“Misery,” “Dolores Claiborne,” & the Actress Who Made Them Art

Dolores Claiborne Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne (Columbia Pictures)

Kathy Bates brought depth, strength, and an unsettling, unknowable presence to two of the best Stephen King adaptations.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.

“It’s a depressingly masculine world we live in, Dolores …Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang onto.”

The mailman walks in on Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) as she holds a marble rolling pin aloft over the gasping and broken body of her employer, Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt).  Dolores shakes to her core at being caught in this moment. She knows how it looks and that her reputation is against her. Because we’ve been here before.

Movie audiences first reckoned with the sublime wonder of Kathy Bates in 1990 when she starred as Annie Wilkes in Misery. For those who may not have heard this bedtime story, Misery is a tale about a gruff Romance novelist, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), rescued from a car accident during a Colorado blizzard by his number-one-fan, Annie Wilkes.  However, it soon becomes apparent that this rescue was anything but as Annie’s obsession and cruelty slowly reveal themselves to a fiery pitch and Paul has to write to survive.

With Annie Wilkes, Kathy Bates, titan of New American performance, created an unforgettable character that changed the way generations looked at sledgehammers. It is a performance that lifts a character beyond its source material and improves it.  Though the film is an adaptation of a highly successful Stephen King novel, Annie is still largely a product of Kathy Bates’ looming yet invisible labor. 

In the novel and screenplay by William Goldman, Annie is a one-dimensional character. She is an oogeyman, a folkloric villain that is all chaotic energy with no psychology.  There is the illusion of psychology, but that is just the tremulous late 80s anxieties about mental health; we are not told anything deep about Annie. There’s lots for Annie is do, but not a lot for her to be. This works if you read Misery as a sort of literary fairy tale. It could have worked, but it might not have been as successfully menacing.

Kathy Bates in Misery (Columbia Pictures)

 What hobbles us about Bates’ performance is the humanity she brings to a character many would have been happy to leave as an archetypal bitch. The script and source material give her no logic, reason, or stated motivation for her torture, yet Bates gives her a calibrated madness and history that transforms Annie from an entity into a person of flesh and blood.  She troubles Annie’s lack of human psychology by creating a believable idiosyncratic reality that feels worn and lived in. This is most evident in the way Bates navigates Annie’s unique speech. She makes classic King phraseology and colloquialisms like “dirty bird,” and “cock-a-doodie,” seem like she’s been saying them her whole life. 

Bates is able to plunge the unexplored depths because of her 20 years experience on the Broadway stage where she was already a legendary muse, but also because she was held up by the film’s scaffolding. Director Rob Reiner uses classic thriller grammars to allow Bates to variate upon a classic villainess theme; William Goldman’s script creates tension buy slowing revealing Annie’s madness bit by bit unlike how it is in the novel where we are told to hate Annie from page one.  Director of Photography, Barry Sonnenfeld, gives us 21mm close ups, which invite an intimate yet distorted look into Annie’s eyes, are an invaluable part of making her believable. When we are that close, an actress has no where to hide.

And Bates, like Mercury with a message from the gods, delivers. The terrifying, unknowable mystery of Misery is what is going on behind those eyes. We can see she’s not just or only a bitch. She’s not just “crazy.” There’s a deep well of sincerity and sadness that we can fall into and never get out of.

What Bates could only suggest in Misery, we get to fully explore in Dolores Claiborne.

When we first see Kathy Bates as Dolores Claiborne at the foot of stairs standing over Vera’s dying body, we see the resonance with Misery. Dolores Claiborne (1995) chooses to open the film with this, even though it appears at the end of the source novel of the same name, because both Kathy and Dolores have a notorious crime in their past. By doing so, we, like the residents of Little Tall Island, meet Dolores with preconceived ideas about who she might be and what she might be capable of.

Dolores Claiborne then uses this as a moment to pause and excavate the backstory of what has lead to this moment.  It unearths rational sources of violence that blur ethical lines. We come to understand Dolores’s violence much more completely than we do Annie’s. What Bates could only suggest in Misery, we get to fully explore in Dolores Claiborne. We are seeing what was behind her eyes.

There’s a rich source material for the movie to mine. Whereas Misery is largely a straight-forward adaptation of the novel with some tonal changes, Dolores Claiborne is a heavily changed adaptation, with no tonal changes. It preserves the original slip stream of consciousness narrative and remains dedicated to the novel’s humanizing efforts.

The novel unfolds as Dolores’ deposition after being accused of murdering Vera.  Told entirely as a vernacular monologue, it slips in and out of the past, revealing the circumstances surrounding Vera’s death and the death of Dolores’ husband, Joe, who was found dead in a well after an eclipse several years prior. The novel is languid, icy yet colorful, and feminist, all of which are preserved in the film.

Told through a series of flashbacks, the film version has New York journalist, Selena, Dolores’ eldest (Jennifer Jason Leigh), returning to Little Tall Island after her mother has been accused of Vera’s murder. Together, they unravel violent family secrets and come to understand how the other has learned to cope in our depressingly masculine world.

Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne (Columbia Pictures)

All three women at the center of this film give incredibly grounded performances.  Judy Parfitt is the most delicious bitch but still makes you feel for her. Jennifer Jason Leigh, fresh off Single White Female mania, clearly understands the dramatic subtleties required for a domestic mystery and does the best she can with the film’s lukewarm handling of her depression. And again, the great Ursa Major, Kathy Bates, brings a lived in reality to her performance that astounds and continues to thrive with King-ian dialect.

While some may find the flashbacks and different film stocks for past and present to be a tad heavy handed as storytelling devices, this is very much how Dolores sees her life in the film and in the original novel. You can see her colorful life become slowly eclipsed by the darkness after years of abuse by her husband (David Strathairn). The slippages into the past are often disorienting much like remembering past trauma. 

Centering the film around three women means we are allowed space and time for each woman to be understood on her own terms. Each has a history with abuse that has been processed and each is a bitch in different ways though no one is faulted for it.  The trio of women come to understand, respect, and love each other after shared moments of vulnerability when the oppressive nature of the masculine world is too great.The film emphasizes the importance of female solidarity, particularly solidarity amongst abuse survivors in a way a lot films of the 90s and early 2000s wouldn’t.  Most abuse survivor thrillers of this era are individualist, but Dolores Claiborne illustrates the importance of female community and kinship.

In these two Stephen King adaptations, divine oracle Kathy Bates gives a pair of psychically-linked performances which show us that the reality of a woman’s situation is rooted her history, in her back story. With Misery, the believability of her performance demonstrates how the creation of a back story, however invisible, gives a female character dimension even when there isn’t one in the source text.  

We know going in that Annie, as a fairy tale villain, is vanquishable, however troubled it is by Bates’ performance.  The stalker/obsessed female thriller genre dictates that the madwoman will be subdued or most likely killed and the male victim will overcome and prosper. We collectively are conditioned to find relief in this because of our own depressingly masculine world.

But Dolores is another matter.  Our understanding and compassion for her violence shakes actual structures of society.  As a bitch we don’t know what do with, she is more culturally dangerous than Annie Wilkes. She upends ethical legal lines and draws attention to the repercussions of what we would now call “toxic masculinity” if a woman should choose to retaliate. It’s very exciting to watch if you’re into dismantling the patriarchy and such things.

Kathy Bates, holy and terrifying, is unknowable. But a comparative criticism helps demystify her labor as it is so often eclipsed by the characters she plays. Her remarkable work in these films each, in their own unique but related way, present how riveting a woman with depth can be on the screen. And that’s a well I would gladly die upon.

Dolores Claiborne Trailer:

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