Frances McDormand has won the Best Actress Academy Award at the 2021 Oscars Sunday night for her celebrated performance in “Nomadland.” It’s a historic win: In taking home her third Best Actress statuette, McDormand has now won the prize more times than anyone else besides Katharine Hepburn.
McDormand beat out Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman,” Vanessa Kirby in “Pieces of a Woman,” and Andra Day in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”
“Nomadland” won Best Picture right before the presentation of Best Actress, the first time the top award hadn’t been issued at the very end of the ceremony since the 1972 show.
Despite the BAFTA win and Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, SAG, and Critics Choice nods for her performance, McDormand was not widely viewed as the frontrunner in this year’s race. Instead, many prognosticators saw the Oscar going to Davis for her turn as “mother of the blues,” singer Ma Rainey, or Mulligan’s role as the eponymous promising young woman.
Prior to this win, McDormand was one in a field of 13 people who have won two Best Actress Oscars. Sunday’s win elevates McDormand above that field of heavyweights — which includes Jane Fonda, Bette Davis, and Sally Field — to become the winner of the second-most Best Actress prizes. Only Hepburn, with four wins, ever won more.
McDormand joins a list of just five other performers who won three acting Oscars: Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, and Meryl Streep.
McDormand won her first Academy Award in 1996 for “Fargo” and her second in 2017 for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” She’s been nominated three other times for either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress, first in 1989 for “Mississippi Burning.”
Directed by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” stars McDormand as a woman who, facing economic insecurity, opts for an itinerant life living in a van and working an assortment of jobs across the western U.S. Reeling from the trauma of her husband’s death and the loss of her former life, McDormand’s quiet Fern finds community in a movement of van-dwelling nomads, the majority of whom are played by real-life members of that community.
The film is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” McDormand served as a producer on the unusual project; the four-mouth shoot kicked off in 2018 and saw Zhao, McDormand, and others living out of their own vans. The star actually worked among real-life employees at the various workplaces that employ the nomadic Fern.
In a behind-the-scenes clip, McDormand talked about how she and Zhao brought “personal depth” to the character, which included photos of McDormand’s real-life family.
“In collaborating with Chloé for the character fern, we talked a lot about how we were going to bring things from my life, from Fran’s life, into Fern’s life,” McDormand said.
Zhao said McDormand brought a rare human approach to her work.
“Her ability to connect in the present moment with another human being, whether they’re a trained actor or a non-professional, that’s just Fran. We need to make sure we don’t put anything between that and the audience,” Zhao said.
Bob Wells, a prominent van-dwelling author who plays himself in the film, talked about the experience.
“Meeting Frances was a thrill. To sit across from her and shoot a scene, what she can do with her face — she pulled me in and created a world. I lived there with her, I felt that,” he said.
“Nomadland” earned a total of six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. McDormand is the first woman to receive both a Best Picture nomination as a producer and an acting nomination for the same film.
The film’s long list of other wins include four BAFTAs: Best Film, Best Leading Actress (McDormand), Best Director, and Best Cinematography (Joshua James Richards).