Actress. Born June 23, 1957, in Illinois. The daughter of Canadian parents, McDormand moved a good deal during her childhood, mostly throughout the Midwestern United States, to accommodate her father’s profession as a Disciples of Christ preacher. The family eventually settled in Pennsylvania, where McDormand became enamoured of acting after playing Lady Macbeth in a high school theater production. After graduating as the only theater major of her year from Bethany College in West Virginia, she entered the prestigious Yale Drama School.
After Yale, McDormand moved to New York, where she roomed with her Yale Drama classmate Holly Hunter and performed with the O’Neill Playwright’s Conference. Her first professional acting job came in 1982, when she traveled to Trinidad to perform in a play written by the Jamaican poet Derek Walcott. Through Hunter, she met Joel and Ethan Coen, two brothers who were casting their debut film, a low-budget thriller. McDormand won the lead in the film, that of the unfaithful wife of a Texas bar owner who decides to have her and her lover killed. Blood Simple, released in 1984 to overwhelming critical acclaim, marked the beginning of her personal and professional collaboration with director Joel Coen, whom she married in 1994. The couple has an adopted son, Pedro.
McDormand followed up on her turn in Blood Simple with an appearance as a nun in Crimewave (1985), written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and a role in the short-lived television series Leg Work (1987). She reteamed with the Coen brothers with a supporting role in their second major effort, the outlandish comedy Raising Arizona (1987), which featured her old roommate Hunter in her first starring role, opposite Nicolas Cage.
McDormand was still virtually unknown when she garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her emotional portrayal of a Southern woman abused by her bigoted husband in the civil rights drama Mississippi Burning (1988), starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. That same year, she triumphed on stage as well as on screen, earning a Tony Award nomination for her turn as Stella Kowalski in a Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, costarring Blythe Danner and Aidan Quinn. She returned to Broadway in 1992, playing one of The Sisters Rosensweig in Wendy Wasserstein’s acclaimed play.
Instead of courting mainstream success, however, McDormand continued to choose character roles in unusual pictures, choosing to lose herself in her often-eccentric screen alter egos. She had a small role in the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990) and a featured role alongside Tim Robbins in the ensemble film Short Cuts (1993), directed by Robert Altman. Several of her films were critical and commercial disappointments, including Darkman (1990), starring Liam Neeson, The Butcher’s Wife (1991), starring Demi Moore, and Beyond Rangoon (1995), starring Patricia Arquette. She made several acclaimed TV movies, including Crazy in Love (1992), costarring Holly Hunter, and actor Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut, The Good Old Boys (1995).
McDormand won virtually every available critical prize, including an Oscar for Best Actress, for her dead-on, hilarious turn as Marge Gunderson, a pregnant Minnesota policewoman who cracks a decidedly twisted set of crimes in Fargo (1996), written by Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Joel Coen. Using a perfect Minnesotan accent–complete with countless “yahs” and “you betchas”–and sporting a huge prosthetic belly, McDormand truly seemed to become Marge, underscoring her unmatched ability as a character actress. That same year, she turned in similarly deft characterizations in John Sayles’ low-budget Western Lone Star, and the thriller Primal Fear as a psychiatrist studying a young murder suspect, played by Edward Norton (the film also featured Richard Gere and Laura Linney).
In the months following her triumph at the Oscars, McDormand costarred with Glenn Close in the World War II-era drama Paradise Road (1997), directed by Bruce Beresford, and in the little-seen independent film Talk of Angels (1998). She also played the schoolmistress Miss Clavel in the big screen version of the classic children’s book Madeline (1998).
With a pair of skillful supporting performances in 2000, McDormand again generated serious Oscar buzz. The real problem for awards night prophets was choosing between her disapproving mother of budding rock journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in Almost Famous and her married college chancellor in love with rumpled novelist Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) in Wonder Boys. In the end, it was her role in Almost Famous, writer-director Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical ode to 1970s rock & roll, that earned McDormand her third Oscar nod, for Best Supporting Actress. She shared that distinction with her costar, Kate Hudson, who played the groupie who captures William’s heart. McDormand also had a special bond with another of her costars in the film, Billy Crudup, with whom she starred in a 1998 stage adaptation of Oedipus.
In 2001, McDormand costars in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, opposite Billy Bob Thornton and James Gandolfini.