Rick’s Real/Reel Life: 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/

***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
, it’s daughter Selena who must defend herself against the drunken

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
, 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
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.”

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