On January 7, Frances McDormand accepted the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her performance as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in a speech bleeped out three times despite no audible expletives.
Twitter erupted with jokes about what was clearly an attempt by NBC sensors to preempt an incident by a woman, who, throughout her career, has refused to play by Hollywood's rules.
It's not really all that surprising. McDormand has never fit the rigid mould usually required of leading ladies: she doesn't wear makeup (in fact, she once called her face a "map," with history she couldn't imagine erasing with plastic surgery, and credits her son Pedro with her most distinctive wrinkle), keeps her hair cropped short or unstyled, mostly refuses to do press, and is particularly fond of cursing. She is particularly averse to the plastic surgery that is almost a requirement for actresses over a certain age. "We have a lot of responsibility because we present ourselves in a medium that reaches a lot of people," she told Katie Couric in 2015.
She built a reputation of telling truth to power long before it became fashionable. In fact, her navy shift at the 2018 Golden Globes was a standout amidst a sea of black dresses worn by actresses in support of the nascent Time's Up movement. But McDormand doesn't need a dress to prove her commitment to gender equality — she's been spreading the word for years.
Just take her Oscars speech from 1997 (hey there, Nic Cage!), when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Swaggering onto the stage in a blue gown after giving Joel Coen — her husband since 1984, who co-directed the film with his brother, Ethan — a thank you kiss, she praised directors for making decisions based on ability rather than the market value of the actresses nominated alongside her. In other words, she pointed out that, too often, an actress is valued for her looks rather than for her talent. It's a message that, 20 years later, is just beginning to pick up steam in the mainstream, as Hollywood addresses concerns of how the industry can better support its women.
That McDormand's renaissance is taking place in tandem with Hollywood's reckoning makes sense. The character she plays in Three Billboards, Mildred Hayes, is a tough-as-nails single mother hell-bent on seeking revenge for her daughter's violent rape and murder, who shames the police department into pursuing new leads by putting up three billboards alongside the highway calling out law enforcement for complacency. She's angry and no-nonsense — McDormand said she "played it like a man," and based the character on John Wayne. Her workman's jumpsuit suggests she has no time to think about such frivolities as appearance. She's got shit to get done. That McDormand's fabulous performance happens to be in a film that's facing backlash for its problematic handling of race is the one damper on what should be her big year.
The times are finally catching up to a woman who has always been a little out our reach. (And then there's the fact that, at 60, there's less pressure on her to be a sex symbol. “I was too old, too young, too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, too blond, too dark — but at some point they’re going to need the other,” McDormand said in a New York Times profile of her earlier this year. “So I’d get really good at being the other.”) In 2018, McDormand's #nomakeup look and powerful speech was cause for celebration. But it hasn't always been so. Her reluctance to conform has mostly made people uncomfortable. In fact, it's a testament to her prowess as an actor that she's still managed to gain recognition for her work. Despite not playing the Hollywood game, she's only a Grammy away from an EGOT, having secured her Oscar back in 1997, along with a Tony award for her role in David Lindsay-Abaire's play, Good People, in 2011, and an Emmy for HBO's Olive Kitteridge in 2014. And if she takes home the Oscar for Best Actress for Three Billboards, for which she's currently the frontrunner, she'll be joining a small and exclusive club of 13 female performers who have won in that category more than once. (With four wins, Katharine Hepburn holds the record; Meryl Streep is close behind with three.)
In some ways, McDormand holds much in common with her fellow nominee, three-time Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis. He too, has a reputation for putting the work first, and for refusing to play the game. He famously immerses himself in difficult roles, and only appears in a film every couple of years. In fact, Phantom Thread, for which he has received his sixth Best Actor nomination, will reportedly be his last performance on film — the actor announced earlier this year that he would be retiring.
But what, in a man, are quirks that prove his commitment to his art, a mark of his genius, translate, in a woman, to oddness. Ask anyone what they think of Frances McDormand, and chances are they'll make a scrunchy face, and reply something around the lines of "She's a great actress, but isn't she kind of weird?" Caleb Landry-Jones, her co-star on Three Billboards, admitted to be being terrified of her on set.
She is weird. And she's great, and talented, and strong, and a little inappropriate. She still has a goddamn flip phone. She's the Best Actress nominee we need in a year where woman are fighting to come into their own. And finally, it looks like we might be starting to deserve her.