American Horror Story is a horror anthology show that has run from 2011-present, with seasons that are broken into individual storylines and are only loosely correlated with each other. What separates this continuing mini-series from other shows stems from the show utilizing the same actors each season, but having them portray different characters each time. In the process of the show’s current four-season run, the show has had seasons occur in an infamous ghost house, a mental institution, a witches’ coven and a carnival freak show. Given the central premise of each season, American Horror Story’s individual seasons have been entitled: Murder House, Asylum, Coven and Freak Show.
Frances Conroy is no stranger when it comes to versatile acting. In fact, the resumé Frances Conroy has established for herself, in a career that has spanned over thirty years, is astounding when taking into consideration her stage work. She first introduced herself to audiences as a Shakespearean actress, with her first notable stage role being Desdemona in a 1980 production of Othello. She has been nominated for a Tony in 2000 for her featured role in the production of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, which introduced her to a wide array of opportunities that could utilize her acting skills. This led her to her iconic leading lady role in the HBO series Six Feet Under.
Six Feet Under was a critically acclaimed show about a family who runs a funeral home and their emotional interactions with each other, which was Conroy’s immediate ticket to stardom with her role as Ruth Fisher. Her role as the severely repressed mother of the Fisher family ignited attention towards her and her career. In the span of the show’s five-season run, Conroy found herself nominated for a Primetime Emmy four times and won both a Golden Globe and SAG for her work. Yet despite the critical attention brought towards her, Conroy faded into obscurity after the show’s conclusion and her subsequent work was minimized to recurring roles in popular shows such as Desperate Housewives and How I Met Your Mother. However, it wasn’t until her first appearance on American Horror Story, which was intended to be a mere recurring role, that Conroy embarked on one of television’s most remarkable comebacks. Not only was Conroy able to attract enough attention to her performance with audiences, but she also was able to grab a surprise Primetime Emmy nomination for her first season work and was ultimately promoted to a series regular on the show.
When assessing Conroy’s four-season work on American Horror Story, it appears that she has reverted to her theater roots to conceive and develop her characters. While the other actors on the show have character range, most notably Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson, nobody is more blatantly different in scope than Frances Conroy, whose performances and roles vastly contrast against each other when comparing them on a season-by-season basis. Even more obvious, which may also be an ode to her theater experience, Conroy has seemingly utilized differing styles of acting each season, which provided further development towards her characters.
Murder House was the one season that Conroy was able to convey a form of realism in her acting by portraying a ghost whose cold demeanor was a ruse to mask her insecurities of herself. Her season one role was Conroy’s most emotional work, to which her body language and facial expressions were indicative of the performance, especially to how she allowed her eyes to openly speak of her internalized sadness. She further portrayed moments of pain and resentment with strength and resolve, which gave Conroy the opportunity to make the character fully developed and separate it from being a stock character. The initial purpose of her role was to be an extension, a sort of bridge between the living and the dead, but Conroy crafted her performance to extend beyond that. Instead, she framed her Moira O’Hara as someone who has been stepped on continually, even in death. Conroy framed the performance as her character having endured being secondary for decades and is finally demanding the respect she feels she deserves. Rather than being a bitter and resentful apparition, Conroy makes the character relatable to the viewer by having her moments of fury be the result of frustrated outbursts. By applying realism to the character, she was able to break the character away from being clichéd.
By her second season in Asylum, Conroy’s acting went in the opposite direction by providing a role that was enormously controlled. Her performance as the Angel of Death imposed tremendous expectations upon her performance to which she had to comply entirely to them. The character had to remain devoid of emotion and emotionally separated from all she interacted with. In a way, even with the most vicious of characters within this season, Conroy’s acting remains consistent and controlled whenever she is in their presence. Conroy framed the Angel of Death as unfazed and never intimidated by the situations she witnesses. Only once does she exhibit a difference in emotional range and that is when she interacts initially with the possessed nun, to which she openly acknowledges the spirit as an angel who has “fallen.” Yet even in that capacity, Conroy establishes her character as reactionary to the actions of others. She watches from afar and even if one is aware of her expectations, she remains at a cold distance and watches in, almost like a vulture waiting for its prey to die in order to claim it.
Like a swinging pendulum, Conroy yet again went in an opposite direction with her performance as Myrtle Snow, the headmistress of the witches Coven in the show’s third season. This was the first season that Conroy was essentially let off any leash and was allowed to deliver a completely animated performance. Her performances hinges on being campy, which is further enhanced by her character’s appearance of sporting big red hair and wearing a 1960s styled set of glasses. Yet rather than be laughed at, Conroy was effective in stealing every scene she is in by establishing her behavior as being normative. Her character’s exuberance and bourgeois attitude was also a necessary balance in the show’s third season, by her providing both wisdom and comedic moments amongst the season’s dense racial content. Conroy was careful not to overdo the extremity of her performance by being sure to frame Myrtle as eccentric, yet all-knowing. Therefore, the respect her character receives is earned and not expectedly dropped onto her lap. Conroy’s performance, from its small introduction to her ultimate sacrifice by the season’s conclusion frames her as a sort of moral conscience amongst all the characters. For that, Coven currently stands as Conroy’s best work with the show thus far.
In the show’s latest season, Freak Show, Conroy further showed her acting range by having her Gloria Mott, the mother of a serial killer, be mousy and tremendously repressed. In a style that somewhat mirrored her Ruth Fisher in Six Feet Under, her performance is timid and cautious, which is in line with the character she is portraying. Rather than allow her character to come off as ignorant, Conroy’s very subtle touches to her character establish Gloria Mott as a mother who is suffering from severe self-denial as to what her son is. The reality that her son is a murderer is apparent to her, yet she justifies it in her mind to continue the notion that all will self-correct itself. Yet it is her final episode of the season that the subtlety of her performance truly shines when Conroy gives momentary glimpses of the profound sadness Gloria has endured as a result of her son and that she has come to the realization that she must accept her circumstances for what they are. Therefore, Conroy was successful in crafting Gloria as more of a tragic character than someone audiences would despise, which is an achievement only a talented Shakespearean actor could do.
So far in American Horror Story’s run, Frances Conroy has been nominated twice for Primetime Emmys, for seasons one and three. She had lost both times to her fellow co-stars on the show. Currently it hasn’t been announced whether Frances Conroy will be the show’s upcoming fifth season, Hotel, but given the caliber of acting she has provided to the show thus far in its run, not including Frances Conroy in the main cast would a missed opportunity.