Effortlessly talented and extremely strong-willed, Frances McDormand is one of today’s best working actresses. Regarded as a pioneer for facial expressions and women’s acting as a whole, McDormand has conveyed her indomitable acting prowess in a profusion of successful movies throughout her triumphant career. McDormand is heavily recognized as an incredibly versatile actor, with her headstrong character portrayals reminding critics and audiences alike of her impressive acting range. Born in Gibson City, Illinois, the now 64-year-old actress was adopted at one year and a half years old, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in theater at Bethany College. McDormand later obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama, making her film debut in Blood Simple (1984).
Since then, McDormand has received seven Academy Award nominations, winning Best Actress for Fargo (1996), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri(2017), and Nomadland (2020), making her one of the few performers to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting. McDormand has also received a Tony Award, two Primetime Emmy Awards, four Screen Actors Guild awards, and two Golden Globe Awards. She also received an Academy Award as one of the producers on Nomadland, thus earning her a fourth Academy Award.
With a remarkable resume and high spirit, here are some of Frances McDormand’s best movies and best performances.
Updated in May 2023: If you’re a fan of Frances McDormand, you’ll be pleased to know this article has been updated with additional content by Adam Ghelerter.
10 North Country
North Country added an Academy Award nomination to McDormand’s esteemed collection — this time for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. The movie focuses on single mother Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), one of the first women to work at an iron mine in Minnesota. The male miners can’t stand that women work the same job and subjugate the woman to sexual harassment, including demeaning them through insults, sexually inappropriate language, and physical harm.
McDormand portrays Josey’s friend Glory, who plays a role in the class action lawsuit. Glory is a fellow miner struggling with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Ultimately limited to a wheelchair and incapable of speech, McDormand plays a vital role in the case when she writes a letter supporting Josey’s lawsuit. Although this film is not as critically acclaimed as others in her filmography, her performance in North Country stands out due to her character’s alignment and McDormand’s exceptional portrayal.
9 Wonder Boys
Wonder Boys is an underrated film with a star-studded cast, including Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey Jr., and Frances McDormand. McDormand plays Sara, the chancellor of a liberal arts university in Pennsylvania. Despite her esteem and success, she’s rather dissatisfied with life. One could say amid a midlife crisis. The film revolves around Grady (Michael Douglas), a professor and novelist who teaches creative writing at the university. The chair of Grady’s writing department is Walter, Sara’s husband. Sara and Grady are having an affair, and things take a complicated turn when she tells him she is pregnant.
Although her part isn’t the most prominent in this magnificent ensemble, her performance is fantastic and stands out. Wonder Boys is not her most acclaimed film, but it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, and is a must-see if you are a fan of McDormand.
8 Burn After Reading
In accordance with her praised performances as a dramatic actor, McDormand has found renowned success when indulging in the realm of comedy, specifically black comedies. Burn After Reading surprised critics and audiences alike with its peculiar comedic twist on the spy genre as a whole. McDormand portrays Linda Litzke, a head-in-the-clouds gym employee who, along with her co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt), stumble upon an ex-CIA operative’s disc which they believe contains classified government information. McDormand absolutely shines in this comedic role as a dimwitted employee with self-absorbed intentions, resulting in one of the finer performances in her versatile career.
7 Mississippi Burning
In one of her earlier roles in a major feature film, McDormand received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her role in Mississippi Burning (1988). McDormand plays Ms. Fell, the wife of an abusive deputy sheriff involved in a highly-profiled racial crime in a Mississippi town. The film conveys a series of heavy elements, including the dangers of racial discrimination in communities. McDormand’s flawless acting is on incredible display as her character is forced to choose between an apparent decision of right and wrong, all while adhering to her own beliefs and morals. McDormand’s performance is insanely powerful, and one that should not be overlooked.
6 Almost Famous
Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical creation explores the filmmaker’s wild teenage journalism years in the ’70s rock world. Patrick Fugit stars as the teenage boy while Frances McDormand plays his overprotective mother. Moreover, McDormand’s character strongly forbids the controversy and cultural impact that rock music may have on her impressionable young son. While her presence is incredibly overbearing, her intentions are good at heart, which the actress perfectly portrays. McDormand’s enchanting performance in Almost Famous earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination (along with co-star Kate Hudson) and remains one of her very best.
5 The Tragedy of Macbeth
Directed by her husband, Joel Coen, Frances McDormand received tremendous praise for her recent portrayal as Lady Macbeth in The Tragedy of Macbeth alongside Denzel Washington. In a Shakespearean tale of utter horror and despair, McDormand beautifully captures the hard-fought determination of Lady Macbeth, with many critics deeming the role as the one that she was undoubtedly “born to play.”
Since the film’s limited theatrical release on December 25, 2021, with streaming on Apple TV+ available on January 14, 2022, McDormand’s breathtaking performance has generated a significant amount of Oscar buzz, with many believing the veteran actress would receive yet another Academy Award nomination.
4 Blood Simple
The Coen Brothers and McDormand have a fruitful career together, and it all started with Blood Simple. Not only is Blood Simple the Coen Brothers’ first film, but it is also McDormand’s first major movie. In a small town in Texas, McDormand takes on the role of Abby, a young woman who’s been cheating on her husband, the owner of a sleazy local bar. The husband tries to cope and confronts her lover man to man but to no avail. He snaps and ultimately settles on revenge, hiring a private detective to take them out.
With constant twists and turns, Blood Simple is gripping and has that now so-familiar Coen Brothers’ dark humor that keeps this neo-noir crime thriller humorous at times but mostly thrilling. McDormand’s first swing at a major motion picture was a huge hit that propelled her career, making this a must-see performance.
Critically praised for its direction and cinematography, Academy Award winner Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was the talk of the town at the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony. McDormand memorably plays Fern, a former plant worker who sells all of her belongings and purchases a van for travel after the loss of both her job and her husband. Through her journey of personal discovery, Fern meets several actual nomads. McDormand’s Fern is an insanely headstrong character with incredible depth, all while learning and understanding the tenderhearted moments that life has to offer. The gripping stand-out performance earned her a third Academy Award for Best Actress.
Decades after its initial release, Fargo (1996) remains one of the best dark comedies ever created. Additionally, the film serves as another collaboration between Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers. McDormand memorably stars as Marge Gunderson, a pregnant police officer engaged in a thorough investigation that includes an unorthodox kidnapping case. The simplistic sweetness and comfort ooze from McDormand’s character, all while implementing a blend of both outright determination as an officer with genuine hilarity. The memorable performance went on to earn McDormand her first Academy Award for Best Actress.
1 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Capturing her second Academy Award for Best Actress, Frances McDormand’s hauntingly-good performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri remains arguably the best in her illustrious career. McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a mother grieving over the recent murder of her young daughter. After several months of no answers and frustration with the lack of urgency within the local police department, Mildred decides to rent three billboards in an attempt to send a message to the police department. Martin McDonagh delivers an unforgettable tale of a mother on a mission, while subsequently sprinkling elements of dark comedy and understandable sympathy.