Friday, November 12, 2010

It's Really a Crime...

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.


normadesmond said...

yes, this is a terrific movie. will always watch it when i happen upon it. always was very impressed with the way both kathy & judy were "aged." like the rest of the film, it rang positively true.

Anonymous said...

A truly overlooked gem - Straithairn is SUCH a chameleon; I will never understand how he has only one oscar nod to his credit. Bates would have been nominated if the movie had come out in any other year besides 1995, one of the few good years for leading ladies. And Parfitt .... you're right, she's worth her weight in gold! Have you seen her Gertrude in the Nicol Williamson/Marianne Faithfull Hamlet?

bistis6 said...

My partner and I love this movie, and also worship at the altar of Judy Parfitt. We alternate by quoting either Mrs. van Hopper from REBECCA, or Vera from DOLORES CLAIBORNE. But Dolores' own, "And glory, is she didn't show up in high spirits!" has made it's way into our everyday conversation. And I %100 agree with you: how Parfitt ended up without an Oscar nomination is nothing short of an artistic crime. Just watch the scene where she, as the ravaged house-ridden Vera, breaks down in tears upon hearing the pig music box. This is acting of the highest caliber.

Pantheon Zeus said...

This film is Best Picture in my book too.
The cast is perfection. I laugh and inevitably cry.
I think about the daughter and the mother...
The former rarely visits the ghosts of her past
while the latter must bravely live with them daily.
It celebrates women as the stronger, more evolved sex
who are often left to "marinate" in life's ugliness - but
hold on to their dignity and never stop nurturing.

Poseidon3 said...

SO GREAT to see some love tossed this way for Dolores! Thanks everyone for your remarks and insights. Glad you enjoy this movie.

Topaz said...

Okay, this is getting scary. I'm again thinking we have some kind of weird mindmeld because I just netflixed DC a couple of weeks ago, after reading somewhere about how good Judy Parfitt was in it. I'm not sure how I missed it on its first go-round, except that maybe I was thinking that King was a total hack.

Anyway, loved the movie, Kathy Bates and Ms. Parfitt. Yes, JJL was her usual drippy self, but it fit her character. And Plummer was great, too.

Now if you had planned on writing something soon on "Mahogany" or "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," both of which I watched yesterday while sick in bed, I will totally freak out.

Poseidon3 said...

Topaz! How amazing. Mahogany is always just on the threshold of being profiled, truly, but my chief source of photos (a little secret of mine, at least for the time being!) has none and I always try to dredge up unusual visuals for my posts if I can. Sometime soon... I don't think there is a The Ghost and Mr. Chicken tribute in my very near future, though!!!! Hope you're feeling better.

Dean said...

I'm always amazed by how many people I know who haven't seen this movie (and subsequently don't understand my references or one-liners). It's one of my favorite films and I think Kathy Bates is in top form here.
My only gripe with it (and it seems to fade more with each watching) is the casting of JJ Leigh. Apart from that, the rest of the cast is spectacular.
Amazing that it wasn't awarded with anything. Glad you showcased it here.

Poseidon3 said...

Dean, I feel EXACTLY the same way about JJL. This last time she bothered me least of any time I've seen it. However, it also could be that her character is so abrasive and unsympathetic UNTIL you know what all she's gone through, thus on second viewing, she's easier to take, maybe? And she (the character) also goes a long way to redeem herself near the end.

GGraphix said...

I love thiis film but it was a tough movie to watch as i came from a family with similar violence minus the sexual abuse. I watched with my fist held tightly because it brought back some terrible memories.

FoxVerde said...

just for the record the dull constable was played by John C. Reilly.

another really great aspect of the movie is the seamless way they tie the flashbacks of the past with the present. next time you watch it notice how beautiful and nostalgic they are. i especially like the scene where you see dolores day dreaming at the empty dirty walls and it morphs into the cute home she made for her family as she chases her toddler daughter playing hide and seek. some really great technique there.

i also want to say that JJL really does fit this movie. she is the embodiment of a drunken bitter dissolute greasy haired self-loathing career minded broken woman with borderline personality disorder/dissociation. the mirror scene on the ferry. whoa she just realized she split all those years what her father did to her. we watched her identity crumble even more before our eyes.

a great great film.

Poseidon3 said...

I've fixed the name of the actor playing the constable in the post. Thanks!