No time for vanity

For 30 years, Frances McDormand has made a career out of playing quirky, complex characters. Now she is producing and starring in Olive Kitteridge, a mini-series based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

By: New York Times | Updated: October 26, 2014 12:01:39 am
The mini-series spans 25 years in the lives of residents of a small town,  particularly of McDormand and her onscreen husband Richard Jenkins The mini-series spans 25 years in the lives of residents of a small town, particularly of McDormand and her onscreen husband Richard Jenkins

Frances McDormand’s Oscar, for Fargo, isn’t easily spotted. It’s tucked into a corner of the floor-to-ceiling shelving that hems the foyer of her Manhattan home, a glint of gold among hundreds of books. But odder than its hiding place is its eyewear. She has fastened a pair of tiny sunglasses, meant for a Ken doll, to Oscar’s venerable head.

Once, she said, “I put him in a cowboy outfit”. This was in 2011, when her husband, writer and director Joel Coen, was nominated for several Academy Awards for the Western True Grit. She couldn’t be with him at the ceremony in Hollywood, so she watched on TV from this apartment, with dude-ranch Oscar as her date and talisman. The statuette performed questionably in both roles, failing to muster any clever banter or a single win.

It does a much better job as a metaphor for the mischievous distance that McDormand keeps from the industry that gave it to her. She chafes at Hollywood’s conventions; she defies its norms. Her relationship with her trophy illustrates that, and so does Olive Kitteridge, a four-part mini-series that will be shown on HBO.

Adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories, Olive is set in an unremarkable Maine town and traces several decades in the emphatically ordinary existences of its title character — a frumpy, grumpy math teacher — and her milquetoast husband, a couple played by McDormand and Richard Jenkins. It focuses less on uncommon events than on everyday grievances, on the compromises that accumulate as the years crawl by, the regrets that pile up.

McDormand set the entire project in motion, acquiring the rights to the book more than five years ago, signing on as one of the main producers and helping assemble the creative team, including director Lisa Cholodenko. Olive is her baby as nothing before it was, and it marks many new chapters for her. It’s her first real foray into television; the first time she has stood front and centre in something of this scope, not just part of an ensemble but also its indisputable anchor and mooring; and her first occasion for doing extensive interviews after a decade of studiously avoiding them.

It’s also a statement of intent. She’s no longer going to wait for other people to bring her good parts. And she won’t emulate other actresses in her age range — she’s 57 — and cast herself in the most flattering light possible.

“It’s a subversive act,” she said. And while she partly meant the subtlety of Olive, she mostly meant the showcase that it affords older actors playing older people with late-in-life worries. Olive is her answer to an industry and a society that she finds perverse in their fixation on youth.

“We are on red alert when it comes to how we are perceiving ourselves as a species,” she said. “There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45 — sartorially, cosmetically, attitudinally. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair.

Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.”

Well, not everybody. Her own short hair on this late September afternoon was an impish chaos of dark and white patches and untamed tufts pointing every which way. She’d done nothing to disguise the lines around her mouth and eyes, and her brow furrowed readily and completely.

Looking old, she said, should be a boast about experiences accrued and insights acquired, a triumphant signal “that you are someone who, beneath that white hair, has a card catalogue of valuable information”.

The actress learned at the start of her career not to care too much about appearances. “I was often told that I wasn’t a thing,” she said. “‘She’s not pretty enough, she’s not tall enough, she’s not thin enough, she’s not fat enough’. I thought, ‘OK, someday you’re going to be looking for someone not, not, not, not, and there I’ll be’.”

She specialised in idiosyncratic characters: the pregnant, waddling detective in the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996); the bossy mother in Almost Famous (2000). That has made ageing less fraught for her, and so has her enduring marriage to Joel, whom she met when he and his brother, Ethan, put her in their (and hers) first movie, the 1984 thriller Blood Simple.

“I’ve been with a man for 35 years who looks at me and loves what he sees,” she said.

Ethan said that for McDormand, acting “is never an exercise in vanity”. She is scheduled to shoot a small part for the Coen brothers’ next movie, Hail, Caesar!, and he said: “The character goes even further down that road, away from vanity. She’s a film editor who hasn’t seen the light of day for years.”

That McDormand was drawn to the part of Olive speaks volumes. The character is described in Strout’s interlaced stories — which read, in aggregate, like a novel — as large, plain and clumsy. And she’s defined by what she doesn’t do: show her emotions; speak in more than a sentence or two. Yearning to play Olive is the opposite of yearning to play Medea. The only weapon Olive wields against her lone child, a son, is her caustic unpleasantness.

McDormand and Joel Coen have made New York their primary home for more than three decades now, and it’s here that they reared their son, Pedro, who’s the reason she declined interviews for a long stretch. She wanted to deflect celebrity, to minimise the odds that she’d be interrupted by strangers when she and Pedro journeyed through their neighbourhood.

But he’s 19 now and away at college. “I can come back into the arena,” she said.

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