“I’m your number one fan” To think, 30 years ago, those five words were just a thing people said at stage doors or in fan letters. Innocuous. Pleasant. Complimentary, even. But on November 30, 1990, the world saw Annie Wilkes meet Paul Sheldon. And suddenly, that colloquial expression became a bone-chilling threat.
I was nine years old when Misery came out (please, don’t do the math on that – it’s the season of giving!). I was already a movie-lover, soon to be movie obsessive, but a hard-R horror adaptation of a Stephen King book wasn’t really on my radar. However, my fourteen-year-old sister had seen the movie and came home excited to tell us all about it. You see, my parents, being Armenian immigrants from Bulgaria, didn’t have much concern over what we watched. To be clear, I don’t think loose restrictions on film-watching is a specifically Armenian or immigrant parenting trait. Still, I do use my parents-are-immigrants as a catch-all for certain aspects of my childhood: It’s why I never had Taco Bell or am wary every time I open a Country Crock margarine container. You either get this, or you don’t.
I remember her talking about the film vividly, excitedly. It immediately too old for me, but something stirred inside me, wanting to hear more about it. I grew up in what we now recognize as the Slasher boom, living in near-constant fear of Freddy/Jason/Michael Myers. Over the years, my concern about unkillable monsters has given way to much more realistic ones. Like the more likely scenario of choking on a plum pit, my dead body not being found for five days while the stray cats living in my apartment complex nibble at my body. The point is, I’ve come to love horror films, Misery in particular. Misery is my go-to sick day movie. Nothing is better than lying on the couch feeling incapacitated, with a 100-minute reminder that things could be much worse.
So in honor of the 30th anniversary of one of my all-time favorite films, let’s hobble down memory lane to take a look back at Misery, a cock-a-doodie classic.
On November 30, 1990, Columbia Pictures released Misery, a film that would forever change the way people felt about the term “dirty bird.” Directed by Rob Reiner, from a script by two-time Oscar winner William Goldman, the Stephen King adaptation opened to $10 million at the box office. On its way to a healthy $60 million domestic box office, people gobbled up the chance to see Annie Wilkes torment, love, and torture her favorite writer, Paul Sheldon. It premiered to number two at the box office, behind the third week of Home Alone, a film with an only slightly less psychotic lead character.
The film is based on a Stephen King novel, which had long been considered unadaptable works (The Stand and Dark Tower just LOL’ed). Both the book and the film is essentially a two-hander set almost entirely in one room in one house. Selling the movie was going to be tricky. James Caan was coming out of semi-retirement after a somewhat volatile decade gave him a bad reputation; Kathy Bates was one of those actresses who was recognizable in tony, artsy New York theatre circles. He was washed up; she was in the “hey, where do I know you from?” phase of her career. These two stars weren’t going to be enough to shoulder the weight of a marketing campaign. Yes, I’d love to live in a world where supporting turns by Frances Sternhagen and Richard Farnsworth and a glorified cameo by living legend Lauren Bacall got all the teens to the theater on opening weekend. Alas, it was as untrue even 30 years ago as it is today.
The trailer, which has nary a mention of Bates or Caan, was cut to focus solely on the suspense of the film, even giving a glimpse of the infamous hobbling scene (we’ll get to it, I promise!). On the poster, both Caan and Bates are above the title, but even more prominently placed were Reiner, King, and Goldman. The most bankable names were all behind the camera.
Super Friends Reteaming
Rob Reiner was hot off the success of When Harry Met Sally and had yet to make a wrong move behind the camera. Admittedly, Reiner’s more recent directorial efforts have been smaller, less seen, and not very well-regarded, so it’s easy to forget that he has one of the most undeniably great film runs of any modern director. I defy you to find a director who can top the five-in-a-row of Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and A Few Good Men. While this is a feat of acting by Caan and Bates, it’s Reiner’s sense of humor and empathy as a director that makes this movie work on a different level. (Fun little Easter Egg: The book Billy Crystal reads in When Harry Met Sally is “Misery.”)
It was also notable that Reiner and King joined forces again after Stand by Me’s critical and box office success, still highly considered one of the best King adaptations. Stephen King adaptations were hitting their saturation point by 1990. The one-two punch of Pet Semetary in 1989 and Misery the following year kept the Master of Horror a Hollywood priority. Much like a cat you bury in an ancient Native American cemetery, you can’t keep Ol’ Stevie down.
Speaking of power couples, William Goldman was the third pillar of the marketing campaign. He was collaborating once again with Reiner after the success of The Princess Bride (a box office failure upon its release, but a critical hit on its way to becoming a classic). Goldman wasn’t just a well-known novelist. He was the guy who wrote – and won Oscars for – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. Audiences knew they weren’t going to be getting another Firestarter or Running Man – this was prestige Stephen King.
James Caan came to fame as the ill-fated, ill-tempered Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. After that, his career was white-hot, but it seems as though Caan never had any real interest in playing the Hollywood game, plaguing him rumors of being, gasp, “difficult to work with.” A decade after his breakthrough role, he was nearly un-castable and just about uninsurable on a film set.
His career is littered with films he passed on, which became cultural milestones. Close Encounters of the Third Kind? No thanks! Apocalypse Now? Uhh, I’ll pass. He famously said about being offered Superman: “I didn’t want to wear the cape.” Which is fair, but also: Could you imagine James Caan as Superman? That feels like a 30 Rock bit gone awry where no one wants to correct him, and poor James Caan shows up in full Superman tights, despite being cast as Les Luthor.
By the early ’80s, Caan was in semi-forced retirement, battling drug addiction and broke. His career started to turn around with Alien Nation in 1988, a reasonably large hit critically and commercially. That streak continued with his against-type role in Misery. Suddenly, tough, brash, hot-headed Sonny Corleone was a helpless, cerebral writer. It was the change of pace he needed to bring his career out of the penalty box.
Caan is masterful as Paul Sheldon, a writer trapped in a prison of his success. His breakout character of Misery Chastain has taken on a life of her own, keeping Paul from exploring other creative pursuits with the constant demand for more stories in a romantic book series he never intended on creating. The books are wildly popular, probably to the point of disbelief. The movie would have you to believe that Misery Chastain is Katniss Everdeen in a corset, without the Hunger Games. Still, the novels seem to have captured millions of readers’ imaginations, including one turtleneck-loving, psychotic former nurse who is caring for him after a car accident during a snowstorm.
The role of Paul Sheldon was offered to every hot 40-something actor in Hollywood before Caan: William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, and Dustin Hoffman were all recent Oscar winners who turned the role down. Warren Beatty was too busy with Dick Tracy, thank God, but probably came the closest to taking the part before Reiner landed on Caan.
The bulk of critical attention focused on Bates – and rightfully so – but Caan’s performance is tricky, subtle, underrated. The slow realization that he’s in some desperate, life-threatening danger is played perfectly by Caan. Misery fully revived Caan’s career; it’s just a shame he didn’t get more broadly recognized for his stellar work.
Kathy F*cking Bates
There’s a reason that AFI named Annie Wilkes as one of the 20 most iconic film villains of all-time. And it’s because of Kathy Bates.
At the time of casting, Kathy Bates had worked in film and television but made her name in theatre, being named “one of America’s finest stage actresses” by the New York Times in the 1980s. She was nominated for a Tony in 1983 and won an Obie Award for originating the role of Frankie in Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair der Lune. Legend has it, McNally wrote the part with Bates in mind. It says everything you need to know about how Hollywood treated Bates, that two years after she won her Oscar for Misery, Garry Marshall cast Michelle Pfeiffer in his film adaptation of the play. (Pfeiffer is excellent, of course, but come on…)
I’ve seen Misery, conservatively, 150 times (date me! I’m normal! I promise!), and every time I notice something new about her performance. I’d argue (please invite me on your podcast to discuss this!) she is one of the most sympathetic “villains” in screen history. OK, she tortures and torments her captor, but who among us hasn’t wanted to torment a rich straight white man! And, sure, she blows a hole in the chest of the sweet, smart, canny Sherriff Buster, which, I’ll admit, is not great. And FINE, yes, she does murder a bunch of children in a hospital. Allegedly. The woman is obviously suffering from some kind of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. Bates makes you feel a certain level of sympathy for her; she makes her much more human than perhaps she has any right to be.
For the first twenty minutes of the film, before Annie discovers that Paul has killed off Misery (the character) in his latest novel, Bates, dressed as a Mennonite sister-wife, wears the mask of humanity – and it’s some of the most unsettling stuff in the movie. Annie is all smiles and kindness, but creeping behind those eyes and lack of profanity is a monster you know will be unleashed. As Annie starts to, and I believe this is a medical term, go, whacko, the sharp swings in her personality are entirely unnerving. In one scene, she’s raging beyond all measure of reason; in the next, her veneer of ordinary, kind, caring nurse reappears as if no chairs smashed, no feet broken. It’s spooky, brilliant stuff.
For me, the highlight of Bates’s performance is a great scene that threads the needle between threatening, devastating, and deeply sad. I think about it all the time. Annie, clearly amid mania, enters the room, listless as the rain pours down outside. She admits her love for Paul (or what she’s able to identify as love). “I know you don’t love me – don’t say you do. You’re a beautiful, brilliant famous man of the world, and I’m not a movie star type.” Look, I know I may identify too much with this deranged serial murderer, but I defy anyone to claim they’ve never felt what Annie feels about the inevitability of losing Paul: “You’ll never know the fear of losing someone like you if you’re someone like me.” I am single!
When Paul feigns an argument about not wanting to leave, it’s clear he’s out of his depth. His “performance” of wanting to stay with Annie is much less compelling than the lifetime of Annie pretending to be human: “That’s very kind of you, but I’ll be it’s not altogether true.” With that, she shows him the gun she’s been keeping in her robe pocket. Hand the woman her Oscar!
Misery is actually a comedy
“I am absolutely certain the main reason I have never been more popular is because of my temper,” Annie says apologetically to Paul after smashing his barely healing legs with a ream of paper. Y’all, Misery is a comedy. Truly disturbed and dark as midnight, but comedy comes in all shapes and frocks. Lest we forget that after Annie Wilkes discovers, Paul Sheldon has been getting out of his room and takes a sledgehammer to his ankles, she says to him: “God, I love you.”
Home Alone was the biggest comedy of 1990, but I don’t remember anything as funny as Annie staring out the window talking about her ex-husband while Paul pees in bedpan or Annie shouting ‘Oh my! Goodness! Gracious!’ as she tries to stamp out the fire on her curtains caused by her forcing Paul to burn his book. This movie is funny. That shouldn’t even be a controversial statement.
One of the main footprints this film has in pop culture is Annie Wilkes’s idioms. Annie may have no problem drugging and kidnapping a fully grown man, but swearing? Uncouth! She’s a lady! I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s writing, but sometimes it doesn’t quite land when he goes for folksy. There was some danger of this here, as Annie bellows to Paul about the cliffhanger movies she loved as a child: “He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doody car!” it is that beautiful mix of nerve-jangling and genuinely hilarious. Every “Mr. Man!” in the hands of Kathy Bates lands as a laugh as sharp as a knife.
Lastly: Yes, the film is suspenseful and disturbing, but also are Paul and Annie hilariously, crazy in love? I don’t know! Maybe! I will not elaborate on this further!
Misery Goes to The Oscars
It’s easy to think back now and assume that Kathy Bates completely steam-rolled the awards season. That wasn’t the case back in 1990. It was Angelica Houston who won the lion’s share of the critics’ prizes for her ferocious turn in The Grifters, one of my absolute favorite on-screen performances ever. Joanne Woodward was nipping at Houston’s heels, garnering a final nomination for her performance in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, a film mostly forgotten, but notable for being the last on-screen pairing of iconic real-life couple Woodward and Paul Newman. Bates, Houston, and Woodward were joined in the Best Actress race by Julia Roberts for Pretty Woman, somewhat maligned now, but it happens to be among the greatest a star is born Oscar nomination ever. Rounding out the nominees was Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge, a performance and movie also celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Oh, and what’s that? I just so happened to write a little something about it a few months ago.
There wasn’t much percolating beyond these five nominees. Indecision over placing Shirley MacLaine in lead or supporting likely led to her snub for Postcards from the Edge. There was also some hope for Mia Farrow to get in for Alice, which somehow would’ve been her first-ever nomination. Otherwise, it was more popular fare, not usually recognized by the Academy, particularly with performances from populist box office hits like Pretty Woman and Misery garnering nominations. Unfortunately, Ghost’s surprise box office and Oscar success (nominated for Best Picture! Winner for Best Original Screenplay!) didn’t get Demi Moore any real traction in the Best Actress race, especially considering she invented on-screen crying (https://tenor.com/ZeiR.gif) in that film. And, to be honest, I just don’t think the world was ready for Andie MacDowell Oscar nominee, despite how beloved Green Card was at the time. In the end, Bates’s performance and it’ place in the zeitgeist were too much to be denied.
Looking back on the 1990 race through the prism of current-day Oscars, you could see how Misery could’ve had a better showing. Considering the comeback narrative, it’s likely James Caan could have made a significant play for Best Actor, although no one was snaking the trophy from Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune. The rest of the category does leave room for Caan to sneak in, however. It was a year of co-leads splitting votes with Robert DeNiro getting in for Awakenings over Robin Williams. Meanwhile, DeNiro could’ve been either supporting or lead for Goodfellas, but either way, Liotta somehow gets snubbed (possibly the most egregious of the year). Rounding out the Best Actor race is 1990 Golden Boy Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves, Richard Harris in The Field, a film that absolutely does not exist to the point that I speculate some older, confused Academy members thought they were voting for a performance in the previous year’s Field of Dreams and Gérard Depardieu for Cyrano de Bergerac, not his English language breakthrough, Green Card. Like I said, a weird year.
Rob Reiner was famously snubbed for his 1992 Best Picture nominee, A Few Good Men, and has always been overlooked and underappreciated by the Academy, so maybe he wouldn’t be able to crack the Best Director race. As tight as Adapted Screenplay was in 1990, you could see Goldman sneaking in on pedigree alone. Nominations for scene-stealing Farnsworth in Best Supporting Actor, Marc Shaiman’s ominous, tinkering score, and Mark Mansbridge’s claustrophobic art direction should’ve all be in the conversation. Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography, which sells the panic and dark comedy, feels like it was within reach.
OK, Fine. The Scene.
Talk about burying the lede! I know what all you sickos want to discuss. Kathy Bates won her Oscar for doing what many directors in the 1970s always dreamed of doing: hobbling James Caan.
The hobbling scene was one of those zeitgeisty moments that was everywhere – from talk shows to parodies to the literal watercoolers. Even at nine years old, I was aware of it, the rumors of its gruesomeness trickling into the corners of the playground. In truth, it’s not even that grizzly in its violence. It’s more just… upsetting.
In a year with some pretty significant pop culture movie moments, Annie Wilkes taking a sledgehammer to an incapacitated Paul Sheldon’s ankles was right up there with the pottery sex scene in Ghost, Richard Gere snapping the jewelry box lid on Julia Roberts hand, and Macaulay Culkin smashing Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s faces with paint cans. It’s rare, in the year of our lord, 2020, to be able to use this word without a sense of irony, but the scene is simply iconic.
And it would remain the most famous, unforgettable moment for sledgehammers in pop culture for nearly 25 years until the world was gifted with Fifth Harmony.