Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to….
A few weeks ago, I saw a small Dustin Hoffman movie called Straight Time, which was released in 1978. In the film, there is an appearance by a young, slim Kathy Bates. She was the youngest I’d ever seen her, and though the role was brief, she had a very commanding presence. She had two pivotal scenes in the film, and she nailed the part. If I had seen Straight Time when it was released that year, I’d be proclaiming that this young up-and-comer named Kathy Bates was going to be a star.
And boy, what an incredible career this woman has had. She beautifully bared it all in About Schmidt. She got me all teary eyed in Fried Green Tomatoes (Go ahead. Laugh). She scared the cockadoodle bejesus out of me in Misery. She was robbed of an Oscar for Primary Colors. And the list goes on. But Kathy Bates has spent most of her career in supporting roles (she’s like a fresh breath of air when she waltzes onto a movie, however briefly). So when she’s front and center, we take notice.
One of her best roles – leading or otherwise – is that of Dolores Claiborne. The film of the same name flew under the radar when it was released in 1995. It was mildly praised by critics and barely made a dent in the box office. Backed by a remarkable cast, including Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a fresh-faced John C. Reilly, this Tony Gilroy-penned adaptation of Stephen King’s novel was deftly helmed by underrated director Taylor Hackford. Dolores Claiborne had a remarkable pedigree and it was a damned good movie. So where’s the love?
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.
The script can be melodramatic (“Husbands die every day, Dolores”), but subtlety isn’t what they are striving for. This is a soap opera, plain and simple. An old, rich woman dies. Dolores is accused of murdering her. The cop (Plummer) is determined to put her in jail for good, something he should have done twenty years ago when Dolores’s husband was mysteriously killed. Did she kill her husband? What about the old lady? Dolores’s estranged daughter (Leigh) isn’t so sure what to feel. She hardly remembers anything about her father’s death (“It was just a bad patch!”).
The central mystery of the film isn’t all that special, but it’s how the mystery unfolds that makes Dolores Claiborne a terrific piece of entertainment. Hackford and Gilroy weave flashbacks within flashbacks with incredible finesse. It doesn’t feel forced; every reveal occurs naturally. Also, the film visually pops out at you. It’s gorgeously lit, and Hackford subtly uses digital effects for flashback transitions. The effect is hypnotizing; you are drawn into the story as it takes you through time.
The cast elevates the film to a whole new level. I mentioned how good of an actress Kathy Bates is. But Dolores Claiborne ranks up there as one of her most indelible characters, alongside Annie Wilkes and Libby Holden. It’s no surprise that King wrote the book with Bates in mind. Dolores is bitter and resentful (“If you wanna know what kind of life a person had, just look at their hands”), but also headstrong and logical. Her daughter Selena is very similar-minded, yet they clash over what’s mostly unsaid between the two. The past has kept them apart. It’s a complex relationship, filled with dark secrets but little regrets.
It’s surprising that the book and screenplay were written by men. Dolores Claiborne is very much a female-driven character piece. The third pivotal female role is Vera Davenport (played wonderfully by stage actress Judy Parfitt), a woman not quite who we assume to be. Like with Dolores and Selena, the layers of her traits are revealed slowly as the film drives toward its memorable conclusion.
Even though these women are the anchors of this film, the men, while more broadly drawn, are portrayed so well by the actors who embody them. Plummer is so good here as a detective driven by the need to close his only unresolved case. Strathairn is more one note (since his scenes are colored from the perspective of Dolores), but he fills the role with great anger and gruffness.
Dolores Claiborne is a change of pace for Stephen King. Like Shawshank, or The Green Mile, it’s not the typical horror story you would expect from him. But there are glimpses of the master at work in this story. When Dolores shouted at her husband during a heated argument: “That’s the last time you will ever hit me. Next time, one of us is going to the bone yard.” That line there is unmistakably King.