Sex symbols, ass-kickers, and clowns are a dime a dozen on-screen. Rarer are movie stars who embody what we like to think of as a quintessentially American kind of decency—modest but resolute, homespun yet heroic. Think of taciturn Gary Cooper or tongue-tied Jimmy Stewart. Think of Tom Hanks, who brings a spark of knowing mischief to unassuming good-guy roles. (But not too much mischief; that would be French.)
As a fourth to round out this all-male Hollywood Mount Rushmore, I would like to nominate Frances McDormand, she of the Dorothea Lange face and ever wry smile. Marge Gunderson, her levelheaded, bighearted police chief in the 1996 film Fargo, was a more than worthy successor to Stewart’s and Cooper’s aw-shucks heroes—and the performance won McDormand a well-deserved Oscar. Mildred Hayes, the ornery Everywoman she plays in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, may prove every bit as enduring a character as Marge, but Mildred is an altogether different type of justice seeker: a mother desperate to have the murder-rape of her daughter solved. Mildred has the flintiness, independence, and limited conversational skills of a classic Western hero, and soon finds herself in a lonely spot not unlike Cooper’s in High Noon. Pushed to the edge, she commits an act of vengeance as shocking in its off-brand unexpectedness as Stewart’s madness was in Vertigo. The writer-director Martin McDonagh has said he created Mildred with McDormand in mind, and it’s easy to believe: like Hitchcock, he knew he needed an icon to sell an outré story. As I said, break out the chisel.
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Bruce HandyBruce Handy first joined Vanity Fair as a senior articles editor in 1999.