Kathy Bates is one of my favorite actresses. She was basically an unknown character actor when she got her breakthrough role at 42 as Annie Wilkes in Misery.
The movie is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name that he wrote following a fan backlash over his 1984 epic fantasy novel The Eyes of the Dragon. King wrote that novel in response to his daughter and others who weren’t allowed to read his novels for their use of profanity, sexual content, violence and other mature content.
James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, a writer who became rich and famous for writing Victorian era romance novels focusing on a character named Misery Chastain. I’ve always wondered how the novels could become so popular but the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey novels found their legion of fans. With his latest novel, Misery’s Child, Sheldon has decided its time to kill off Misery by having her die in childbirth, which was more common back then.
The movie starts with Paul in a cabin lodge in the Colorado Rockies in wintertime working on a more serious manuscript. He finishes the first draft and puts it in a satchel, tosses it in the passenger side of his old-time Ford Mustang and takes off back to his home in New York City. Unfortunately, as he is leaving, it begins to snow and a blizzard storm hits the area as he is going down an incline. Paul makes a common mistake and brakes suddenly causing the Mustang to run off the road and down the cliff and flipping over. The wreck knocks Paul out cold, but he’s got a savior.
He wakes up a few days later in a farmhouse with Annie smiling over him. At first glance, she seems like your typical country woman. She tells Paul she’s his biggest fan. But when Paul begins to ask why he’s not in a hospital, she tells him the blizzard blocked access and the phone lines are down. Paul, at first, seems grateful, but things begin to unwind.
When Annie mentions the manuscript in the satchel, Paul lets her read it but she is not too keen on the profanity he uses and then has an outburst that shows that Annie is more than a simple woman living in the Colorado countryside.
In New York City, Paul’s literary agent, Marcia Sinddell (Lauren Becall) notifies the local law enforcement in Colorado that she’s not heard from Paul. The sheriff who goes by Buster (Richard Farnsworth) and his wife, Virginia (Frances Sternhagen) look into the matter more, even going so far as having the local newspaper print an article.
Annie goes to the local store in the nearby town to get her latest copy of Misery’s Child, enthusiastic until she reads the ending where Misery dies. At this point, she becomes enraged and threatens Paul calling him a “dirty bird.” She tells him that she never notified anyone of the accident and that she’s taking care of him. When she calms down the next day, she forces Paul to burn the manuscript or she’ll set him on fire. Then, she sets up a studio so he can write a new Misery book bringing her back to life.
This begs the question, what would Annie have done if Misery had survived at the end of the book? I think she would’ve still forced Paul to write another book. It’s easy to dismiss Annie as another one of these people who can’t differentiate fiction from reality. She seems like the person who refers to people on soap operas by their character names. But deep down, Annie holds a darker history.
We’re never really told what happened. Annie mentions that she was once married but there is no mention about why there was a divorce. We’ are to assume it was because of her checkered history as a maternity nurse and being accused in the deaths of infants, but what if the divorce was the trigger. We really never hear what happened to the infants. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman tiptoe around what she did or was accused of doing. And this sets up the mystery on how far off the deep end Annie will and can go.
People have speculated by Annie suffers from bipolar disorder which in 1990 was far more of a stigmata than it is now as there wasn’t good treatment. But I think Annie may have been suffering from the Hero Complex Syndome which is when some people will do danger to others to save them. An example is someone who sets a fire at a residential building hoping to save some people. Did Annie put the lives of infants in danger in hopes of saving them?
She treats Paul like she’s his hero rather than his kidnapper. In one scene when Annie accidentally buys corrasble bond paper that smudges ink because it was more expensive. She gets offended and screams at Paul about how ungrateful he is for all she’s done. She demands more respect and then slams a package of paper on his hurt legs.
Later when she returns from the store when she sees Paul flustered as he was able to get out of his room and tried to escape, her demeanor changes as she sees Paul needs her help. This could also be Munchausen by Proxy as well. Let’s not forget Annie is a woman. She worked in a maternity ward. She sees herself in a motherly compacity.
In fact, Paul’s agent, Marcia, also acts like a mother figure. Paul is obviously a grown man whose been able to raise a kid himself. But Marcia’s calling Buster is a hint that she sees herself more as Paul’s motherly figure than his agent. So what if Paul decided to take off to New Orleans or Florida for a few days before returning to NYC in the winter? Remember this was also 1990 when it was easier to escape for a few days without having a cell phone in your pocket where someone could call or text.
Becall is 16 years older than Caan. And Marcia is obviously an agent who’s had many years with writers before she landed Paul. There is a flashback scene where Marcia and Paul meet in her office and he’s sitting there with the satchel on his lap. There’s something boyish about the way Paul is sitting even though he is almost a middle-aged man. He drives an older model Mustang. He doesn’t wait to ride out the blizzard because he can handle the drive like a manly man. Even when he brushes some snow off the hood before he leaves, he forms it into a ball and throws it at a tree, saying he’s still got it. The fact that Paul is writing romance novels rather than more serious novels is a hint that he’s still not considered a serious writer. And men want to be taken seriously.
I’ve read the book and I love the movie. Paul was a little more of a hardened character in the book. He drank more than one glass of Dom Perignon when he finished a manuscript and he smoked like a chimney. Public health images were changing and it was no longer cool to be a smoker or heavy drinker. I think these changes make Paul more sympathetic even though how can you not have sympathy for a man who is kidnapped and tortured?
By 1990, the term “stalker” was becoming more serious in the eyes of law enforcement and the judicial system. Unfortunately, it took the fatal shooting of Rebecca Schaeffer for people to finally realize that the fans can be very dangerous Most of the stalking fans see the celebrities they’re after as something more. And Annie, herself. sees Paul as something more. When Paul notices a framed photo of himself that he’s signed, it’s possible he encountered Annie before and she’s upset he doesn’t remember. Or she bought it from someone else.
There’s nothing wrong with people who collect books but Annie’s house has a meticulous way everything is set up. When Paul bumps a table a ceramic penguin falls off but he catches it. He puts it back on the table but Annie had it facing south always. Only someone like Annie would’ve had a ceramic penguin always facing a certain way and know if it was moved, something was up.
King originally had the idea to end the novel with Paul’s skin being used for the book cover. He was going to publish it under his pen name Richard Bachman before he was outed. And Misery is a darker novel than what Reiner and Goldman adapt it. Yes, the scene where Annie puts a block of wood between Paul’s legs and breaks his ankles with a sledgehammer is gruesome. But in the book, she amputates one of his legs and cuts off one of his fingers.
Annie in the book is more sadistic. Annie in the movie is more human which makes her more disturbing. She’s almost like Nurse Mildred Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Louise Fletcher who also won an Oscar for that role said she approached it thinking that Ratched was doing bad things for people but thinking she was doing good things for them. You could argue that Ratched is an awful person, but she knows how to be more emotional abusive. Annie can do both. By forcing Paul to burn his more mature manuscript, she feels she’s doing him what’s good for him. She locks Paul in his room when he is bad because she sees him as “a dirty birdie.” He deserves his punishment, she thinks.
And this where I think people have misunderstood Misery. Annie is in her 40s. She grew up in an era in which parents and legal guardians were still distant from their kids. That’s distance is what made her want to live in recluse on a Colorado farm. She grew up in a religious home but she’s not an extremist. She doesn’t swear but uses words like “cockadoodie” or “dirty bird.” During the climax when Paul burns the Misery manuscript, she finally breaks out and calls him a “cocksucker” while fighting with him.
A lot of people raised during this era have that feeling they are doing what’s right for others. I would say she probably was emotionally and physically abused as a child. This is a parent who hits, spanks and beats their kid for minor issues thinking that it is for that better good. That is why she gets angry at Paul when she accidentally spills soup on him, which is very common accident. People raised in abusive homes live in fear of filling their juice or even getting their clothes too dirty out of fear of negative reinforcement.
Her reclusiveness is part of the abandonment she received when her husband left her. This is common in parents who will guilt their teenage and even grown up children from moving to other towns or even out of the homes. I’ve heard of grown men who still lived with their parents who took the doors off their bedrooms. A mother actually moved into her daughter’s college dorm room which already had little room with her roommate before the roommate complained.
The case of Gypsy Blanchard and murder of her mother, Dee Dee Blanchard, is a prime example of the dangers. If Paul’s agent was a man, would he have cared if Paul was late coming back to NYC? Buster is more concerned but Virginia isn’t. While this character might just be viewed as the stereotypical supporting character who doesn’t believe anything is wrong, Virginia is actually the mother bird who is ready for her babies to leave the nest. We never know if Buster and Virginia have kids, but they’re both elderly and given the time frame, we can probably assume they did. To be a small-town sheriff in Colorado, you could argue Buster has “retired” from a bigger city job in law enforcement. It’s okay for them to leave their children but their children can’t leave them. The casting of Sternhagen in this role is an in-joke considering that she had a recurring role on Cheers as Esther “Ma” Clavin, whose grown son, Cliff, lived with her.
The cast is made of adult actors, different than the dead teenager roles that populated horror movies in the 1980s. This is a movie for adults. It’s not violent until the end. And Reiner injects some humor that was left out of the book. It is one of the best adaptations of a King novel and to date, the only one that has received an Oscar win, even though others such as The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption earned nominations.
What do you think? Please comment.