Awards Analysis: Frances McDormand Makes a Strong Case for Oscar #3 in 'Nomadland'

Venice Film Festival


The first across-the-board Oscar contender of the unusual 2020-2021 season emerged from the Venice Film Festival on Friday with the world premiere of Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, which Searchlight intends to release on Dec. 4. Adapted by Zhao from Jessica Bruder's acclaimed 2017 non-fiction book of the same name, it paints a beautiful and haunting portrait of the ways in which many older Americans have been impacted by the Great Recession. And it features a leading turn by a never better Frances McDormand that could well result in her becoming only the second person to accumulate as many as three best actress Oscars, after Katharine Hepburn, who won four.

It's hard to imagine a film that could better capture the zeitgeist — often a major consideration for members of the film Academy, conscious or not — than this portrait of mournful and weary resilience, which begs the question: is this really what has happened to America, the land of promise, and the American dream? It is set during the Obama years, but is just as much a comment on the Trump years, so it won't be easy for either side to politicize it.

The closest comparison that I can think of is the 1940 classic The Grapes of Wrath, which was adapted from John Steinbeck's story of people hit by hard times but passing by or surrounded by people in the same boat and therefore, perhaps, maintaining their dignity and their strength to carry on. (That film, for the record, won Oscars for directing and acting, and was also nominated for another acting award, as well picture, screenplay, film editing and sound Oscars.)

In Nomadland, McDormand plays Fern, a stubborn and proud woman who lost her husband, her home, her community and her company-town job in 2011, and has now opted to cut costs and explore career opportunities in the new gig economy by traveling and living in her van. She finds a community of other "nomads" who, for one reason or another, have taken similar measures, many of whom claim, as she does, to have found a measure of happiness in their new way of life.

It is unimaginable that McDormand won't be widely celebrated for this work, to which she reportedly — and obviously — committed herself, body and soul. She has expressive eyes and, unlike so many performers of both genders, the 63-year-old has done nothing to try to hide evidence of the aging process from her face. This is actually crucial to the performance, as Fern is a woman who has lived a life that hasn't been and isn't easy, and the part demands that a great deal be communicated without dialogue. One largely dialogue-free tracking shot through a camp of nomads is a particularly special showcase for McDormand's performance, Joshua James Richards' cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi's score, all of which are likely to resonate with Academy members.

Can McDormand win another best actress Oscar just three years after her last one (for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), particularly given her longstanding refusal to do anything that might even be construed as campaigning? Time will tell. (I would also keep an eye on the veteran character actor David Strathairn, best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in 2005's Good Night, and Good Luck, in the supporting actor category, for a part that I suspect Sam Elliott wishes he had gotten.)

Zhao, meanwhile, is in a position to defy history of her own. Infamously, only five female directors have ever been nominated for the best director Oscar. But the 38-year-old Chinese filmmaker seems like a strong bet to make that number six, given the industry's high regard for her prior film, 2018's The Rider — which, like Nomadland, is about people living on the margins of society, and benefits immensely from her decision to cultivate and cast non-actors as characters similar to themselves — and what I expect to be rave reviews for this one.