Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Birthday Take: Kathy Bates in "Misery" (1990)

Kathy Bates in Misery
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Kathy Bates
Born: June 28, 1948 (68 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress - Misery (won) as Annie Wilkes

The Take

If there's one writer that has had a very strange relationship with the Oscars, it's Stephen King. He doesn't come across as the person whose work would be adapted into big trophy winners. Yet one doesn't have to look far for the first time he got recognized. Carrie, his first book and first to be adapted, saw two acting nominations. From there, it has only continued to grow in vastly interesting directions. He's a man of horror and has yet brought us two of the sincerest prison dramas in history with The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. He's a man of infinite talents, and it's weird to note that one of his first to actually win an award was for Misery: a film that was a metaphor for his drug addiction, but strikes most more as a commentary on fans influencing creators to change their works. It's a nightmare on both fronts, and in the hands of director Rob Reiner makes for one of the most unnervingly exciting takes on the author's work.

It owes a lot of credit to one of the characters that King will have trouble separating himself from: Annie Wilkes. To borrow a note from writer Devin Faraci of Birth Movies Death, she is the patron saint of fandom. If you have any experience online, you will know what this means. It's hard to look at comments sections or news articles criticizing incomplete works and getting offended by bold shifts in character; as if forgetting that these works are fiction and inconsequential. It's hard to imagine that King had this foresight when he wrote the book in 1987, let alone Reiner in 1990. However, it feels like a perfectly exaggerated version to hear Wilkes complain that her love for fictional character Misery Chastain would drive her to torment the crippled author, forcing him into injury until he makes her story go a whole lot better, or more specifically how she wants things to go.

It's a nightmare within itself if you have any experience like I do as a writer. The idea of criticism forcing you to shift your vision into the hands of irrational and uninformed critics is something that is hard to accept. While I have little to no popularity that warrants backlash on par with Damon Lindelof's infamous blunders (which I don't think are that bad), I do fear it and sympathize with those who have people yelling at them for years on end. There's rich texture to the film that makes it a personal favorite, and it is largely because of the story. It also helps that while there's a lot of problematic elements to Wilkes as a character, she is able to be menacing without falling into unbelievable camp. She is unbelievable, but in the way that people obsessed over superheroes not being black or female are unbelievable. 

Credit should be given to Kathy Bates, who I will admit has had a bizarre career trajectory over the years. I know that I've seen her in plenty, but there's little that compares to the impact of Misery. Her comical stare and her naive belief that her opinion matters fills me with dread. I love how she becomes a more sadistic one woman show version of The Shining. It's powerful stuff, and while I know that the twist at the end is coming, it's hard to not feel scared. She owns the role and makes you worried for your life. How will our beloved author escape? There's a lot that makes this rather intimate horror drama all the more perplexing, and I think that it works because Bates takes it from mere menace to something more complicated and palpable. You believe that she could exist with a hammer. The issue may also be that Bates plays her too well to ever see her as a genuinely nice performer ever again.

I am unsure why Bates won for this film. Considering how few psychopaths have won in subsequent years, it doesn't entirely add up. What is left is one of those horror films that have faded into obscurity (though not as bad as some King titles) and only comes up because of Bates' win. I personally love the film and everything about it. I still don't get what her being so menacing and terrifying does to give her the edge. It's a good thing that she won, if just to show the diversity that women's roles could have. I just wish that there were more comparable points for me to suggest that it started or continued a trend. Instead, it's just a weird performance that is hard to forget. That alone is the sign of good acting.

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