Star quality from the start Recollections: In college, Oscar winner Frances McDormand was already the best actress around, says one who was there.


From: Peter Jensen

Baltimore Sun

Baltimore, Md.

To: Frances McDormand

Best Actress Oscar Winner

c/o Gramercy Pictures

Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dear Fran:

Congratulations on your big win the other night at the Academy Awards! You sure have come a long way since we performed together on the stage of Bethany College -- the self-proclaimed "Small College of Distinction" in the northern panhandle of West Virginia.

You haven't changed at all. Really. You look exactly the same as you did in 1979, although you tended to dress more informally than you did on Oscar night. Sweats and jeans with the occasional theatrical oddity like a felt hat -- that was more your style.

I liked that lecture you gave about Hollywood coming up with more serious roles for women. That was vintage Fran (I can still call you that, right? Frances sounds sooo serious.) But then you were always serious about acting, even before you made senior fellow in theater.

You know I'm your biggest fan -- ever since I saw you single-handedly save a college musical from a stage-frightened leading man. I started dropping your name long before your first Oscar nomination for "Mississippi Burning." I even taped those "Hill Street Blues" episodes you guest-starred in 12 years ago. Who else can claim that?

Let me be frank. The truth is I'm getting a little tired of writing for The Sun and was thinking about resuming my acting career. I mean, how hard could it be? I was cast in 14 productions at Bethany, which, ahem, puts me ahead of you. And didn't I hold my own with you in "Of Thee I Sing," "Abelard and Heloise" and "A Little Night Music"? I know you were definitely one of the better actresses at Bethany, but, you'll recall, I used to get a standing ovation in the middle of "Abelard's" second act. Remember? It was right after the castration scene. Hey, you were good, but I don't recall your stopping the show.

And it isn't like I gave up acting entirely. You probably didn't see the incredible review I received for playing the drunken real estate salesman in the St. Michaels town musical review in 1983. It was a small role, but I had them eating out of my hand.

My thinking is that your husband, Joel Coen, the director of "Fargo," could maybe cast me in his next film. I could have done that car salesman part that William H. Macy (another Bethany alum, by the way) did in "Fargo." Can't you just hear me saying, "You're darn tootin', you betcha"? Joel and his brother Ethan always seem to cast odd characters. I can do odd.

Anyway, all your college friends are very happy for you, Joel, and your son, Pedro. (That's Spanish for Peter. I take it as a sign.) We have watched your career rise from the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" in 1984 to your Tony-nominated performance in "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway in 1988, and more recently, your turns in "Primal Fear," "Lone Star" and "Short Cuts."

In interviews, you come across as the down-to-earth, thoughtful Midwesterner you've always been, but I notice you rarely mention Bethany. I'm hoping this is a mere oversight, as I like to think that 1975-1979 were the crucial, formative years for you as an actress. You probably still remember my advice: Never throw up on stage unless it's in the script.

I know we haven't seen much of each other the past 18 years. But our moments together on stage are precious memories for me. The fact you're now an Oscar winner merely confirms what I always knew: You're a terrific actress.

So please let me know what kind of accent Joel wants me to start practicing. If I don't hear from you shortly, I might be inclined to share some Polaroids of a certain Oscar-winning actress taken during those wild Campbell Hall dorm parties. That's not a threat. Just a reminder, you betcha.

Congrats, Peter

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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