Looking Back: Dolores Claiborne (1995)

When Stephen King fans make their lists of favorite King movie adaptations, the usual suspects are usually all there. Yet, while the Overlook Hotel, Andy DeFrame, the four boys in search of a body, and Cujo the dog are always referenced, hardly anyone mentions or even remembers Dolores Clairborne, the tough-as-nails, lived-in soul that King created and Kathy Bates embodied for Taylor Hackford’s underrated 1995 film adaptation.

The film should have been a bigger deal, as it was Bates return to playing a King character after winning an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” one of the most successful and popular King adaptations ever made before or since. Hackford has directed a number of successful, critically acclaimed films and “Dolores Claiborne” was made at Castle Rock, the same Rob Reiner-helmed company that distributed other, great King adaptations. Why on earth did a film with strong pedigree, no less than Bates and critic’s darling Jennifer Jason Leigh in the leads and based on a # 1 bestseller flop so loudly? I blame the poster art, which is both unflattering and misleading, making the film resemble a sort of 90’s prison flick.

“Dolores Claiborne,” both the novel and the film, is no “Misery” or “The Shining,” though it doesn’t have to be. Neither a horror film nor a suspense-driven thriller, Hackford’s film is a character drama, cleverly adapted by Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter who went on to direct “Michael Collins” and “The Bourne Legacy.” King’s novel was unusual in its structure, as he wrote it in a first-person perspective from the title character, never wavering from her point of view. Gilroy’s cinematic reconstruction makes the narrative more conventional yet maintains the integrity of a story where time and memory create gaps in what we perceive as truth.

Bates plays Claiborne, who is suspected of murder when her longtime boss suddenly dies. It appears Claiborne clearly did it, both to the onscreen characters and to the audience, as the opening scene suggests a brutal murder. The arrival of Leigh as Claiborne’s estranged daughter, a reporter with a helpful detachment from her home life, brings clarity to the case. Christopher Plummer, in one of his best performances, plays Claiborne’s lifelong foe, who wants nothing more than to finally see her locked up for good.

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Leigh’s character arrives on the scene dressed, appearing like a femme fatale or a widow coming straight from a funeral. Her appearance suggests Winona Ryder in “Beetlejuice” and is too on-the-nose in terms of reflecting the character’s inner demons. Still, the film lives up to the promise of teaming these two powerhouse actresses together. Everyone in the cast is excellent, particularly Bates, who gradually reveals the many layers to Claiborne’s stubborn, impenetrable exterior. The way the men are portrayed (and perfectly embodied by Plummer and David Strathairn) suggests a theme of women overcoming the traditional roles than men have imprisoned them with. This is far from the first “feminist’ horror story from King, whose “Carrie,” “Gerald’s Game,” “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” and even “Misery” also offer strong female characters who are empowered and not oppressed by the male influence trying to dominate them.

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The film’s recurring line, “sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has left,” initially sounds crass and coy; eventually, we see that the film’s definition of the synonym for a female dog is not always meant as derogatory, but a word meaning a woman who refuses to be controlled.

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Like all of Hackford’s movies, it’s too long by at least ten minutes, with a legal hearing climax that isn’t as strong as the powerful, extended flashback that came before it. Still, the gripping story, dynamic performances and Hackford’s clever stylizations (check out the contrasting color palettes and how they nail the notion of memory) make this one of the strongest King films. There’s more here than meets the eye. If being a “bitch,” King suggests, means taking action and making the abusive men folk afraid of your next move, than perhaps being one isn’t so bad after all.

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