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With ‘Nomadland,’ Frances McDormand now has more lead actress Oscars than Meryl Streep

A closeup of Frances McDormand against an arid Western backdrop.
Frances McDormand in the movie “Nomadland.”
(Searchlight)

In what was widely considered the tightest race in this year’s acting categories, Frances McDormand won the lead actress Oscar for her role in “Nomadland.” The win, McDormand’s third as lead actress, puts her in second place for most victories in the category, behind only four-time winner Katharine Hepburn.

The picture of casualness, McDormand strolled to the stage at Union Station and said, referencing some of the vocal talent in the room (including Leslie Odom Jr.): “Look, they didn’t ask me, because if they had, I would have said … we should have had a karaoke bar.”

She paused and recited a bit of “Macbeth,” of which her husband, Joel Coen is directing an adaptation starring her and Denzel Washington: “I have no words. My voice is in my sword.” To that, she made her own amendment: “We know the sword is our work. And I like work.” She chuckled and finished what had to be the night’s shortest speech with, “Thank you for knowing that. And thanks for this.”

“Nomadland” takes home the best picture, director and lead actress awards at the 2021 Oscars.

McDormand, who had won as recently as 2018 for “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” plays Fern in “Nomadland,” a woman who has pulled up stakes following the Great Recession and chosen a rootless existence. The film was adapted by producer-writer-director-editor Chloé Zhao from Jessica Bruder’s deeply researched nonfiction book about Americans making similar choices (McDormand optioned the book and produced the film).

Zhao cast several of the “nomads” from Bruder’s book in the film. It’s a tribute to the utter naturalness McDormand achieves in her performance that many of these non-actors apparently had no idea she was a professional actress.

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“Linda May and Swankie and Bob were already kind of the iconic figures in my mind before I actually met them,” McDormand told The Times’ Josh Rottenberg. “I think what I was most intimidated by and impressed with was the commitment that people like them made to the life they live, and the joy that they find in gathering together and sharing their experiences and how much they enjoy being on their own. ... I think Swankie was just under the impression that I was another woman on the road. She was really mentoring me in a certain way.”

McDormand has never needed help shedding herself for performances, but she received some assistance in this case anyway, as Zhao urged her to put as much of herself as she could into the role. “Fran is playing Fern, but even the name ‘Fern’ came from herself and who she thinks she might be if she hit the road,” Zhao told the New York Times.

The stars of Chloé Zhao’s critically acclaimed films, including Oscar frontrunner ‘Nomadland,’ discuss her process of dramatizing real lives.

In his Los Angeles Times review, Justin Chang perceived the connection between actress and role: “McDormand doesn’t disappear into Fern; she’s revealed by Fern, and Fern is revealed by her. The innate kinship between character and actor is as obvious as their shared first initial. (We never learn Fern’s surname, except that it starts with ‘McD.’) And although the qualities we often associate with a McDormand performance may be tamped down here — the salty comic aggression, the steely refusal to back down — they persist nonetheless in Fern’s ever-watchful gaze and thin, guarded smile.”

McDormand’s win puts her behind only Hepburn’s four lead wins and ties her with Meryl Streep’s three overall (Streep has two for lead roles and one for her supporting role in “Kramer vs. Kramer”).

With “Nomadland” also winning best picture, that makes four total Oscars for producer McDormand, but she’s still well behind the all-time leader among female winners: Legendary costume designer Edith Head won eight.

While the other three acting races had heavy favorites based on trends established during awards season, the lead actress category did not. The BAFTA-winning McDormand and fellow nominees Viola Davis (the year’s SAG Award winner), Andra Day (Golden Globe winner) and Carey Mulligan (Critics Choice and Spirit winner) had all collected major prizes and widespread acclaim.

Bettors were likewise unsure, listing no one in the category with “minus money,” meaning they saw no clear favorite. Mulligan led many of those betting boards, but not by much; Sports Betting Dime’s lines were typical, with Mulligan at +125 and Davis close behind at +200. McDormand had been an early favorite through much of awards season but had fallen to third in bettors’ eyes (+400).


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