portrayal of Jane, a successful fortysomething rock music producer in her new Sony Classics film "Laurel Canyon," which opens Friday. This time the chameleon-like actress gets to play someone who is glamorous and, as director Lisa Cholodenko ("High Art") puts it, "flamboyant, charismatic and unconventionally sexy." Sexy and attractive enough to snag a twentysomething British rocker, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), who's her latest client and her lover. After all, it's a world in which the borders between work and play are often blurred, and people slip from one to the other with hedonistic ease.

Enter Jane's grown-up son from a previous entanglement, Sam (Christian Bale), an uptight fellow with a residency at a neuropsychiatric institute in Los Angeles. He's brought along his fiance Alex (Kate Beckinsale), a medical researcher whose borders turn out to be more porous. They had planned to stay in Jane's house -- in Laurel Canyon, natch -- not expecting to find Jane and boyfriend still there. Thus the inevitable clash of cultures; Sam finds Jane's modus operandi careless and reprehensible; Jane and Ian just want to enjoy a live-and-let's-party lifestyle, while trying to cut a troublesome song at the on-site recording studio.

For McDormand, it was the right role at the right time of life.

"I felt like I could walk into it," says the New York actress, her lank blond tresses trailing down either side of her long face. At 45, she exudes the unmistakable glow of inner and outer health. Wearing no noticeable makeup, she seems as at ease in her jeans having an interview with a stranger in a pizza joint as she would sitting in the living room of her own home. As co-star Nivola notes, "Fran is completely unself-conscious about the way she looks."

"It was an interesting convergence of events," she says about the role. "About a year before I'd already told journalists I wanted to do nudity. It was a seemingly facetious response to the question [of what I wanted to do next] but a very studied one as well because.... " Here she drops her gravelly voice yet another register and slows down to emphasize each and every word. "I - feel - really - gooood - about - myself. I - love - being - 45."

No apologies

Indeed, "Laurel Canyon" gave McDormand several chances to disrobe in bedroom and swimming pool romps, revealing her athletic body. Nudity aside, there was also the complexity of Jane's character that appealed to her. She's a woman in a tough profession, she's somebody's lover, and she's somebody's mother -- and far from perfect at each.

"Yet she doesn't apologize," says McDormand. "She admits it, but doesn't apologize, which is probably one of the biggest struggles for me as a woman."

There was also a certain wish fulfillment that came with Jane. In "Almost Famous" (2000), McDormand played Elaine, a matronly mother to starry-eyed Patrick Fugit, who goes on the road to cover the tour of his favorite rock band. "I adored Elaine," McDormand says. "It was one of the most well-written mother roles, but part of me wished I could be in the road movie with the band. With Jane I got that. It was like a bookend."

While some may find the distance between those roles to be light-years, that has proved to be McDormand's singular talent: to inhabit her roles, from the nagging mother in "Almost Famous" to girlfriends of the protagonists in "Wonder Boys" (2000) and "City by the Sea" (2002), from the '40s-style femme fatale in "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001) to the rock 'n' roll mom in "Laurel Canyon."

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