It’s the last week of my spotlight on character actors. While all my other choices were from classic Hollywood, my final choice is from the modern era. She’s probably best known for her Oscar-winning turn in Misery. But that’s just one of the many roles that proves what a versatile actress Kathy Bates is. She’s had quite a career both in movies and on television. Whenever Kathy Bates’ name shows up on the screen, you know you’re in for a treat.
Political comedies are hard to do. And easily one of the best came out in 1998: Primary Colors. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film is a fictionalized version of the Bill Clinton scandal. Gov. Stanton (John Travolta) is the fictionalized version of the former Arkansas governor. When he’s rocked by scandal, his lawyer, Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) defends him to the hilt with reckless abandon. But what’s fascinating is that Libby has a strict moral code. Definitely unusual for a lawyer. Bates is able to make Libby not only a tough lawyer, but makes the character colorful without taking her performance into campy territory. It’s a brilliant and complex performance that still dazzles 21 years after the film’s release.
Another great role of Bates’s career was as the Unsinkable Molly Brown in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic. While Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, along with the film’s dazzling special effects, got most of the awards attention, Bates deserved at least a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role. She’s convincing as a billionaire. But she also brings a lot of humanity to the part. I particularly like the scene where she gets Jack (Leonard DiCaprio) outfitted for formal wear so he’ll be appropriately dressed for dinner with Kate Winslet’s crowd, rather than looking like the passenger from steerage that he is. She’s never condescending to Jack. And you can feel her really rooting for him at the dinner table, knowing that the majority are expecting him to fail miserably. Then there’s the scene where Brown is on one of the lifeboats and tries to convince the others to go back and help more survivors. While she is unsuccessful, you can feel her compassion come through. It’s easy in a period piece to get lost under the fancy costumes and old fashioned dialogue. But Bates pulls the role off with gusto.
The last role that Kathy Bates played that I want to mention is that of Dolores Claiborne in Dolores Claiborne. It’s based on a book by Stephen King. While it still hasn’t received that recognition that Misery has (another King adaptation), it is definitely a hidden gem you should check out. Bates plays the title character, who works as a maid for a wealthy woman in Main. When the woman is murdered, Dolores becomes the prime suspect. Her daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now a famous New York reporter, comes to see her and investigate. In the hands of a lesser actress, this would have felt like a tired melodrama. But Bates make you sympathize with the character of Dolores, even though not all of her life decisions has been on the level. We see in flashbacks what has brought Dolores to the point she is in the present day and the how she’s carried so much on her shoulders from so long. This isn’t a by the numbers murder mystery. It’s a compelling drama that’s as much about solving a crime as it is mending years of family strife. The scenes between Bates and Lee are sometimes heartbreaking but always compelling. The whole film just blew me away.
Kathy Bates is just as conniving as a fierce lawyer in Primary Colors as she is playing historical figure Molly Brown in Titanic. She was recently had a short-lived but brilliant TV show called Harry’s Law. While I was sad to see it cancelled, I know we haven’t heard the last of her. She keeps turning up on the big and small screen, bringing passion to whatever part she plays. She’s one of the modern film eras great chameleons.