In a recent tribute to Christopher Plummer, I mentioned one of his late-career films that happened to appear on a high-def movie channel shortly afterward. The 1995 Taylor Hackford film, Dolores Claiborne, is a startlingly unappreciated piece of work that does seem to mean a lot to its select group of fans. Perhaps the sometimes-unrelenting gloominess turns off viewers (or potential viewers), but there’s a thread of perverse humor (generally supplied by some snarky dialogue) running through it as well that, for me anyway, helps to offset its darkness.
Set in the murky blue mists of coastal Maine (but filmed in Nova Scotia), the movie opens with a severely infirm woman hurtled down a long set of stairs who is then threatened by her caregiver with a heavy, marble rolling pin. The woman wielding the device is Dolores Claiborne, played by Kathy Bates. Only the sudden arrival of the mailman prevents her from bashing in the senior citizen’s head. But why? The woman dies anyway and Bates is charged and strenuously investigated for murder by police detective Christopher Plummer.
This necessitates the return, after fifteen estranged years, of Bates’ daughter Jennifer Jason Leigh, an edgy, successful, but haunted, reporter who holds great resentment towards her mother. The two strike up an uneasy alliance and move into the old family home where Bates hasn’t lived since caring round the clock for her employer the last several years.
The dilapidated house is rife with memories, most of them bad, and in time Bates begins to recall the way things were when Leigh was a young girl and they lived there with Leigh’s father David Strathairn. We see in flashbacks the sort of life Bates endured with a common, abusive, ultimately vicious jerk of a husband. The deadbeat loser treats Bates with utter disdain and, occasionally, lets out with bursts of extreme violence. All of this is hidden from Leigh (played in the flashbacks by an extremely well cast Ellen Muth), who grows up never realizing the torment her mother was living with.
Determined to secure a better future for her daughter, Bates takes on a part time job for a wealthy couple who own a vacation estate on the island not far from where she lives. The wife, Judy Parfitt, is exacting to a extraordinary degree, demanding that her sheets be hung outside to dry and with six, equally-spaced, clothes pins and that the silver be polished weekly to the point that she can see her reflection in it. Bates suffers the indignities of this gorgon because she knows that her weekly stipend will be put away for her daughter’s education.
In time, Bates works at the estate even in the off-season and eventually becomes a full-time staff member there. One day, when the entire village is in the thrall of an upcoming solar eclipse and festivities are brimming everywhere, a series of events takes place that will forever affect Bates and her family. Bates continues on as Parfitt’s employee, right up to the day that she is found looming over the dying woman with the heavy kitchen tool.
Leigh, having gone off to college as intended, wants nothing to do with the place or with her mother other than to make a feeble attempt to stand up for her against the overwhelming animosity of Plummer, who seems to be holding a grudge. Finally, Bates and Leigh have a long talk about their lives and some long-buried issues are finally brought back to the surface, allowing Leigh to better understand her mother’s attitude and life choices and make it seem as if there is hope of understanding between them. The truth about Parfitt’s violent end is revealed.
Bates, who had been working in TV and movies since the mid-70s but made no major impact until 1990’s Misery, gives a bravura performance here. She was unforgettable as Annie Wilkes in Misery (for which she won an Oscar), but this role is actually more complex and more difficult. The dual time frame allows us to see the sensitive, industrious young woman she was in contrast with the hardened, emotionally detached shell she later became.
She takes on a strong accent that surprises at first, but soon becomes rather enchanting, especially when she, as the older Dolores, gets to spout off side-splitting remarks such as, “Now, you listen to me, Mr. Grand High Poobah of Upper Buttcrack, I'm just about half-past give a shit with your fun and games.” In that respect, her role is reminiscent of Annie Wilkes, though Wilkes never used the language that Dolores Claiborne does. If the role seems tailor made for Bates’ unique talents, it is because Stephen King, the author of the novel Misery, wrote the source novel for this film with her in mind. Everything she does is so true and so authentic, even when the story veers towards the unlikely. Her contribution cannot be overemphasized and it is jaw-dropping that she received no award recognition from any major bodies. I rarely have anything good to say about the bulk of today’s actors, but Bates is one I admire a lot and wish we’d see more of.
Leigh, who is always a hard sell for me, is (as a poster pointed out to me in the comments section of one of my posts) quite perfect for her role here. She adeptly embodies the empty, emotionally hollowed out qualities of her character. For the bulk of the picture, her character is not particularly likeable, but you can see that she isn’t supposed to be. She’s a train wreck. Few actresses could have brought the necessary stark, defeated qualities to the role that she does.
Speaking of not being likeable... You can search the world over and be hard pressed to find a bastard much worse than Strathairn’s bully of a husband. Strathairn is too good at playing this role! He is unforgettably callous and appallingly insidious. He’s another actor that kicked around for quite a while before making a name for himself. The contrast between the utterly nasty man he plays here and, say, the hapless husband of Meryl Streep in The River Wild the previous year, is amazing.
Plummer is, of course, skillful in his portrayal of the dogged detective. He excels at registering discomfort with the way things turn out without resorting to any showy histrionics. Smaller roles in the film are essayed by Eric Bogosian (of Talk Radio fame), as Leigh’s boss and sometime lover, and John C. Reilly, as the somewhat dull local constable. Muth, as stated above, is a flawless stand in for Leigh in the flashback scenes. It’s easy to buy that they are one and the same person.
For me, the end all-be all of the movie is Parfitt. As far as I’m concerned, every syllable that comes out of her mouth, every glance that she makes and every move that she chooses throughout her screen time is cinema gold. A well-regarded English stage actress with penetrating eyes and a haughty demeanor, she had been seen (by seven or eight people) in a dastardly American sitcom called The Charmings, playing Evil Queen Lillian to a present day Snow White and her Prince Charming, hence the title. But Parfitt didn’t solely deliver the bitch role, which any number of actresses might have done well (including the director’s wife Helen Mirren, who is the one who suggested Parfitt.) She also played the debilitated, heavily disintegrated invalid with an emotional rawness that is rare indeed. Bates could tell during her audition that this was a rare talent and was nearly speechless after their readings together. That she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award (the film received zero noms) is one of the all-time shames upon that organization. With just this one role, the woman shot to the top echelon of my favorite screen performers. Bravo!
Taylor Hackford has had an up and down career with highs including An Officer and a Gentleman and the highly successful Ray, both of which resulted in Oscars for actors involved. Lows include the troubled production of Everybody’s All-American starring Dennis Quaid and the gang warfare film Blood In Blood Out, which was withheld from release in the wake of L.A. rioting. Ironically, it was he who was directing Dennis Quaid’s wife Meg Ryan (in Proof of Life) when she embarked on her scandalous affair with costar Russell Crowe. Here, he expertly shifts from present day to the past in what is ultimately a beautifully stylized film, almost dreamlike at times (nightmarish?)
The book upon which the film is based was the #1 bestseller of 1992, but for some reason the film just didn’t click with mainstream audiences, nor with the people who decide awards. That’s okay, though, because in The Underworld, there is an entire nook devoted to it with bronze statues of Kathy Bates and Judy Parfitt.