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Frances McDormand on the Legacy of ‘Fargo,’ the Power of Cinema

LYON, France   — Multi-award-winning actress Frances McDormand captivated a packed theater during her master class at the Lumière Festival in Lyon, France, on Monday, serving up anecdotes of her long film career and touching on such topics as becoming the protagonist in her works, life with the Coens and the need for gender equality.

Following a showreel of her major roles accompanied by the memorable rendition of “Non, je ne regrette rien” by the determined animal control officer DuBois in “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” McDormand quipped that it was indeed she who sang the song made famous by Édith Piaf, adding: “I’m so proud of it.”

Asked about the independence that has often defined her characters, McDormand noted that in the first half of her professional life she had played supporting roles to male protagonists. “Now, once my child left home, after a certain number of years of making sure that I was in New York doing theater while he was in school and doing roles in the summer, I decided that I wanted to play the protagonist.”

To that end, McDormand began developing the HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” two years before her son left home, “knowing that I would be bereft and needing something to do, and boy, did I get it.”

She stressed that while some of her most defining roles were in films by Joel and Ethan Coen – and that even on her “tombstone it will say ‘Marge Gunderson’” – she was really gratified to also have done many other projects with a lot of other people.

“I do feel like I’m having the opportunity now and it’s deeply gratifying that that began in my mid-50s as a women in my profession, that I was able to actually take on larger roles in film, carry them and develop them, and I’m not going to stop.”

Looking back at her start in independent cinema, McDormand took a subtle jab at the major studios: “This group of extraordinary filmmakers were making films outside the studio system and they were being successful and they were making money and so large studios started making their specialty departments that would make sure that they got some of the profit.”

There is a new generation of talented young filmmakers today, she added, “and now they’re being hired for Marvel films.”

McDormand recalled fondly the independent film theaters of yesteryear, whose owners also personally programmed the movies they played.

“I wonder if in fact it might come full circle in a way, because we know what this feels like.” Describing the Lumière Festival’s opening night screening of Nicolas Bedos’ “La Belle Époque” at Lyon’s immense Halle Tony Garnier concert hall on Saturday, she added: “There was nothing like being in a room with 5,000 people the other night watching a film. It was like being at the Roman Colosseum – it had that kind of weight and that kind of grandeur. And I think probably the evil overlords of Netflix and Amazon and Apple will start buying theaters and start showing movies, because it cannot be denied.”

Recounting her first project with husband Joel Coen and his brother Ethan, McDormand said: “I’m forever grateful for so many things but I’m really grateful to having begun, literally the second job I had out of drama school, with Joel and Ethan on their first film, ‘Blood Simple.’ It was almost everyone’s first film. I mean, I had more experience than Joel and Ethan did, and that wasn’t saying much.”

While McDormand described the Coens as the “collective brain and the leadership” of their world, “it was and continues to be a very collaborative process.” She pointed out that while Ethan and Joel work as one, they have very different strengths, with Ethan being “from the literary world and Joel from the visual.”

When the Coens traveled to Los Angeles to sell “Blood Simple” in the early 1980s, they lived with Sam Raimi in a one-bedroom apartment, McDormand explained. She soon joined them. “Joel and I got the bedroom because we were a couple; the other two slept on the floor.”

They later moved into a bigger house together and it was that relationship that led to McDormand’s role alongside Liam Neeson in Raimi’s 1990’s horror actioner “Darkman.” She realized from the experience, however, that she was not suited to that kind of filmmaking.

McDormand also discussed her speech at last year’s Oscar ceremony, where she won best actress for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Accepting the award, she called on all female nominees to stand up and made an appeal for the “inclusion rider” – a contractual clause actors can demand that is aimed at increasing diversity and establishing gender parity on film productions. It was something she had planned in advance if she won, but it didn’t quite come off as she had hoped.

“The plan worked. We rose together. The thrill of that was extraordinary. I was levitating looking out at those women that were standing with me … and I forgot what I had planned to say at the end.”

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