Original Hollywood Rebel

Frances McDormand

Consistently making statements in favour of fair treatment for women in showbiz, Frances McDormand has focused her energies on raising issues that matter to her


The 90th Academy Awards were nearly winding up when Frances McDormand won the Best Actress trophy, for her role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The Oscars evening had proceeded as per script until then. The #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns were applauded; Salma Hayek, Ashley Judd and Annabella Sciorra — all of whom had spoken out against disgraced media mogul and serial harasser Harvey Weinstein, presented a short video that drove home the message of diversity. The Oscars show runners had had plenty of time to plan the event, and did a good job of incorporating the issues du jour. No sharp edges or barbed comments here.

But just when one began to feel that rebellion had not truly breached this most elite of Hollywood nights, McDormand — in a gold-speckled Valentino gown devoid of any other adornment, make-up free and with tousled hair — delivered her acceptance speech.

Asking all the female nominees of the night — across the various categories — to stand up (she began by exhorting Meryl Streep to take the lead), McDormand then told the other attendees, “Okay, look around everybody. Look around, ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed… Don’t talk to us about it at the parties tonight. Invite us into your office in a couple (of) days, or you can come to ours, whatever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.”

McDormand’s speech was perhaps the biggest service done to women’s rights in cinema during the Oscars, among the most watched film events. In terms of impact, it ranks above the #MeToo representation (by Hayek-Judd-Sciorra). By engaging all the nominated women, she brought to the spotlight a critical issue — that of prejudice and discrimination against women at work, and the dilution of their professional abilities.

With her speech, McDormand once again established that she is the original Hollywood rebel of this generation — authentic, and unvarnished by visibility and success. Consistently making statements in favour of fair treatment for women in showbiz, she has focused her energies on raising issues that matter to her — be it funding indie films or supporting victims of an apartment block fire.

Consider her BAFTA speech, where she bent the all-black dress code a bit by sporting a lipstick-printed red and black silk outfit. Stating onstage that she has “a little trouble with compliance”, she expressed solidarity with ‘sisters in black’ and then praised the protests in London for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Protestors had used billboards to express their anguish. At the Independent Spirit Awards, she wore fluffy pink slippers and delivered an expletive-laden speech, seeding the thought of cutting down award shows, and using the money saved to fund indie films instead. “And as (Three Billboards director) Martin McDonagh knows, a well-placed f**k makes a sentence sing like nothing else,” she quipped.

McDormand’s devil-may-care approach to the awards season — where she has picked up every Best Actress trophy — has compelled fashion editors to salute her ‘cool’, casual red carpet choices; her undiplomatic approach to talking about important social issues has won her legions of fans. At the Golden Globes, she didn’t make a polite reference to the raging Time’s Up campaign, instead focusing on how good work is scarce for women in Hollywood. “The women in this room are not here for the food tonight,” she said. She reiterated this as her core argument at the Oscars too, insisting that better and more work is what female nominees of the night need the most.

McDormand isn’t doing anything she hasn’t always. An accomplished actor with an Oscar (now two), Emmy and Tony win — the ‘triple crown’ of acting — she has never fit the norm. Adopted by a Disciples of Christ (a relatively popular Protestant denomination American church) pastor and his wife, McDormand had a mobile childhood — across different towns in the American South — and studied acting at Yale, the only elite institution on her CV.

Despite having studied theatre in college and at Yale, she wasn’t considered ‘naturally gifted’ initially. But McDormand has matured into strong, rooted performances across mediums, while resolutely rejecting Hollywoodian ideals of beauty and appearance.

Her ability to play a rough-hewn, strong-willed woman from the American heartland can be traced to the formative years she spent in small nondescript towns and cities. From playing an expectant mother and policewoman in the Oscar-winning Fargo, to the angry mother of a dead teen in Three Billboards… McDormand captured American women and their experiences perfectly. Be it Mississippi Burning, Olive Kitteridge, Almost Famous, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or Friends With Money, her performances do not depend on glamour, they ride on the merit of the character alone.

In this choice of just being herself, McDormand upends the Hollywood cliché. After winning the Best Actress Oscar for Fargo, she returned to the stage with an acclaimed play in Dublin, and didn’t sign any other films. A month ahead of Three Billboards’ release, McDormand featured in a Shaker spiritual (play) for the Wooster Group, the activist theatre group she is part of. Her activism is contiguous with her choices, and McDormand uses public platforms to build support for pet causes — like showbiz being a more egalitarian industry for women. The way she engaged with female nominees on Oscars night made the three representatives of the #MeToo campaign onstage look a little too practised.

In her origins — being raised in an environment of aggressive religiosity — McDormand shares similarities with another Hollywood outsider, Rose McGowan, a leader of the #MeToo movement. (Incidentally, both women wear their hair sheared short — rejecting Hollywood’s preference for a shining crown of hair on its women) Rose McGowan’s rejection of Hollywood is militant, McDormand’s is firm and rides on a unique success story.

McGowan’s insurgent rejection of Hollywood or McDormand’s brand of activism — one can’t pick sides here. In every revolution, versions and methods vary and the outcomes determine how future generations view these. But McDormand’s choice of speaking up when there is greatest chance of being heard, and her own unconventionality, has probably got more people to hear and connect with the cause of women’s rights. It may be wild, and sounds tough — but it works with everyone.