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Ranking Frances McDormand's 20 Best Movie And TV Roles

The five-time Oscar nominee is still an underrated legend.

Coming off a celebratory awards season capped by a Best Actress Oscar win for her role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand's star has never been brighter. At 60-years-old, the five-time Academy Award nominee and two-time Best Actress winner is in the midst of an all-time Hollywood career. 

We wanted to look back on that career and celebrate it. Actors are recognized for many reasons, personal and political, but for fans, only the work matters. For decades now, McDormand has been a mainstay on the silver screen. She's a worker who's shown amazing range despite being in an industry where quality roles for women are few and far between. Her looks never dictated her work and she rarely compromised (she was in a Transformers movie, nobody's perfect). Frances McDormand has had a brilliant career.

While Ms. McDormand is far from done making movies, it's never too late to take stock of what she's accomplished. The Illinois native has been acting in film and television since 1984, and IMDb credits her with 63 roles (including the still unreleased Isle of Dogs). This is a ranking of her 20 best:

20. Assorted Coen characters: Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Hail, Caesar! (2016) 

Right out of the gate, We're going to cheat a little and put these four small roles in a bucket. We have to discuss Frances McDormand and the Coen brothers before anything else.

Fans of McDormand know she's been married to Joel Coen since both their careers officially began in 1984 on the set of Blood Simple. Along with his brother, Ethan, Joel has made his mark on the film industry by writing and directing some of the greatest and most beloved films of the past 30 years. McDormand has been Joel's muse, the Brothers' leading lady, and their go-to character actress. She's the woman behind the men, in other words.

Her influence on the filmmakers cannot be underestimated and she deserves credit whenever the name "Coen" is whispered amongst the industry's greats. McDormand has been in nine Coen movies and all of them are on this list. Her work in these four films — as secretaries in Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy, as a voice in Barton Fink, and as the chain smoking editor in Hail, Caesar! — all added something memorable to each story. Even in a cameo appearance, McDormand makes a big impression.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Universal

19. Linda Litzke - Burn After Reading (2008)

Another Coen brothers film, Burn After Reading stars McDormand as a halfwit in the middle of a screwball spy story. She shows she can handle broad comedy with an obsessive, optimistic performance that's just as sad as it is funny. This is McDormand's inner spoiled brat rising to the surface. It's a strange side of such a formidable actress.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Universal

18. Capt. Chantal Dubois - Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (2012)

McDormand's best voice role is a challenging one. Armed with a French accent and plenty of joie de vivre, she slips into a rare villainous performance with ease in the third Madagascar movie. She also belts out a mean version of "Non, je ne regrette rien" and is featured on the soundtrack.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Paramount

17. Dean Sara Gaskell - Wonder Boys (2000)

McDormand is a natural playing women of authority, and the next few roles speak to that. She's an actress of self-evident intelligence. Her performance as a college Dean in the midst of an affair with a professor (Michael Douglas) in Wonder Boys is one of subtle grace. She's the Dean, sure, but she's just as confused about love as the rest of us.

Ranking Frances McDormand's 20 Best Movie and TV Roles
Paramount

16. Dr. Molly Arrington - Primal Fear (1996)

McDormand plays the psychiatrist who examines multiple personality psychotic Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) in Primal Fear. Again, she's great as an intellectual. She has a standout scene where her interview with Stampler brings out his other, more evil personality and she must remain in the moment. 

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Paramount

15. Sue Thomason - Promised Land (2012)

This is a subtle, funny performance that proves McDormand can do a lot with very little. On the page, Sue Thomason is an ordinary supporting character, but McDormand infuses her with wit and a wise-ass personality that seems authentic. It's one of those natural McDormand roles that feels like we're just watching her in real life.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Focus Features

14. Mrs. Bishop - Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Not everyone is right for director Wes Anderson's world, but McDormand fits right in. In Moonrise Kingdom, she plays the mother of a 13-year-old who runs away and she has her frantic moments. But it's her deadpan line delivery that makes the character.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Focus Features

13. Jane - Laurel Canyon (2002)

McDormand doesn't do overt sexuality very often, but that doesn't mean she can't. As Jane in Laurel Canyon, the (then) 43-year-old actress gives a compelling performance as a pot smoking, skinny-dipping bohemian whose behavior embarrasses her visiting son (Christian Bale). It's proof of McDormand's talent that this clichéd character works on any level, but she does.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Sony Pictures Classics

12. Ingrid Jessner - Hidden Agenda (1990)

McDormand is the poster girl for director Ken Loach's 1990 courtroom drama. She plays Ingrid Jessner, an American investigator looking into a murder in Northern Ireland. Early in her career, McDormand came through with her first real depiction of a savvy, independent woman. It would not be her last.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Hemdale Film Corporation

11. Mrs. Pell  - Mississippi Burning (1988) 

While McDormand has made a career of playing strong women and intellectuals, she also has enough range to handle more gentle creatures. She shows a vulnerability and child-like kindness as the abused beauty Mrs. Pell in Mississippi Burning. She would earn her first Oscar nomination for the role. All you want to do is protect her.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Orion

10. Doris Crane - The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Alcoholic and thoroughly depressed, Doris Crane doesn't do much for the first half of this underrated Coen brothers film. Married to a man she's drifting away from, and having an affair with her boss, Doris is arrested for murder unjustly. McDormand, understanding the Coen's affection for fate-driven themes, takes everything in stride as Doris, right until the end. 

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
USA Films

9. Guinevere Pettigrew - Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

Cornered by empty pockets, unemployed governess Miss Pettigrew fakes her way into a job as social secretary to a flamboyant American actress (Amy Adams) in the old-fashioned Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. McDormand, who plays the title character with humble charm and bravado alike, shows off a rare romantic side in the movie.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Focus Features

8. Elaine Miller - Almost Famous (2000)

What mother can't identify with Elaine Miller in Almost Famous? Faced with an empty nest after her daughter takes off and her son goes on tour with a rock band, Mrs. Miller goes into panic mode. McDormand won her third Oscar nomination for this role. She gives instant credibility to the movie with her presence alone, but she also has a huge impact on the other characters with simple phone calls. Motoring through writer/director Cameron Crowe's estimable dialogue, Elaine captures the worried spirit of every control freak mother in the film.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
DreamWorks

7. Abby - Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple marks the beginning of McDormand's career as well as her relationship with the Coen brothers. Their collective debut is a thrilling noir in which she plays the story's femme fatale, Abby. Married to an older man, she has an affair that leads to murder and a nerve-wracking final scene where she's hunted by a hit man. McDormand's face carries the emotion of the film as she appears in tight closeups throughout.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Circle Films

6. Jane - Friends with Money (2006)

One of McDormand's most endearing roles is this one in writer/director Nicole Holofcener's ode to female friendship. As Jane, she's a portrait of self-confidence — a strong person whose wealth seems more an organic product of her talent (she's a fashion designer) than something unearned. She's simply great at playing smart people. And she's wickedly funny, too. 

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Sony Pictures Classics

5. Glory Dodge - North Country (2005)

Blue-collar to the bone, the aptly named Glory Dodge might be McDormand's toughest character. She encourages single mom Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) to work with her at the local iron mine, a virtual men's club where the women endure awful harassment and are treated as outsiders. The abuse is worth it for the paycheck, but not for long. The women band together to fight the company for equality and respect. Glory, weakened by cancer, still supports her girls to the end. This role earned McDormand her fourth Oscar nomination.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Warner Brothers

4. Dot - Raising Arizona (1987)

McDormand's wackiest, weirdest, and funniest performance can be seen in Raising Arizona. She plays Dot, family friend to the McDunnoughs, who can't get enough babies in her life and isn't ashamed to scream it from the rooftops. She seems certifiable, actually. Dot is a small role, but shades of her can be seen in several other McDormand characters, including the one at the top of this list.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Fox

3. Olive Kitteridge - Olive Kitteridge (2014)

McDormand's staunch dedication to character is on full display in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, the lone television inclusion on our list. McDormand portrays Olive, a retired schoolteacher, over the course of 25 years as utterly exhausted with people and life in general. She's a walking depression case who doesn't live life, she endures it, while sparing her friends and family members no relief. It's a self-righteous role that McDormand manages to make relatable.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
HBO

2. Mildred Hayes - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

The 2018 Best Actress Oscar went to McDormand for her heartbreaking role as grieving mother Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Faced with a dead-end investigation, Hayes spurs the local police by taunting them with paid advertisements that all can see. It's a desperation move that has a ripple effect in the small community. But Mildred takes no prisoners, embodying a vengeful sense of grief that crosses the line into destruction. What she truly yearns for is hope.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Fox Searchlight

1. Marge Gunderson - Fargo (1996)

The ultimate McDormand role that includes all the superlatives used to describe her other work: independent, funny, strong, endearing, surprising. Fargo is the ultimate Coen brothers and Frances McDormand movie. She plays Marge Gunderson, a pregnant cop who unravels a labyrinthine kidnapping/murder plot in her sleepy North Dakotan town. By simply going about her police business, McDormand creates a true heroine as Marge. The movie weaves separate tales that converge at the end, and she must face ultimate evil. How she does so, and how she overcomes it, is movie magic. Marge's car ride at the end, suspect in hand, is a master class in how to display existential disappointment. The entirety of the Coens' greatest film rests on her shoulders, and she delivers like a legend.

Ranking The Top 20 Frances McDormand Roles
Gramercy
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