Oscar: Best Actress–Bates, Kathy in Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates won the 1990 Best Actress Oscar at her first nomination for the thriller-horror film, Misery.

Bates’ competitors that year were Anjelica Huston in “The Grifters,” Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman,” Meryl Streep in “Postcards from the Edge,” and Joanne Woodward in “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.”

Huston, Streep and Woodward had all previously won the Oscar either for the Supporting or for the lead Oscar.

Bob Reiner’s well-made adaptation of Stephen King’s novella by Oscar-winning scribe William Goldman (“All the President’s Men”) about a male author trapped by his own female creation is satisfying both as a horror flick and psychological thriller.

In one of his better roles after “The Godfather” movies, James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, the writer of a commercially successful romantic novel about Misery Chastain.  Among his fans is a psychotic reader named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who claims she is willing to do anything for him—even die.

Problem begins when Annie finds out that Shedlon has killed off his series of “Misery” novels in order to write more “serious” and “important” books. Nothing would satisfy Annie more than taking Sheldon with her.

Director Bob Reiner, who previously adopted the Kings novella “Stand By Me,” does a good job of bringing the gallows humor to the surface as well as highlighting the gory horror in King’s grisly tale.

The film is more interesting and dynamic early on, when Sheldon faces off in a test of artistic (and physical) mettle against Wilkes, who turns out to be his toughest editor—a nightmare version of every working author, a woman who demands explanations and accountability from fiction writers!

The second half, with Sheldon captured, incarcerated and tortured in Annie’s house is less successful, often feeling forced, derivative and way too long.

Even so, the film earns easily the joy of watching its perverse climax, a survival battle between Sheldon and Annie that degenerates into horror movie clichés, just one notch above “Friday the 13th” and other similar flicks.  Except that the gender reversal works extremely well.

Though there are skillful actors in cameo roles—Frances Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall, and particularly Richard Farnsworth—“Misery” is very much a two-handler melodrama, with at least half of the screen time shared by Caan and Bates, who make the most out of the roles.

Caan meets the challenge of spending most of the time bedridden and immobile, tortured by Bates’ Annie.  He gives a satisfyingly physical performance.

Kathy Bates, then mostly known as a stage actress, gives a powerhouse Oscar-winning performance, replete with ironic touches that enrich and subvert King’s horror yarn.  Mixing wit, cleverness, energy and physical force, she gives the film a stronger dimension of psychological realism, elevating the film way above the book’s trepidations, particularly the pat resolution that many critics and audiences complained about.

It may or may not be a coincidence that “Misery” was released just two years after “Fatal Attraction,” another film boasting a strong, bitchy, bi-polar heroine who demands her right to exist and be taken seriously.

I saw the film at a press screening, but friends who saw it in movie theaters reported of spontaneous screams for revenge from the viewers—kill the bitch—bringing out the same primal instincts that Fatal Attraction did in its climactic battle between the two women.

Cast:

Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates)

Paul Sheldon (James Caan)

Sheriff Buster (Richard Farnsworth)

Virginia (Frances Sternhagen)

Maria Sindell (Lauren Bacall)

Libby (Graham Davis)

Pete (Jerry Potter)

Anchorman (Tom Brunette)

Anchorwoman (June Christopher)

Waitress 9Wendy Bowers)

Credits:

MPAA Rating: R

Running time; 107 Minutes

Produced by Rob Reiner, Andrew Scheinman, Steve Nicolaides, Jeffrey Stott.

Directed by Bob Reiner.

Screenplay: William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen king.

Camera: Barry Sonnenfeld

Editor: Robert Leighton

Music: Marc Shaiman

Production Design: Norman Garwood

Art director: Mark Mansbridge

Costume design: Gloria Gersham

F/X: Phil Cory