Acting is an art form, and behind every icon there is an artist who expresses himself. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column that explores the art behind some of the best roles in cinema. In this post, we examine Kathy Bates’ terrible superfan in Misery.
Two months after the 1990 debut of miseryinterviewed the New York Times Kathy Bateswho have favourited Annie Wilkes, the film’s murderous number one fan. The actress is very open in profile about how she is perceived as an actress:
“I’ve never been a genius; I’ve always been just a character actor […] The roles I was lucky enough to do were real series for me: usually a character that was older or a little weird or whatever. And it was hard, not just because of the lack of work, but because you have to deal with the way people look at you. And you think, “Well, you know, I’m a real person.”
The honest self-esteem she expresses sheds light on why she is such a powerful actress. Bates searches for inner truth in every character she plays, regardless of the size of the role or how eccentrically it may be written. She uses this truth as a foundation to take more risks in her performances and approach her characters from unique angles that can surprise even the writers who created them.
Marsha Norman, who wrote Bates ‘Breakout Broadway Show’ night, mom, had written her character Jessie as a waifish and was slowly disappearing from our eyes as she plotted her own suicide. The natural energy Bates put into the role was diametrically different from what Norman had imagined, but it was what made Bates so electrifying on stage: it felt amazingly real. As the playwright said: “There was indeed someone here who had managed to disappear because you would look past her in public.”
This ability to blend in with a crowd is a major reason Bates was cast as Annie, the maniacal fan of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan), whose romance novels, which chronicle the many loves of Misery Chastain, devoured her life. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman, who adapted the story from Stephen King’s bestselling novel, wanted Annie to have a face that you can’t make out.
As Goldman said of the casting process, “My feeling is that even with a performer as brilliant as [Meryl] Streep in the part it wouldn’t have worked because some part of us out there in the dark would have known Meryl Streep wasn’t actually going to burn James Caan. But no one knew it was Kathy Bates. ”
By casting Bates, Reiner and Goldman turned Annie Wilkes into a commonplace stranger that we wouldn’t notice on the street. Since the audience didn’t know her as well as an actor, all they would see would be Annie and her twisted mix of anger and innocence.
This is another quality Reiner Bates felt embodied: “She looks like someone who is a fan. That eager, naive look. “Bates takes advantage of this innocence to create a character that is a mix of modern fandom, both exuberant and venomous. We can see ourselves in Annie’s excitement at the Misery books spinning on her footballs and exploding with genuine excitement as she reads the new chapter in which she forced the imprisoned author to write, “Misery Lives! The misery lives! Oh it’s so romantic! I will put on my Liberace records! ”
Which die-hard fan is not thrilled when their head canon becomes a reality? While she virtuously praises Paul and asks him to give her clues as to the conclusion of the new book, Bates plays it without a hint of irony or cheesy intentional exaggeration. We believe Annie is right to believe that Paul’s steamy novels are works of art on par with That and Misery’s Child Sistine Chapel. These are the only two divine things in this world! “
In those real moments of joy, Bates briefly makes the audience forget that Annie is a psychopath. We only see a fan like you or me who is enthusiastic about what she loves more than life itself. But Bates arms this seriousness so that the audience doesn’t anticipate the moment when their passion becomes destructive. Bates and Reiner gave Annie an emotionally devastating backstory that is unique to the film.
In King’s novel, Annie is conventionally angry because she killed an entire family in a house fire when she was eleven, before murdering her father among countless others. With Reiner, Bates worked out Annie’s patricide as the source of her character’s motivations. Rather than Annie killing her father for some congenital evil, Bates saw it as retaliation for a story of sexual abuse that gave Annie’s anger a psychological backbone.
As Bates put it, “Annie isn’t a monster in a horror movie; She is a person who is a psychopath. “Though never verbalized, Bates carries the weight of Annie’s trauma throughout the film. She becomes a character we almost pity and empathize with, even if we curse her descent into madness.
In Annie’s anger at Paul’s release from misery, we see her embody a toxic fandom. When she learns that he killed his title character, she takes it as personal betrayal. She has invested so much in misery emotionally that she feels possessed, and when Paul killed her she unwittingly murdered part of Annie herself. It’s a problematic level of fan ownership that we’re seeing heightened through social media today.
Just look at the uproar of some Star Wars fans when Rian Johnson took the beloved series in a new direction they disliked. These venomous fans felt they understood the characters better than those who wrote them. When The Last Jedi subverted their expectations, they took it as a slap in the face of everything they claim to love. This is exactly how Annie feels about Paul, and that’s what drives her over the edge. It’s an aspect of her character that a lot of fans will relate to, no matter how much they refuse to admit it.
In King’s novel, Annie Wilkes is a metaphor for cocaine addiction, a way for the writer to subconsciously confront his own struggles with substance abuse. The themes that are central to the book are largely absent from the film, but Annie still serves as a commentary on another type of addiction superfans can have towards the movies, books, and TV shows they have dedicated their lives to. Annie is passionate about Paul’s novels and craves every new book like an addict looking for his next solution. When a fan loves something, it is their biggest highlight. But when they believe that a creator does not respect work as they do, they hit rock bottom and strike in excessive anger.
Annie Wilkes can be viewed as the personification of both addiction and toxic fandom, but an actor cannot play a metaphor, only the reality of the character. Bates shines because she finds pathos in Annie and discovers who she is amidst all the anger and violence. She doesn’t play them as an archetype but as a real person with dark secrets hidden beneath the surface of a disarming grin.
Finding the truth in a character as complex as Annie is one of Bates’ greatest strengths as an actress. This has been evident since she first appeared on the New York stage. Athol Fugard, who directed it in an off-Broadway play early in her career, said: “Performance can either tell the truth or tell a lie for an actor[…] Kathy has this impressive honesty: she never pretends. She has a way of being, of being. ”
With Misery, Kathy Bates made a psychopath feel both real and relatable – an emotional balancing act that makes Annie Wilkes one of the most terrifying and fascinating movie villains of all time.