William H. Macy visits DC’s Warner Theatre for special screening of movie masterpiece ‘Fargo’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Fargo' with William H. Macy at Warner Theatre (Part 1)

He delivered memorable turns in acclaimed films (“Boogie Nights”) and TV series (“Shameless”), but his career role will always remain his Oscar-nominated performance in the Coen Brothers’ movie masterpiece “Fargo” (1996).

This Thursday, William H. Macy visits Warner Theatre in D.C. to host a screening of a film that combines the comedy of “The Big Lebowski” (1998) with the drama of “No Country for Old Men” (2007) for the Coens’ best.

“We’re taking questions from the audience,” Macy told WTOP. “I saw the film on a big screen for the first time with good sound for the first time since we made the thing and it is a magnificent film. I was knocked out. I was really proud to be in it. Everybody is stunning in the thing. (Frances McDormand) broke my heart yet again and, boy, everything from (cinematographer) Roger Deakins’ shooting to the Coen Brothers, it’s just a brilliant film.”

The story follows Jerry Lundegaard, a bankrupt used-car salesman in Minneapolis who seeks an investment from his rich father-in-law. When he’s refused, Jerry hires two criminals in Fargo, North Dakota, to kidnap his wife for ransom money, but the plan backfires and the bodies pile up — clues for pregnant detective Marge Gunderson.

“Everything they do is intentional,” Macy said. “Joel does most of the directing, but Ethan directs too, then Ethan does most of the writing, but Joel writes too. I think that’s the way they work. It’s really tandem. … They’re funny guys, good Lord they are. I think one of the things that’s so brilliant about the film is that it’s really horrifying and funny at the same time. They treated the violence in such a banal manner that it’s even more horrifying.”

You won’t find a better slimeball antagonist than Macy’s Jerry, fudging the numbers with a worn pencil and throwing temper tantrums with his ice scraper. His weasel chops are best on display during a concerned phone call off screen, only to realize that he’s just practicing his act, shifting back to a normal tone to speak to the operator.

“[The operator bit] was a little improv, I suggested it because I knew the camera was gonna come around the corner and catch me,” Macy said. “[The pencil bit] I was sitting at the desk waiting for them to set up the shot and I was doodling on the pad, Ethan came over and looked at it and said, ‘Hey, let’s shoot this,’ so they got an insert of the pad. [The ice scraper bit] was scripted that way, some version of: ‘He loses his [crap] in the parking lot.'”

His naiveté stirs a deadly cocktail with his criminal hires, Steve Buscemi’s motor-mouthed Carl Showalter (“I’m not here to debate, Jerry”) and Peter Stormare’s ice-cold Gaear Grimsrud (“Stop at Pancakes House”). The duo dances on the knife’s edge of murder and buddy comedy, as Buscemi promises “total silence” by relentlessly talking.

“They’re a great couple — it’s really well drawn,” Macy said. “When the wife gets free from the two kidnappers and starts to run, Steve Buscemi says, ‘No, no,’ and they stand there and watch and laugh as she tries to escape. It’s so horrifying. It’s so cruel. … Peter Stormare is a serious actor, he was Ingmar Bergman’s Hamlet, he’s a serious actor.”

Still, the best performance arguably belongs to Frances McDormand in her first of three Oscar wins before “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) and “Nomadland” (2020). Voted the American Film Institute’s No. 33 Greatest Movie Hero of All Time, Marge surprisingly doesn’t even show up until a full 30 minutes into the film.

Not only does McDormand master the Midwest accent for zingers (“I think I’m gonna barf!”), she outsmarts her male colleagues (“I’m not sure I agree 100% with your police work, Lou”) and brings home the bacon to her heart-of-gold husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). This gender reversal was way ahead of its time, flipping the script to show Marge receiving work calls in the middle of the night and Norm waking up to make her breakfast.

“She really was [pioneering], but it’s not as if they were making something up out of whole cloth,” Macy said. “That’s the reality of most working families and that’s what they wrote and that’s what’s great about it.”

Their relationship is the thematic core of the movie, summarized by Marge in the police car finale: “There’s more to life than a little money.” The answer to that question comes in the final scene where Marge and Norm sit in bed awaiting the birth of their child. A soft lullaby plays as Marge delivers the film’s final line: “Two more months.”

It’s the perfect punctuation on a masterfully directed film by Joel and Ethan Coen, the former of whom became the first filmmaker to direct his wife (McDormand) to an Academy Award. Few filmmakers have ever crafted such a signature atmosphere, capturing the quirky accents of the Upper Midwest and the isolation of frigid landscapes with red blood painted on white snow, all backed by the epic drums and tragic violins of Carter Burwell’s score.

“It happens in Minnesota every once in a while, you get a brown January,” Macy said. “We got up there and there wasn’t any snow, so they immediately started renting all of the snow-making machines. … The lads had to keep driving farther north to find snow and they finally did … but normally that time of year the snow would be waste high. … Deakins’ initial thing of the Oldsmobile coming up over that hill in that white out, ahh, it’s just stunning!”

The setting includes statues of Paul Bunyan, whose ax foreshadows a murder. The Coens brilliantly use transitions (cutting from Buscemi’s TV to Marge’s TV), visual storytelling (taillights disappearing during a car chase), black comedy (home invasion), and mise-en-scène (high angle of a parking lot as Jerry finds himself at a crossroads). Note how they film Jerry at work, shooting through vertical blinds of his office window like jail bars closing in on him.

“There are no accidents,” Macy said. “The purpose of technique is to bring out your subconscious. Did they choose that shot because it looked like jail bars? One could say, ‘Yes, they chose that shot.’ Did they say to themselves, ‘Hey, it looks like jail bars,’ I don’t know, but that’s what art is. These iconic images come out and I think sometimes the artist had no idea what it was doing. John Lennon said ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is not about LSD.”

Macy was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Cuba Gooding Jr. in “Jerry Maguire,” while “Fargo” lost Best Picture to “The English Patient.” I told him that I thought the latter was ridiculous as “Fargo” is superior.

“I will back you on that,” Macy said. “If you’re in one of the top categories and you get a nomination, that’s real, you can take it to the bank that you did a good thing. As to who wins, that’s a little capricious, but I’ll tell ya, it was not a good year to get an Oscar nomination because there were a bunch of great films out that year! ‘Sling Blade’ was out that year, ‘Jerry Maguire,’ I mean the list goes on and on, it was a great year for films.”

Today, the legacy continues in the acclaimed FX anthology series “Fargo,” which just wrapped Season 5.

“I think it’s great,” Macy said. “I watched the whole first season. That was Billy Bob [Thornton] right? I thought, man, he should have paid them; he was having so much fun. I thought that was a fabulous season, then I’ve seen bits and pieces of all the other seasons. They’re ripe characters, it’s a ripe part of the country, it was a great series.”

Still, as great as the TV series is, there’s no topping the original Coen Brothers flick.

“It’s just a lovely, lovely script,” Macy said. “It’s so simple and, as you say, profound at the same time — and it tells a walloping good story, one of the best stories that the brothers have ever told, I think.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Fargo' with William H. Macy at Warner Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation on the podcast below:

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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