'Delores Claiborne' (1995)
After years of laboring in the show biz trenches, Kathy Bates unexpectedly leapt to the top echelon of Hollywood actors in 1990 with her Oscar-winning performance in 'Misery' (1990), a Stephen King yarn. Bates was well into her thirties, pleasingly plump, and not glamorous. Still her stunning turn as an obsessed fan of a rich and famous horror novelist (a lot like Stephen King, not so coincidentally) turned her into an instant, if unlikely star. Ms. Bates has worked steadily since, getting all the leading parts which don't call for twenty-something hotties. Five years after 'Misery' she returned to Stephen King country with this adaptation of one of "the King" 's atypical (IE non-supernatural) novels. In the earlier film, Bates had a fantastic character to work with, but she does just as well with the eponymous Delores. Incredibly, her remarkable performance was completely ignored by the Academy that year.
'Delores Claiborne' is the story of a hardworking New England housewife (Bates) accused of murdering her employer. One day, her estranged daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a successful New York magazine writer, receives a mysterious fax. It is a newspaper article from the Bangor, Maine, paper about a local woman suspected of murder. Scrawled across the cover page are the words, "Isn't this your mother?" Despite the fact that she currently has a big assignment lined up in Arizona, Selena opts to return to her island home. The hometown is the kind of place where everyone drinks (out of shear boredom), everybody knows one another, and the locals use expressions such as "Oh, my gravy!"
Her mother is accused of killing an elderly widow named Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), for whom she worked for many years. Mrs. Donovan was the type of rich bitch perfectionist who demanded "six clothespins, not five" on every sheet, and wanted them hung outside on the line, even in deepest winter. The fact that she named Delores as the sole beneficiary in her will provides ample motive for the crime. Although Selena suspects that Delores had something to do with her father's own death some 16 years earlier (even though it was officially ruled an accident) she offers to help her mom. Out of a sense of loyalty perhaps?
Given the melodramatic elements of the story, it's surprising how 'Delores Claiborne' ultimately plays out as a serious, two-character drama. As mother and daughter with a long history of deep hurts and suspicions, Bates and Leigh are well-matched. No false sentimentality whatsoever is depicted in their relationship (and, more importantly, no false theatrics.) The two are bitter, taciturn New England women, with a lot of hurt and emotional baggage from their shared past. The mother/daughter relationship so dominates that all other story aspects, including the crime of which Delores is accused, become secondary.
Director Taylor Hackford understands that although King's dour tale involves a murder mystery (another mystery, not whether Delores murdered her employer. We are shown exactly what happened to Mrs. Donovan in the film's opening sequence), this element is not what King's tale is really about. The story's true theme is how the past informs and controls the present.
In telling the story cinematically, director Taylor Hackford opted to use that timeworn device, the flashback. It's not easy to successfully tell a story via the character's recollections; the audience can easily become confused. Yet here, the director uses it to great effect. He seamlessly moves from present to past, and vise-versa, revealing secrets bit by bit. An uncanny resemblance between Ms. Leigh and Ellen Muth, the actor who plays Selena as a young girl, is a great aid to Hackford in this.
As for the the mystery itself, I cannot reveal to much. Suffice to say that much of it's solution depends on what really happened on that day of the six-minute total eclipse of the sun (King is big on eclipses); the day Selena's drunken dad (David Strathairn) ended up at the bottom of a well. It explains a lot about Delores character.
But just what kind of movie is 'Delores Claiborne'? It doesn't fit neatly into the any of the usual Hollywood genres. Is it a mystery? Yes. There is a mystery. Is it a psychological horror story? Yes. All of the horrifying elements come out of the common everyday horrors of alcoholism, wife beating, and child molestation. Is it a 'Woman's Film'? Yes. Because the relationship of Delores and her daughter so dominates the story, it could easily be placed into that much derided catagory. It even fits comfortably into that hybrid genre: Woman's Film-Noir (AKA Chick Noir) - best represented by the classics 'Mildred Pierce' and 'Leave Her To Heaven' from the 1940s. Perhaps it is all of these.
Isn't a lot being taken for granted? It di seem to me the plot stirred up more than it settled. And sticklers for detail may wonder about the final scene before a local magistrate. But Tony Gilroy's screenplay is a good one, filled with memorable speeches like the one given by Leigh which ends with, "whatever you did, I know you did it for me." Somber and depressing (to say the least), 'Dolores Claiborne' deliberately and courageously avoids many of the conventions of the horror film genre. (This is probably the reason that it wasn't a major hit at the boxoffice.) Stephen King fans hoping for another 'Carrie' or 'Salem's Lot' were no doubt disappointed by it. I've never been a fan of Mister King's work myself and have always considered him to be little more than an interesting hack. But I was pleasantly surprised at how affecting this movie adaptation of one of his works is.
Is the film worth taking in?
Oh, my gravy, yes.
Marky De Snow