Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Kathy Bates’ Stephen King Encore: ‘Dolores Claiborne’ 1995

The battle cry of Dolores Claiborne: "Next time, one of us is going to the boneyard!" 

 

I loved Stephen King’s suspense novel Dolores Claiborne and was pleased when I saw the film version onscreen back in ’95. Director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy did a stellar job telling King’s story.

This blog post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Blogathon “Movies Are Murder.” Here’s the link to the lineup! http://clamba.blogspot.com/

Click here: http://clamba.blogspot.com/

***A few spoilers ahead***

The title character is a small town Maine woman who is abused in varying degrees by both her boozing bastard husband and rich bitch employer. Dolores endures all of it to save as much of her earnings as possible for daughter Selena to go to college. Things come to a head when Dolores discovers that hubby Joe has cleaned out Selena’s savings account and more alarmingly, is also molesting the girl. Desperate, domestic Dolores turns to employer Vera, who’s surprisingly sympathetic, and offers a drastic solution.

Kathy Bates as the younger, then Dolores St. George. Bates has said that
"Dolores Claiborne" is her favorite role and I agree!


New Englander Stephen King, a Peyton Place fan, seems to have been inspired by the white trash Cross family from the Grace Metalious novel and the 1957 20th Century Fox film adaptation. Remember drunken lout Lucas Cross, who beats his housemaid wife and molests his daughter, Selena Cross? It's no coincidence that the abused daughter of Dolores Claiborne is also named Selena. However, beaten down maid Nellie Cross is no Dolores Claiborne. Instead of fighting back, Nellie hangs herself at lady-like employer Constance McKenzie's home. Dolores Claiborne feels beaten down with her lot in life, especially after getting screwed over one last time by husband Joe. Luckily, employer Vera is much more vengefully practical than prissy Constance. In Peyton Place, it’s daughter Selena who must defend herself against the drunken father.

The poor and unhappy Lucas Cross family of "Peyton Place" seemed to inspire
 Stephen King with his dysfunctional family in "Dolores Claiborne."

I recall one critic at the time saying that Dolores Claiborne recalled the mid-career melodramas of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. I immediately imagined ‘50s Bette Davis playing this role opposite Ernest Borgnine, her co-star from The Catered Affair, where they played a bickering Boston couple. I also amusingly envisioned Bette as the dumpy Dolores to Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig mode as demanding perfectionist Vera Donovan: “Six pins, Dolores! You know that’s the way I like it. Six pins, not five!”

Imagine Bette Davis as "Dolores Claiborne" & Ernest Borgnine as Joe!

Or Joan Crawford as Vera Donovan, who was pretty good
at giving the help a hard time in "Harriet Craig!"

Director Taylor Hackford directs what would have once been called a "woman's picture" with great style, set pieces, and highlighting the actors performances and characters. It's a suspense film/soap opera, with a lot of plot. But the story is that of small town secrets and scandal—and as somebody who grew up in one, I found it totally believable!

"Dolores Claiborne" is unflinching in it's look at small town dysfunctional families.

Dolores Claiborne is a gutsy Maine character who chooses her battles. The book and movie are direct about child sexual abuse, spousal abuse, elder dementia—the stuff of real life, and of Delores’ life. Oscar winner Kathy Bates (Misery) is on record saying that Dolores Claiborne is her favorite role. It’s easy to see why. Kathy as Dolores is salty but good-hearted, innately decent but sometimes tough, and is both the victim and reluctant villain. Claiborne is a character who life has left its mark on, which is beautifully conveyed here by Bates. I also love Dolores Claiborne because she and Kathy Bates remind me of my paternal grandmother, who also had a hard life and was equally plain-spoken. Grandma Alvera’s favorite saying could have been Dolores Claiborne’s: “Quit your pissing and moaning!”

Kathy Bates as the older "Dolores Claiborne," with Jennifer Jason Leigh as Selena.

British actress Judy Parfitt was unfamiliar to American audiences at the time, but her performance as piece of work Vera Donovan is now among her most memorable. Bates and Parfitt make a great team as the no-nonsense maid and the imperious lady of the house. There are a number of memorable lines from this movie, but Parfitt’s waspish Vera has the very best of them! Though Vera wears her bitchiness like a badge of honor, other aspects of her personality and past are held close.

Judy Parfitt is most memorable as the rich employer in "Dolores Claiborne."
Vera Donovan: "Sometimes, Dolores, an accident can be an unhappy woman's best friend!"

In King’s novel, Selena St. George is depicted as a child, but only referenced as an adult. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay does a solid job of fleshing out Selena as an unhappy young woman. She’s now a writer in New York City, just like Peyton Place’s Allison MacKenzie, who is traumatized by family scandal and runs off to the Big Apple to write and have affairs. Jennifer Jason Leigh is perfectly cast as the dysfunctional, depressed, drinking and drugging daughter, who somehow manages to be high-functioning, professionally. Leigh’s Selena is understandably detached and morose coming back to her unhappy childhood home, and falls into dysfunctional traps. Leigh’s coolness is a great counterpoint to Bates’ warm-hearted and sometimes hot-headed mother.

David Strathairn, in a villainous turn as worthless husband Joe St. George.
Watching Strathairn as slimy Joe reminded me of Arthur Kennedy
as equally vile Lucas Cross in "Peyton Place!"

David Strathairn is a great villain as Joe St. George, Dolores’ worthless husband. Strathairn has played both distinguished and despicable men with equal skill and conviction, much like Arthur Kennedy did in his long career. Kennedy won an Oscar nomination for his drunken sexual predator Lucas Cross in Peyton Place. Had Dolores Claiborne been a big commercial hit at the time, it’s likely that Bates, Parfitt, Leigh, and Strathairn would have all received nominations. Also, Christopher Plummer is in sneering and steely mode as the local detective who’s determined not to let Dolores Claiborne get off the hook.

Christopher Plummer in supercilious mode as Detective Mackey, who has it in for
Kathy Bates' "Dolores Claiborne."

Dolores Claiborne is one of those films that enjoyed an afterlife on video and television. It got solid reviews upon release, but was only a modest hit. The year before, the adaptation of King’s The Shawshank Redemption was a male-oriented story that became a sleeper success. With home viewing, both Dolores Claiborne and The Shawshank Redemption have become popular favorites.

Vera Donovan offers "Dolores Claiborne" some parting advice before the big eclipse!

Director Taylor Hackford deserves praise for his handling of the current day story of Vera Donovan’s mysterious death with the equally weighted flashback scenes of Dolores and Vera’s unhappy lives. The set piece of the eclipse and Dolores leading Joe to his fate is wonderfully done. Selena’s repressed memory of her father’s abuse is strongly but subtly handled.

Setting a trap for her abusive husband isn't exactly rocket science for "Dolores Claiborne."

There are many memorable scenes in Dolores Claiborne—alternately harrowing, suspenseful, darkly humorous, and touching. A throw back to a classic movie-movie, but with enough reality to engage modern audiences, this movie stays in your memory. Dolores Claiborne is both an atmospheric suspense film and engrossing character study, with strong, naturalistic performances and stylish storytelling.

The beautifully executed eclipse/death scene in "Dolores Claiborne."


19 comments:

  1. I saw this in a theater when it was first released, and it made a big impression on me. I haven't seen it in years, but the memory of it is very clear. Kathy Bates was excellent as Delores, whose life of misery was almost too much to bear. I'd like to see it again. I hope TCM will screen it sometime. It's a really great movie.

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  2. It would be perfect for TCM and they could run it as a double feature with "Peyton Place," of which their are similarities! Cheers, Rick

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  3. I love, LOVE, L-O-V-E this movie... Kathy was incredible, David was appropriately appalling and Judy... well, it turned me into a lifelong fan of hers ever since. Just look at her eyes in that screencap at the outdoor party. She was incredible (and HIGHLY deserving of a Best Supporting Actress nomination that didn't come....) It was really a surprise when this flopped at the box office after the prior combination of Bates and King, "Misery." But his name on something didn't always guarantee success (or quality, even.) I think maybe some folks were put off by the accents, which I found to be unusual, but very texturizing for the tale. But, for me, Bates can rarely do anything the wrong way. Glad you wrote about this and also that the movie has gained in reputation. I found it pretty unforgettable when I saw it in theaters. Thanks!

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    1. When I read "Dolores Claiborne" in the early '90s, I thought of Faye Dunaway as Vera Donovan! But Judy was so memorable. I was a bit surprised that "Dolores" didn't do better just because "Shawshank" was a hit the year before... but it struggled at first, too. And looking back at the female Oscar nom categories, a couple of names could have been left off, as always. But "Dolores" has enjoyed a great afterlife on video and TV! Judy Parfitt still acts at 87 and she's got some piercing blue eyes! Thanks for writing, Rick

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  4. I have never read "Dolores Claiborne" or seen the film, and I never realized that David Strathairn was one of the stars. And Christopher Plummer, too. The casting sounds unbeatable! I think this one has to go on my list. And based on your comparisons, I may have to see "Peyton Place" again, too.

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    1. A great story and cast. And would make a great double feature with "Peyton Place." Cheers, Rick

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  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your write-up, Rick, and greatly appreciated the parallels you drew between this film and Peyton Place. I enjoyed, too, the notion of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as Dolores and Vera! I have had Stephen King's novel in my collection for many years, but I've never read it. Your post has inspired me to dust it off -- and then watch the movie again! Thank you for contributing this excellent post to the blogathon!

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    1. Thank you, Karen! I've noticed over the years that I don't see much written about "Dolores Claiborne" though it's a popular fave thanks to video/dvd and TV. And I try to have fun with my film picks, as so many have been written about so many times. Much appreciated. Rick

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  6. A perfect choice for the blogathon. Whenever I see Judy Parfitt on "Call the Midwife," I can't help but think of her in "Dolores Claiborne."

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    1. I bet! In real life, Parfitt has been active for support of families with members who have dementia. Her late husband suffered from the illness.

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  7. Somehow I've never crossed paths with this film, but now that I've read your terrific review, I'm going to make more of an effort to track this down. The cast sounds utterly marvellous, and I bet David Strathairn is excellent in that role. He looks truly chilling in those images you posted.

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    1. It's well worth the watch, might even be on Blu Ray. Thanks for the kind words! Rick

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  8. Great review, Rick. I saw this film on release but not since and had forgotten a lot of the details. I never did know of its connection to Peyton Place, so that was an eye-opener. The two films would make a great double bill.

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    1. That would be a great way to watch the movies. And Dolores holds up quite well and might make you wonder why it got zero Oscar nominations! Cheers, Rick

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  9. I liked this movie so much better than Misery, which got all the glory.

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    1. Though "Misery" is fun, like "Baby Jane Lite," "Dolores Claiborne" is a great story, beautifully acted.

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  10. “A Catered Affair” took place the Bronx, NY

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    1. Thanks for the catch! I've had it in my head forever that it took place in Boston or somewhere in New England. Cheers, Rick

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