Prior to this year’s Oscars, KATHY BATES was almost unknown in
ardly a household name outside the New York theatre scene, actress Kathy Bates is beginning to enjoy the instant fame quotient that is the lot ofthe recent Academy Award winner. This year’s recipient of the Best Actress honour for her role as a crazed romantic fiction devotee in the viscerally entertaining Misery, she submits to a grilling from the gathered UK press like a labrador puppy having its tummy tickled. Laying on the native Tennessee politesse with some aplomb, she comes across as relaxed, genuinely likeable and definitely committed to her craft.
Certainly, it was her ability to inhabit a role rather than any considerations of marketability that led screenwriter William Goldman (a double-Oscar-winner himself for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men) to forge the part of Annie Wilkes for her. Based on a f novel by Stephen King, in which he draws on his own feeling of being constrained by I success, Misery co-stars a typically powerful ' James Caan as bestselling novelist Paul Sheldon. Author ofthe lucrative Misery Chastain series of bodice-rippers, Sheldon lands — courtesy of a ferocious snowstorm and a car crash — straight into the hands of his self-proclaimed ‘number one fan’, the redoubtable Ms Wilkes.
Her wildest dream and his worst nightmare are about to come true. She gets to comfort the bed-ridden and badly injured writer ‘ back to health, and he has to endure the
frustration of virtual imprisonment in her
remote farmhouse. Much, much worse is to come, however, when this apparently
ordinary — if rather eccentric — middle-aged nurse turns out to have darker designs than mere admiration and Sheldon finds his ; reputation not only restraining his creative L _,_. .. ,_ ._ 8The List l7—3()May I991
Hollywood. Overnight, she’s become a big star, winning the Best Actress award for her role as a psychotic bookworm in Stephen King’s Misery. Trevor Johnston reports on an actress enjoying the first fruits of fame; while Misery’s director ROB REINER tells Nigel Floyd about the film’s personal significance to him.
ambitions but threatening his life.
‘I guess a lot of people have picked up on the character being some sort of female Norman Bates,’ reﬂects the Hitchcockian shower slayer’s namesake, ‘but from my point ofview Annie is a complex, well drawn, powerful character for a woman, and that kind ofpart isn’t so easy to come by. In particular I liked the dialogue Bill Goldman came up with, because he makes her sound very much like the mushy romance novels she adores so much. Psychologically that made sense to me because she’s obviously someone who otherwise just wouldn’t know how to behave. Annie’s really playing a character herself to get through the experience of having the love of her life
up on the character being some sort of female Norman
Bates ’ ’
suddenly dropped into the middle of her world.’
With her ceramic penguins, lacy doilies, downhome cuisine and page-turning choice in reading matter, there’s a sense in which Annie Wilkes is patronisingly viewed as the epitome of rural American no-taste kitsch. Yet her tendency to switch quickly from homely couch potato to screaming psychotic is both nervily unpredictable and, perhaps, disturbingly misogynistic. IfAnnie happened to be a lithe young sex kitten, Sheldon would have been plunged into sexual fantasyland, but instead his female captor is distinctly matronly (is it any coincidence that she keeps a pet pig?) and the writer’s imprisonment turns into a personal Room 101. The course ofthe
narrative sees him lose and then regain his position of power in a climactic confrontation that edges close to the ‘kill the bitch!’ hatefest that topped off Fatal Attraction.
Pausing to consider the point, the actress doesn’t quite see it this way. ‘I know that the film has been criticised for the violence directed against my character in the finale,’ she states with some firmness, ‘but for the last hour and a quarter you’ve seen this woman inﬂict psychological and physical damage on this man. I feel that their fight is a hand-to-hand tussle between two pretty tough customers, and that’s fair enough because it’s self-defence on his part. She’s said she’s going to kill him, you know.’
For Bates herself, the price of fame hasn’t been quite so exacting, but like any Hollywood performer in the public eye she’s learnt to look out for the wrong kind of attention. Since Oscar night her ‘loss of anonymity’, as she describes it, has seen shades become mandatory eyewear when cruising the shopping mall. ‘And I keep a pile of letters,’ she adds, ‘that seem a bit strange. I don’t know ifI should tell you this, but I got one guy asking for a nude photo. It was on this really neat headed notepaper and everything. He said it was for a friend. That was a bit odd.’
Not that any of this kind of thing is going to put her off her stride. Since completing Misery the hard-working 42~year-old has travelled to Brazil for Hector Babenco’s forthcoming rainforest saga At Play In The Fields Of The Lord and spent time in South Africa working with playwright Athol Fugard on the screen version of his stage drama Road To Mecca. Still, when quizzed on the kind of material she’s now looking for, given her new—found industry clout, her
thoughts immediately return closer to home,
to the Broadway and Off-Broadway stage where she built her reputation.
‘What really concerns me as an actress is not seeing our playwrights nurtured,‘ she says, ‘because that’s the only way we‘re going to have decent material to work on. Too many good writers have a big success in New York, but when they step up to the plate a second time they get knocked out by
the critics and they get discouraged. So after
that, they’re offto try it in Hollywood, where the writer has no power whatsoever.
It’s a real bad situation right now, but I don’t i
really know how you go out to change it.’
In the meantime, there’s a movie about to go into pre-production, set in the South, with a strong female cast, but Bates remains
sensibly cautious about the long-term effects 1
of Oscardom on her career. ‘I don‘t know, it’s such a risky damn business. You’re red hot one minute and freezing cold the next. I remember talking to Jessica Tandy right after the awards ceremony about this new film we’re doing together, Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle-Stop Cafe, and just seeing the excitememnt of this woman in her eighties who’s still as passionate abouther art as a kid who just got her first big part. I thought it was just great to carry on having that desire and spirit to play a role. Really, I just hope I can stay that interested and committed.’
Misery has a very wide release on Fri 17 May. See Film Index for venue listing.