It probably isn't a bad gig, being married to Joel Coen; it's sure worked out well for Frances McDormand. As the Coen Brothers made their directorial debut with Blood Simple back in 1984, she stepped in front of the camera for her first time and proved just as vital to making that steely noir work as the directors were. The partnership only became increasingly rewarding as she went on to star in four more of their films, rightfully earning the greatest acclaim -- not to mention an Academy Award -- for her turn as pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo.
She would earn a subsequent nomination as William Miller's overbearing mother in Almost Famous(pictured), and while I very much adore both that movie and her performance in it, I'd argue that she was able to show slightly more range that year in her other film, the oft-overlooked Wonder Boys.
She plays Sara Gaskell, chancellor of the film's nameless university, wife to the head of the English department, mistress to creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas)... and he's knocked her up, it seems. "So I guess we just divorce our spouses, marry each other, and have this baby, right?" she halfheartedly proposes.
Grady doesn't know the answer. After all, Grady's spent the better part of a decade working away at his follow-up to a brilliant first novel, and he's partial to pot smoking and fainting spells. A hot, young student of his (Katie Holmes) clearly has an interest; would he be eager to reciprocate? His third wife just left him; what did all three know that Sara doesn't? Should she keep his kid? Could she leave her husband, Grady's boss and a bore with a fondness for all things Marilyn Monroe, in favor of an unreliable golden boy who's lost his shine? Or does she go it alone at her age? As much as the film is about the sense of stagnation in his life, Sara's the one who runs the risk of being left in the lurch when all's said and done. And McDormand, she nails all of this turmoil without ever giving into hysterics. In public, she's an utmost professional, briefly hesitating upon meeting a transvestite but quick to extend a smile and a handshake all the same. But in private, with Grady, she's restless, hopeful and worried in equal measure.
There's a three-minute scene in which Grady has passed out in a hallway outside a lecture and she's right there to pick him up again. When he says he has some bad news (involving a dead dog), she instantly assumes that he's about to call their relationship off and works through the logic that his ex will come back -- "she always comes back" -- with shaky determination. She counters with an abortion, even insists on lighting up a cigarette upon mentioning it, and he takes it out of her mouth and throws it down, concerned that she would be doing this for all the wrong reasons.
He wants to have a life with her, but when he admits that he doesn't see a way, she quietly but fiercely tears into him for apparently throwing in the towel before pleading with him that they might find a way to make things work out. After hearing applause from the lecture, they go to split and Grady accidentally drops a cap gun (remember the dead dog?) on the floor. She picks it up, aims it straight at his heart and lets out with a quiet "Pow." "You got me," he says, and just as they draw near, she chokes up and professes her love to him before walking away.
That sums the beauty of her performance up in one swift but tumultuous scene. She's determined to take care of herself, but she isn't necessarily sure of her decisions, and while she'll be there to pick Grady up when he needs her, she'll also be the one to walk away when the public eye nears. It's probably not much of a surprise that everything works out for the best in the end, but up until that point, McDormand embodies that life-changing uncertainty with humor, anger, fear, hope and a certain delicate touch.
Man, it's no wonder Joel proposed.