Oscars Rewind: A look back at Frances McDormand’s gasp-worthy 3rd Best Actress win for ‘Nomadland’

On September 11, 2020, Chloe Zhao’s latest film “Nomadland” premiered at the Venice Film Festival to near universal acclaim. It won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, and would win the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival that same day. It was immediately touted as the frontrunner to win Best Picture, and awards pundits were almost unanimous that Zhao was a shoo-in to become the second woman to win Best Director after Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”).

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Another highly praised aspect of this film was the performance of its star, then two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand. She plays Fern, a woman who after losing her job due to her plant factory shutting down, travels in a van across the West Coast working multiple jobs in rotation. Almost everyone agreed she was all but guaranteed to land her sixth Oscar nomination for acting. However, her quiet and understated performance is not what usually wins at the Oscars. Furthermore, the fact that she had just won her second Oscar three years before for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” made it seem unlikely that this would be the one to bring her a third Best Actress trophy. Regardless, a “Nomadland” win Best Picture would at least earn her a third Oscar for producing it.

McDormand’s likely competition for Best Actress was going to be very stiff. Academy Award winner Viola Davis was earning high praise as the extravagant title character in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Vanessa Kirby had previously received awards attention in TV for her role as Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of “The Crown,” and was now receiving heavy Oscar buzz for her heartbreaking performance in “Pieces of a Woman,” playing a grieving mother who struggles to cope with the loss of her baby during child birth. Carey Mulligan already had one nomination under her belt for “An Education,” and was receiving raves for her performance as a woman out to avenge her best friend in “Promising Young Woman.” Finally, R&B singer Andra Day made a huge impression for her debut film performance as legendary singer Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

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In early February of 2021, the Golden Globe nominations were announced on “The Today Show.” McDormand was nominated for Best Film Drama Actress alongside Davis, Day, Kirby, and Mulligan. The very next day, the same lineup was nominated for Best Actress at the SAG Awards, with the exception of Amy Adams (“Hillbilly Elegy”) sneaking in at the expense of Day. One of the things prognosticators observed was that “Promising Young Woman” over-performed expectations with the Globe nominations, earning bids for Best Drama Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. That could be a good sign for Mulligan’s chances of winning there, leading to a potential awards sweep.

The 78th Golden Globes took place on February 28, 2021, where the nominees attended the ceremony virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mulligan led Gold Derby’s odds for Best Film Drama Actress by a large margin. However, when presenter Joaquin Phoenix opened the envelope, he revealed the winner to be Day, who was ranked fifth. It was a win that definitely took everyone by surprise, including Day herself. At this point, her chances of getting nominated at the Oscars were perceived to be on the bubble. But this win not only seemed to secure her a spot at the Oscars, but she was now a major threat to win. Mulligan, however, would rebound by winning the Best Actress award at the Critics Choice Awards a week later. McDormand was not in attendance at either of these ceremonies.

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Predicting this race became even more difficult when the BAFTA nominations were announced on March 9th. At this time, the BAFTAs had adopted a new system of nominating, where a small jury panel would choose the nominees before the academy membership voted on the winner. Of the Golden Globes lineup, only McDormand and Kirby made the cut. Davis and Mulligan missed nominations under this new system and Day didn’t even make the longlist.

When the Oscar nominations were announced on March 15th, the Best Actress lineup mirrored the Golden Globes drama category for the second year in a row. A few things stood out — Day and Kirby were the only nominations for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” and “Pieces of a Woman,” respectively. Unless someone sweeps the season, it’s very difficult to win when you’re the only nominee for your film. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” underperformed by missing both Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. However, “Nomadland” and “Promising Young Woman” received nominations in every key area (Picture, Acting, Directing, Screenplay, Editing). Since McDormand had won her second Oscar so recently, most pundits saw this as good news for Mulligan, since the whole academy membership votes for the winner. However, when discussing the Oscar nominations that day on Collider, Jeff Sneider said McDormand winning twice before could actually be a sign the academy just really loves her and that she could very well win again. Scott Mantz added that even though “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” underperformed, Davis was certainly in the mix to win as well.

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When the SAG Awards took place in a pre-recorded virtual ceremony on April 4th, Ethan Hawke presented the award for Best Actress. Once again, McDormand did not attend. Mulligan went into the ceremony leading the Gold Derby odds by a large margin, however, Hawke revealed the winner to be Davis (who had a hilarious, shocked reaction that went viral). Davis’ win at the SAG Awards shouldn’t have surprised anyone. She had won twice before in film for “The Help” and “Fences.” She had also won twice on the TV side for “How To Get Away With Murder.” She’s absolutely beloved by her peers. This win made everyone take her seriously as a contender to win her second Oscar. However, given that her co-star Chadwick Boseman was heavily favored to win a posthumous Best Actor trophy, and a film winning both lead acting Oscars is rare, it seemed unlikely that the non-Best Picture nominated “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” would win for both of its leading contenders. McDormand would go on to win the BAFTA a week later, which she was not there to accept. Many dismissed her winning that, feeling that Brit fave Mulligan would’ve won had she been nominated. Still, now that McDormand had won this important precursor with a lot of Academy membership overlap, she was definitely going into the Oscars with some chance of winning.

The 93rd Academy Awards took place at the Los Angeles Union Station instead of the Dolby Theatre due to COVID-19. Earlier in the day, Variety’s Elizabeth Wagmeister and Clayton Davis spoke with “Good Morning America’s” Chris Connelly, with the former revealing that from her conversations with some academy members, McDormand was the likely frontrunner. Davis said that while he felt Kirby should win, McDormand was most likely to prevail. Even though she skipped the red carpet, McDormand attended this ceremony wearing a mask while sitting at a table with her husband, legendary filmmaker Joel Coen, as well as her co-star (and real life nomad) Charlene Swankie and the film’s director, Zhao.

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The telecast had very few surprises for most of the night. Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) won the supporting acting categories as expected. “Promising Young Woman” and “The Father” won the screenplay categories, and Zhao became the second woman ever to win Best Director. In an unusual move, Best Picture was presented before the lead acting categories. After winning nearly every Best Picture prize on the award circuit, “Nomadland” prevailed once more, winning McDormand her third Oscar as a producer for the film. Next up was the suspenseful Best Actress category.

Reigning Best Actress champ Renée Zellweger came out to present the award, and took a moment to pay tribute to every nominee individually. Then the time had come for her to reveal the winner, and she read, “And the Oscar for Best Actress goes to. . . . . Frances McDormand, ‘Nomadland’!” McDormand gave her husband a kiss before walking to the stage, seeming a little emotional. She began her acceptance speech by saying with all the great singers in the room like Leslie Odom Jr. and Marcus Mumford (fellow nominee Mulligan’s husband) that a karaoke bar should’ve been a part of the ceremony. She then concluded her short speech by saying, “I have no words. My voice is in my sword. We know the sword is our work, and I like work. Thank you for knowing that, and thanks for this.” She grabbed the Oscar off the podium and made a swift exit.

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When the ceremony concluded, questions were raised about how Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) was able to beat the heavily favored Boseman for Best Actor. But also, how was McDormand able to win her third Best Actress Oscar? An easy explanation would be that the BAFTA win gave her a last minute boost in a highly competitive race, and that she was in the Best Picture frontrunner. The case could also be made that her performance was the apple in a bag of oranges, and in a tight race, the category lined up in her favor. Davis and Day were both playing music legends in period piece films centered around show business, so they very well could’ve canceled each other out. Many initially thought Mulligan would win given that her film had broad support with the academy. However, could Kirby have done better in the vote tally than originally anticipated? Like Mulligan, she was a British actress playing an American character. It’s very possible she cut into Mulligan’s vote enough for McDormand to eke out the win. Or maybe it’s just that McDormand is one of the most beloved actresses in Hollywood. She’s worked with almost everyone, and most of her former co-stars who speak publicly about their time working with her have had nothing but wonderful things to say about her as an actress and a person. So in the end, we probably should’ve seen this win coming.

McDormand winning her third Best Actress Oscar is a major feat that even Meryl Streep hasn’t achieved yet (she has two for lead and one for supporting). She is now officially one Best Actress Oscar shy of tying Katharine Hepburn’s record. While she won’t be able to do it this year given her role in “Women Talking” is quite small, it is not out of the realm of possibility that before she ends her acting career, she’ll have one more Best Actress Oscar to her name.

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