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The Genius of Frances McDormand and Nomadland

The award-winning film Nomadland offers fascinating older female characters, with a lead actress who is as refreshingly authentic as the role she plays.

My favorite scene in Nomadland, which just won the Golden Globe for best picture, is when Frances McDormand as the main character Fern, is floating naked in a beautiful river, with her face tilted in serene ecstasy toward the sky. The camera lingers on her bare body, her patch of pubes and her breasts sliding to their respective sides. It’s pure joy to see a body like ours on screen, without apologies or snickers or any hint of sexual voyeurism.

A fascinating older female lead is certainly a rare treat, but Nomadland offers more than that.

That kind of unflinching openness is what I love about the movie in general and Frances McDormand, specifically. The movie shows the world a real woman over 45 who has a complicated history and a strong spine. She isn’t fretting about the lines on her face or the man who got away or how the world hasn’t been fair to her. Even though she is in a fragile economic position–uh, homeless, some, though not her, would say–she is capable and in the process of figuring out her life, how she wants to live it from here on out. Sound familiar?

A fascinating older female lead is certainly a rare treat, but Nomadland offers more than that. There are other richly textured female characters, such as Linda May and Swankie, who are also on a path that is tenuous but still has moments of joy. These two women actually play themselves in the movie, a fact that is at the same time awe-inspiring and also not surprising. We all have women in our lives who are so complex and heroic that they surpass what any writer or filmmaker could construct in their imaginations.

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The Real Frances McDormand

From all that I can tell, Frances McDormand is a deeply interesting woman, instead of just playing one on in the movies. “She makes a concerted effort not to treat herself like a precious movie star in the hopes that you won’t, either,” Kyle Buchanan wrote in the New York Times recently.

Part of not being a precious movie star is not smoothing out that which makes her face her own. She is known to go without makeup and eschew the glamorous trappings of Hollywood. The two-time Oscar winner is often seen in Birkenstocks on the red carpet, and when she won her Tony Award she was wearing a jean jacket over an unremarkable red-and-black striped dress.

“Our industry is such an ageist industry,” Chloe Zhao, the director of Nomadland, told the New York Times. “Someone like Frances McDormand who is just so authentically herself, who has not tried to erase those lines on her face or cover that up to fit into the industry—to me, she’ll be relevant forever.”

The Fern/Fran Narrative

Zhao has said that in many ways McDormand was playing herself in Nomadland. I’m sure that meant saving big money in the makeup line item of her budget.

But it’s not just on the superficial level that the movie is refreshingly authentic. The plot doesn’t take the easy, glossy path. There is a point in the movie–you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it–when you believe the movie is heading toward something conventional, something neat and tidy. But this movie knows life isn’t like that, especially for a woman like Fern.

Fern takes her own way, the same as McDormand does. The same way so many of us this age, who have tried and gotten disillusioned by the conventional route, decide to follow something truer: our own instincts. For that reason alone–not to mention the gorgeous cinematography and moments of humor and real connection–I believe it’s a film we should all celebrate. Especially on April 25th at the Oscars, when I’ll be eager to see what McDormand is wearing.

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By Jeannie Ralston


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