Actor-Director Partnerships: Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers

Some spouses simply cannot work together, while others are able to put their romantic relationships aside and create a fulfilling professional relationship as well. Few spouses have found as much collaborative success as actress Frances McDormand and the half of the dynamic directorial duo the Coen brothers whom she married, Joel Coen. McDormand and Coen brothers have collaborated on six films, and there can be no doubt as to why they have found success time after time in movie after movie. While the Coen brothers place great emphasis on characterization within their films, often selecting works about strange and fascinating individuals, McDormand has become famous for her depictions of just such characters. Combined, the directors and the actress never fail to create unforgettable, and immediately recognizable, works of film.

Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers

McDormand was initially introduced to Joel and Ethan Coen by her then- roommate, the well-known and equally talented actress Holly Hunter. The brothers quickly cast McDormand in their debut film, the low budget thriller Blood Simple (1984), which earned surprising critical acclaim and set the Coen brother precedent of quality and intriguing film. She next starred in the film Crimewave (1985), which was written by the Coen brothers but led by another director, Sam Raimi. McDormand’s next Coen brothers film was also their second major big screen production and first comedy, Raising Arizona (1987), starring the aforementioned Hunt. McDormand has since worked with the directors on Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), and Burn After Reading (2008).

McDormand has been nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, for Mississippi Burning (1988), Almost Famous (2000), and North Country (2005). She won the Academy Award for Best Actressin a Lead Role for her Coen collaboration Fargo, where she played the highly memorable and hilarious pregnant police woman Marge Gunderson, whose exaggerated Minnesotan accent simply cannot be replicated. This role is one that stands out as a shining example of McDormand’s talent in taking something ordinarily, such as a common accent, and creating something extraordinarily unforgettable. She has become famous for her eccentric yet compelling roles in unusual films, where she is able to command attention while delivering understated and layered performances.

Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers
The Coens and McDormand holding their Oscars for winning Best Screenplay and Best Actress respectively for the film Fargo | Photo: Kim Kulish, AFP

It cannot be said that the Coen brothers are known for directing one particular genre of film, as they seem to have become masters of them all. Although the directors use many different styles in their diverse filmography, each work retains the trademark Coen brother tone and feeling. Violent and brutal works such as No Country for Old Men (2007) and the aforementioned Fargo retain a dark humour, while comedies such as Burn After Reading (2008) and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) are shot through with a vein of violence. True Grit (2010) and the recent Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) reveal a gentler, more family friendly side of the directors, but are still weighty and highly complex works. Throughout all of their films, however, two common elements can be found: immaculate attention to detail, and an appreciation of each work as a whole. Each film also boasts masterful and often surprising cinematography combined with emotive scores that, together, capture the emotions of an audience. Joel and Ethan Coen share two Academy Awards for two of their greatest masterpieces: Best Director for No Country For Old Men, and Best Original Screenplay for Fargo.

Each work directed by Joel and Ethan Coen may be very different from the next, but each film can easily be identified as a Coen brothers piece. Similarly, actress Frances McDormand may tackle a wide variety of eccentric and challenging roles, yet she brings the same detailed complexity to each and every mesmerising character that she portrays. The Coen brothers often tackle dark stories full of fascinating characters, and McDormand excels in just such roles, so it is natural that these talented individuals choose to work together time and time again. It is also fortunate that two of the members of this collaboration have been able to form a lasting romantic relationship as well, and I can speak for many fans of film when I say that I wish for both partnerships to last for many years to come.