I watched Fargo again this past weekend. It’s a great movie anyway, but it was especially good because I haven’t worn it out, if you know what I mean. You know sometimes you view films sooo many times, that they lose their appeal? I’ve only ever seen Fargo the one time before and that was near the date it came out. 1996. I was 20. The first version of Java programming was released, Bob Dole ran for POTUS, and future star Abigail Breslin was born.
What a fab film to get reacquainted with. There’s a lot that I could focus on in my discussion/appreciation of this film. But let’s go the predictable route of talking about what I think is not only a terrific performance, but a wholly satisfying and well-written female lead. (Thanks to the Coen brothers for that!)
144: Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson
I think McDormand is a fantastic actress. When I was researching this little blog entry, I was sort of crushed to find an interview where she confesses to doing absolutely no research for this role. I studied acting at school (which explains why I also have a bartending degree) and was brainwashed into my school of practice, the Stella Adler technique, which itself is born of The Group Theatre and is an offshoot of Stanislavsky’s ‘method’ style. Adler, Meisner, and Strasberg were all disciples of acting messiah Stanislavsky and they all interpreted his words in different ways. NYU had a different acting studio for each method which created at least 3 warring factions within the acting program at the arts school who ALL stubbornly thought that their way was best…this isn’t even counting the yahoos at Experimental Theatre Wing or the show-tune belting patience-drainers at CAP 21–the musical theatre studio.
What were the main differences between each studio? In a nutshell, Meisner believes reacting honestly to whatever comes out of your partner’s mouth is most important–a sort of improv-style response. Strasberg believed that you needed to rely on your own personal sense memories to inform your performance. Basically, if you can remember what coffee and cigarettes smell like, you can play anything from a hooker with a heart of gold to a space alien. Adler believed that you could inhabit a character by first doing research and then building character backgrounds that feed into your imagination. Basically, understand the character’s world first and then help yourself enter it by creating personal histories.
I remember for one of my character studies, I spent a few hours at the NYU library researching my character’s career (that of prison warden) and then writing several character-building monologues in her voice to try to relate to what was a vastly different experience to my milquetoast upbringing in rural-suburban PA. My loyalty to the Adler method was undying. I was fully indoctrinated by my cruel acting teachers and I mentally spat upon the halfwits that went straight for the masturbatory methods of Strasberg, or even worse, the monkeytards at Experimental Theatre Wing who ran around all day pretending to be colors and shapes—their productions inevitably wound up looking Caligulan.
So, I’ve always been a bit taken aback when I read quotes like McDormand’s. Jodie Foster, who, like McDormand, is a Yale Drama grad, has made similar statements. It left me a bit aghast and wondering what the hell it is that they teach at Yale Drama. (Also, did I just completely waste my time for four years? Have I been doing it wrong?) Surely they learn SOME sort of acting technique that involves research.
But, reading another interview with McDormand about the film, she mentions going shooting with a real female police chief from the snowy hinterlands of Minnesota, learning the charming “Minnesota Nice” dialect AND building character backgrounds with the actor who played her husband, John Carroll Lynch. They decided that Norm and Marge met while working on the police force, married, and had to make the decision about who would still work for the force and who had to quit. In their back story, they thought that since Marge was a better officer, Norm should quit and pursue his painting.
So, to me, that sort of sounds like she DID engage in a bit of research after all.
Still, I remember an interview where Jodie Foster stated that acting is just being really good at playing make-believe.
So, maybe really good acting lies somewhere in between the two: hard-nosed research and a sense of fun and play.
Also, maybe it’s time to unclench my butt cheeks ever so slightly when I think about these sort of things.
Anyway, regardless of how she reached the final product, her performance deservedly won the Academy Award that year (out of a crop of truly excellent nominees).
McDormand portrays Gunderson as a smart, polite, and caring individual who, amazingly, remains interesting for all her lack nastiness. In one of the most discussed scenes, she meets up with an old highschool chum who has contacted her out of the blue. Here’s the Mike Yanagita scene:
That’s correct, Mike, she IS a super lady.
I found the Mike Yanagita scene discussed both in an interview and as a thread on an IMDB board. Why does it exist? McDormand’s answer can be found here: bombsite. It comes across that she found the scene useful because it was an occasion for Gunderson to achieve a bit of depth. For her, it exists to build character. The meeting with Mike flusters her a bit. Even though she’s sweet as pie, she’s not perfect. She doesn’t accommodate everyone all the time. (Even if she DOES get out of the situation in a non-confrontational sort of way.) The IMDB thread discusses the possibility that it’s in there for plot development rather than solely as a character-defining moment. (Read the rationale which involves watching for subtle facial cues here: IMDB). I think this logic works but only for people who believe that every scene in a film should serve the sole purpose of moving action forward and don’t want to see Fargo abuse that rule of good screenplay writing.
The comedic prowess demonstrated by McDormand is fantastic to watch. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see actors who are normally better known for their dramatic roles take a comedic spin. In an AV Club interview, film director and ex-headwriter of Saturday Night Live Adam McKay (Anchorman, Stepbrothers) comments on McDormand’s unique comic gift (I’ve included a few of the lead-in questions so that it makes sense):
AVC: SNL was a master class in taking anybody who walked in the door and putting them into comic situations.
AM: Yeah, it’s ridiculous. I actually went through it and didn’t put it together. We got to see person after person, and we learned that the best hosts were the people like Steve Forbes and Mayor Giuliani and athletes and super good-looking dudes and high-status people. And then great actors: Julianne Moore was a great host, and Steve Buscemi. So you generally start to see rules for who was good, and who was exciting to work for, and who was meaty.
AVC: Julianne Moore and Richard Jenkins, who you mentioned earlier, have both had small but memorable roles in Coen brothers movies. It takes a real level of skill to hold that heightened pitch for an entire movie.
AM: It’s true, isn’t it?
AVC: They can hit levels even a lot of dramatic actors can’t really get at.
AM: It’s really a kind of fine line, operating in a state of slightly tweaked satirical drama. Frances McDormand is the master of it. It’s like half a percentage heightened. It’s a really kind of weird level that they always have in their movies, and you’re absolutely right, there’s few people that can pull it off.
Here’s “the hooker scene” from Fargo. McDormand is even riveting as the straight man.
There was an attempt to bring the Marge Gunderson character to the small screen in a Fargo television series. Edie Falco, a fine choice, was to play our hero. Unfortunately, it got shit-canned before it even made it past the ‘pilot’ stage. Ah well. It does make me wonder about the entertainment potential of Marge being paired with some other famous teevee detectives. Here, in no particular order, are some television cops it’d be fun to see her paired up with:
–Either of the SVU detectives. You know, if you read this blog regularly, that I think Det. Benson is shit hot. So, that’s a no-brainer. But, it’d be fun to see Gunderson opposite Christopher Meloni’s Elliot Stabler as well. The golly-gee and the facepuncher. That’s a dynamite good cop/bad cop scenario. Heck, it’d even be fun to see her with Ice-T.
–Batman. Because I’m a nerd.
–Vic Mackey from The Shield. What would Marge do with herself? Surrounded by anti-heroes.
–Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison character from Prime Suspect. Helen Mirren is ALSO shit hot.
—Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett…Marge could move to sunny Florida!
Any of these team-ups would work for me. But, I’d like the series to be written by Greg Rucka (of Batwoman and Queen and Country comic-book fame) and I’d like it to be produced by HBO and Alan Ball. Dynamite!
Here’s a picture that MUST be from the promotional period of Burn After Reading, another Coen brothers film featuring an award-worthy McDormand performance. (Tilda Swinton co-stars). It’s also hugely underrated as a comedy. So, if you haven’t seen it, do watch it. Especially if you enjoy McDormand in black comedy.