TWELVE years ago the darkly humorous, eerily atmospheric and highly imaginative thriller Blood Simple introduced cinema audiences to the writing and directing talents of the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, and to the acting ability of Frances McDormand.
It also introduced McDormand to the Coens - when they met at her audition - and marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration which continues with Fargo (reviewed above). And it marked the start of an off screen relationship between Frances McDormand and Joel Coen which soon led to their marriage.It all began with McDormand's long time friend, Holly Hunter, whom she met when she was in her final year of drama school at Yale. "When I moved to New York after I graduated, I was living right down the street from Holly," Frances McDormand explained when we met at her hotel in Cannes. "In fact, it was through her that I found out about the auditions for Blood Simple. She had auditioned for it and she told me about it."
As it happened, it was McDormand rather than Hunter who was cast by the Coens as the unfaithful Texan woman whose husband plots the murder of her and her lover in Blood Simple - but it eventually led to Hunter being chosen for one of the leading roles in one of the next Coen pictures. "Holly and I became room mates after that," McDormand says, "and Joel and Ethan got to know her through me, and they wrote the part of Edwina for her in Raising Arizona. Holly and I came from similar backgrounds and we both trained in theatre before coming to New York. Over the last 15 years we've worked together and played together. It's been great."
Over the next 12 years Frances McDormand worked on several Coen movies and she demonstrated her range in films by Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning), Mick Jackson (Chattahoochee), Ken Loach (Hidden Agenda), Sam Raimi (Darkman), Robert Altman (Short Cuts) and John Boorman (Beyond Rangoon). Her performance in Mississippi Burning earned her an Oscar nomination - as best supporting actress in 1988, and in the same year she received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Stella in the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Now 38 and living in Manhattan with Joel Coen and Pedro, Their adopted son, Frances McDormand is clearly discriminating, choosing to eschew the paths preferred by so many other American actresses and opting for strong character driven roles over star vehicles. Her subtle and engaging performance as Marge, the resourceful and heavily pregnant police chief in Fargo, is her most impressive since her gutsy portrayal of the beauty parlour owner who stood up to the local racists in Mississippi Burning.
The Coen brothers had been working on a couple of scripts at the same time when they offered her the role of Marge in Fargo. "I was really excited because I hadn't worked with them for so long and they're great to work with," she says. "When I read the completed script, my first reaction was `Why me?', because they often have actors in mind when they write roles. And I thought, `Excuse me! Is that what you think I'm like?'
"But Joel and Ethan don't write parts for actors just because it's easier for them as writers. They like to offer us actors challenges. Like John Goodman - he had been playing a very specific part for years on Roseanne's show, so they gave him something completely antithetical to that role. Same thing with Turturro and Buscemi."
In sharp contrast to the blandly indistinguishable backdrops of so many American movies, Joel and Ethan Coen consistently set out to capture a specific regional milieu - whether it be Texas in Blood Simple, Arizona in Raising Arizona, New Orleans in Miller's Crossing, or now, their native Minnesota in Fargo.
"They are definitely telling a story with a certain nostalgia and, with actual experience in Fargo, Frances McDormand says. "They left there when they were 16. Being two Jewish boys in a predominantly Scandanavian population, they remember the dialect as a lot more musical, perhaps, than it is generally." The response to the movie in Minnesota has been "half and half", she says, with many people pleased that their state has become better known as a result.
"Some people took offence at what they saw as a parody of the dialect and the people," she says. "But I'm sure - and I know Joel and Ethan so well - that they were not making fun of the people. And many of the actors are from the area - the kidnapped wife is from Fargo itself, for example - so the regional mannerisms were very familiar to them."
An intuitive actress who does not enter into exhaustive research in preparing for a role, Frances McDormand says that she did little beyond learning how to fire a gun in Fargo - and talking to Nancy, a police officer who like the character of Marge, was seven months pregnant at the time.
"Nancy was still working on the vice squad, going into searches and seizures in crack houses" she says. "She had to work in plain clothes because her police department didn't have maternity uniforms. She was going to be a single mother, and like so many pregnant women, she was going to work for as long as physically possible, because she couldn't afford not to."
In the film, when Marge encounters shocking situations which prompt her to respond that she does not understand, it is not because she is naive, McDormand says. "There is something unsettling about people like Marge. You and me, we're sitting here in Cannes because of our work and we've obviously been exposed to a lot of things in our lives, and that exposure leads to a certain cynicism about the belief in the innate goodness of human beings which is, I think, fundamentally what Marge believes. That's why she doesn't understand certain things. She may be `old fashioned', but professionally and analytically, she's very astute and clever.
"Cinematic icons of the police detective are more male role models than female. One of the rewards I gained from playing Marge came last year when Martin Bell was directing a movie, Hidden In America, and he asked me to play this woman, a classical supporting role of a mother. I wasn't really interested in doing that, and when I read the script, I told him the character I wanted to play was Gus, the car mechanic.
He said Jeff Bridges was going to play that role and Jeff was the executive producer of the movie. So I told him to tell Jeff that he'd got some competition. Two days, later he called back and said Jeff felt I was much better for the part. So I did it and they didn't have to change a word, not even the name of the character.
Frances McDormand says that it was only after she saw Fargo that she realised how she had modelled her role on her older sister, Dorothy, who works as a chaplain in a maximum security Pennsylvania prison. "There's a lot of Marge in Dorothy, I thought when I saw the movie," she says, "and Joel didn't see it until I mentioned it to him.
"Dorothy doesn't think her job is unusual, and she's got a sense of humour which disarms the men. She's a large woman and very tall and she has that real old fashioned sense of what we talking about, that belief in the innate goodness of people. She loved the film, though she always finds it hard to be objective about the films I do. To her, I'm still her sister - and the director's her brother in law!"