Oscar: Best Actress–McDormand, Frances in Fargo (1996)

Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel Coen, received the Best Actress Oscar in 1996 for the Coen brother’s Fargo, a darkly humorous film noir that also won Best Original Screenplay.

McDormand was up against togh competition from three fantastic British actresses, Brenda Blethyn in Secret and Lies, Emily Watson in  Breaking the waves, and kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, which won Best Picture.

Much less vain or flamboyant than their earlier pictures, Fargo  is considered to be the Coen brothers’ best feature.  Thematically, it bears the influence of Beckett in the minimalist, deadpan dialogue. Stylistically, in its cool casualness, the movie recalls Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki’s sensibility. Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), Fargo’s (anti)hero, is a car salesman in desperate need for cash to finance a business deal. When all options fall through, he hires two thugs, Carl (Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife for ransom; it’s the only way to pry money out of her stingy millionaire father. The scheme hits a bump when an investigating cop is killed, and things continue to go awry and get weirder and weirder. Before long, a body is fed into a wood chipper and the criminals are pursued by the small-town police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who unravels the scheme with disastrous–and hilarious–results.

Much of Fargo is a send-up of its local denizens–with gags about snow, Paul Bunyan, and the dimwitted yokels. A comic thriller with a deadpan tone, the humor is at the expense of the characters who stand in for the people of Minnesota and North Dakota–their broad, flat accents connote slowness and stupidity. Instinctively attracted to the offbeat, the Coens begin by cautioning that Fargo is a true story; names have been changed “out of respect for the dead.” The Coens have always treated their characters with contempt, ruthlessly manipulating and loathing their foolishness. Their meanness seems inspired by their unpleasant memories of a Midwestern childhood. Yet for all its snideness, shocks and gross outs, deep down the Coens, like David Lynch and John Waters, reveal themselves to be decent middle-class citizens with bourgeois values.

Marge is slow and polite to a fault. Like her plodding Scandinavian fellows, she drawls out passionlessly lines like “Jeez, that’s a good lead, but I’m not sure that I agree with you one hundred percent on your police work there.” At first, the audience laughs at Marge, but by the end, as she lies in bed with her husband (who paints stamps), one realizes that this seemingly silly woman is the only positive character, embodying honesty and decency and reaffirming the value of life, underscored by her pregnancy. Ultimately, it’s Marge’s decency that rescues Fargo from deteriorating into a one-note joke.