Ranking the Coen Brothers' Best Heroines

Better even than the whip-smart dialogue or bleak mist of impending doom that drapes the world created in any Coen Brothers movie are the characters that inhabit it. With a release date newly slapped on their upcoming comedy Hail, Caesar, my mind is glued to Joel and Ethan, a pair that has proved among the best of today's creative forces at drawing characters that feel at once whimsically literary and bitterly humane — it's no mean feat to make both qualities work in tandem.

Just about all of the Coens’ players, both lead and supporting, are integral to the establishment of their nigh unparalleled cinematic splendor, but a few reign supreme above the lot. As such, we’re taking a look at some of the strongest, most colorful, and all around best female characters to show up in the directing duo’s filmography.

Though the Coens’ male heroes might hold fast to the spotlight, we’d be remiss to forget about the glory of the various terrific heroines crafted by the brothers and carried out by some of their strongest collaborating performers. The Coens have written women who are independent, ambitious, vigilant, and more often than not hilarious… even (or especially) when up to their necks in foul play, which is no rare occurrence in this line of films. Take a look at this ranking of the best heroines the Coen Brothers movies have to offer.

Image: Universal Studios

#8: LINDA LITZKE (Frances McDormand in 'Burn After Reading')

Linda is easily the least “together” of the characters represented on this list, driven by desperation and insecurity in her ill-conceived trail run through the world of high stakes blackmail. That said, she’s a go-getter, and half of one of the Coens’ most hilarious screen duos to date (the other party being a foul-mouthed Brad Pitt).

Image: Focus Features

#7: JEAN (Carey Mulligan in 'Inside Llewyn Davis')

Although Mulligan plays a supporting role in the folk fairytale that is Inside Llewyn Davis, her performance as the scorn-fueled Jean is pulpy enough to stick with you even through the long stretches of the film in which she does not appear. Filled with such violent hatred for Oscar Isaac’s main character, Mulligan’s Jean is just about the most enchantingly fun, hot-blooded element to an otherwise frigid, somber, sleepy (but fantastic) movie.

Image: CBS Films

#6: VERNA BERNBAUM (Marcia Gay Harden in 'Miller's Crossing')

Though seen as cold and duplicitous by those around her, Verna is in truth a survivor. Stuck in a brutal underworld that runs on cunning, Verna does what she can to save herself, and those she allows herself to care about, from the plethora of ill fates springing up from every corner of Miller’s Crossing.  

Image: 20th Century Fox

#5: AMY ARCHER (Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'The Hudsucker Proxy')

If you can catch even 75 percent of the dialogue rattled off by a superhuman Jennifer Jason Leigh’s in the Coens’ period farce then you should have a few words with Mensa. As ‘58 nose-to-the-grindstone newspaper reporter Amy Archer, Leigh channels the Rosalind Russells of Hollywood past to play up the incessantly unflappable gambit without coming off like too much of a wind-up toy. The Archer we meet will do just shy of anything to land a scoop, but her moral fiber shines through in the end.

Image: Warner Bros.

#4: MAUDE LEBOWSKI (Julianne Moore in 'The Big Lebowski')

Perhaps the Coens’ most stoic, intellectual, and (dare I say) eccentric character of all time… which is really saying something. Maude has thought through every sentence she says before saying it, thought through every response you might muster before you can even land a moment to chime in. She’s devoted to her art, not rattled by petty personal incongruities, and driven to become everything she wants to be. Though she is written into The Dude’s noir comedy story with a sex-charged subplot, Maude is hardly regressive; she is far more comfortable with human sexuality than any man she has ever met, admits proudly to the pragmatic enjoyment of “coitus” (her choice of phrase), and views men primarily as biological appliances. If anything, she turns the whole femme fatale gambit a full 180 degrees.

Image: Gramercy Pictures

#3: EDWINA McDUNNOUGH (Holly Hunter in 'Raizing Arizona')

The thrill of watching Holly Hunter partake in the grisly fun of Raising Arizona derives from her equal footing with husband and literal partner in crime, played by Nicolas Cage. Edwina (or “Ed”) is just as deceitful and depraved as her lowly husband H.I., a rarity for such screwball comedies that often slap the lead female with the dull “voice of reason” role.

Image: 20th Century Fox

#2: MATTIE ROSS (Hailee Steinfeld in 'True Grit')

The youngest, toughest, and most dutiful of the Coens’ heroines (and, probably, characters in general), Mattie transcends generations with her progressive character. In her debut role, Steinfeld orders around vets Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, setting off on a conquest through the Old West in the name of her ailing father. Keeping strong in the harshest of scenarios, Mattie is just about the most admirable figure ever brought to screen by Joel and Ethan.

Image: Paramount Pictures

#1: MARGE GUNDERSON (Frances McDormand in 'Fargo')

As if there was any doubt, Frances McDormand returns again to the list with the number one pick: Marge Gunderson, the very pregnant on-duty cop who sets out to solve the case of Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard’s missing wife. There are no moments spent with Marge in which the audience doesn’t revel; both a serious, adroit officer in the field, and a compassionate and earnest human being to her friends and husband, Marge is easily the best of the Coens’ heroines, and an undeniable fan favorite overall.

Image: Gramercy Pictures/MGM/20th Century Fox