Frances McDormand‘s Best Actress Oscar win for “Nomadland” was so surprising (she ranked fourth in our racetrack odds), that it almost escapes notice just how historic it was. McDormand has now won three Best Actress Oscars, a feat only ever achieved by one other woman: Katharine Hepburn.
McDormand’s win was baffling but made perfect sense at the same time. On one hand, it should be obvious that the star of the Best Picture front-runner should be the front-runner for acting as well. But on the other hand, “Nomadland’s” status in the Best Picture race seemed completely divorced from McDormand’s performance for most of the year. The Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards gave the film Best Picture without giving McDormand Best Actress. And while the film also won top honors at the Producers Guild and Directors Guild Awards, McDormand lost the film’s only nomination at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. The only time Picture and Actress lined up was at the BAFTAs, where a new jury system decided the nominees and snubbed most of her Oscar rivals.
It was also strange because McDormand just won her second Best Actress Oscar three years ago for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” following her first win for “Fargo” (1996). Were they really going to give her a third so soon after making Meryl Streep wait almost 30 years for her third career trophy (from 1982’s “Sophie’s Choice” to 2011’s “The Iron Lady”)? Yes they were, as it turns out, and they gave McDormand a fourth on top of that as a producer of “Nomadland” when it won Best Picture.
It’s not totally without precedent. Daniel Day-Lewis (who besides Hepburn and McDormand is the only actor of any gender to win three lead Oscars) won his second and third trophies within five years (2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” 2012’s “Lincoln”). And other actors in recent years have doubled up quickly, with Christoph Waltz winning Best Supporting Actor twice in rapid succession (2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” 2012’s “Django Unchained”) and then Mahershala Ali winning that same category twice even faster (2016’s “Moonlight,” 2018’s “Green Book”). Sometimes when they like you, they really like you.
Hepburn is still the only person of any gender to win four acting Oscars, though — and all in the leading category, no less. She claimed Best Actress for “Morning Glory” (1934), “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), “The Lion in Winter” (1968), and “On Golden Pond” (1981). And her trajectory looked a lot like McDormand’s, actually. Both actors had to wait decades between their first and second wins (there were 21 years between McDormand’s “Fargo” and “Three Billboards” victories). But both won their third trophies quickly after that. If history continues to repeat itself, it might be more than a decade before McDormand ties Hepburn’s all-time record.
But McDormand has already done something that neither Hepburn nor Day-Lewis could do: she managed to win three lead-acting Oscars without ever losing. That’s not to say that McDormand is entirely undefeated at the Oscars, but the only nominations she has ever lost were her three for supporting roles: “Mississippi Burning” (1988), “Almost Famous” (2000), and “North Country” (2005). So clearly the motion picture academy would rather see her front and center than playing second fiddle. And soon maybe all other performers in a century of Oscar history will be playing second fiddle to her.