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Star of the Month – Kathy Bates

June 28, 1948 –

This month's "reel" actress is Kathy Bates, award-winning stage, film and television star; director; artist; writer; and two-time cancer survivor. Kathy's 1970 performance alongside Christopher Walken in Lemon Sky at Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre launched her as an actress. Never pretty enough to be an ingénue or glamorous enough to be a romantic leading lady, she spent a lifetime building a career as a brilliant character actress. Kathy left her unmistakable mark on plays such as 'night, Mother and Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune, as well as films as varied as Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes, and About Schmidt, plus TV shows that range from Harry's Law to The Office to Two and a Half Men.

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Born in Memphis—Bound for New York

Kathy was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 28, 1948. The youngest of three sisters in a middle-class family, she enjoyed creative writing as a teenager and performed in high-school productions. After graduation, Kathy started as an English major at Southern Methodist University. Before long, she discovered the drama department and quickly changed her major. She graduated in 1969 and headed for New York.

After her start in Lanford Wilson’s Lemon Sky, Kathy was frequently seen in New York and regional productions. She was working steadily by the mid-1970s, with prime roles in Casserole and A Quality of Mercy. And she earned rave reviews as Joanne in Vanities. Her first Broadway curtain call came in 1980 during the short-lived production of Goodbye, Fidel—only six performances before it closed! Undaunted, Kathy joined the cast of the highly successful play Fifth of July in 1981.

Her success in the theater was undeniable, and she continued to win juicy parts as well as awards. Her portrayal of the suicidal daughter in the 1983 production of ‘night, Mother earned Kathy a Tony Award nomination and an Outer Critics Circle Award. She was also awarded the Obie and Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for her role as Frankie in Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune, a part expressly written for her by playwright Terrance McNally.

No Box-Office Pull

Although she tried to start a film career with Taking Off in 1971 and again with Straight Time, starring Dustin Hoffman, in 1978, Kathy met with little success. It was not until she was able to reprise her Broadway role in the film version of Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1982 that movie audiences finally started to recognize Kathy’s enormous talent.

However, when ‘night, Mother was made into a movie in 1986, Sissy Spacek—not award-winning Kathy—got the role of suicidal Jessie Cates. And when Frankie and Johnny—the film version of Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune—was made in 1991, the lead went to tall, beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer, not short, plump Kathy Bates. It seemed that Hollywood just couldn’t get past the fact that Kathy didn’t look like a movie star, no matter how obvious her ability.

Misery Brings Joy

In fact, it was not until she was cast as Annie Wilkes, the plain, overweight psychopath in Misery, that Kathy really came into her own as a movie actress. Playing opposite James Caan in the 1990 film version of Stephen King’s horrifying novel, Kathy won an Oscar for Best Actress and a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of an obsessed fan who kidnaps and tortures her favorite author. Personal happiness followed professional acclaim, and Kathy married her long-time boyfriend, Tony Campisi, the next year.

Her success in Misery turned Kathy into a solid box-office draw, and she started to get offers for top movie roles. She starred with film icon Jessica Tandy in Fried Green Tomatoes and then gave a stunning portrayal of the detached, depressed housekeeper accused of murdering her abusive husband in Delores Claiborne. She was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role as the tough political advisor in Primary Colors in 1998 and again in 2002 when she played the quirky, liberal mom of Jack Nicholson’s future son-in-law in About Schmidt.

Kathy, the Director

Encouraged by her success in front of the camera, Kathy tried her hand at directing TV police dramas in the 1990s. Homicide: Life on the Streets, NYPD Blue, and Oz were a few of her triumphs. In 1999, she was nominated for a Best Directing Emmy for Dash and Lilly, the A&E biopic of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. The same year, she received a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her performance as Miss Hannigan in the TV movie version of Annie. Always full of surprises, Kathy proved she is as powerful a singer as she is an actress.

Kathy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003 but continued to perform in movies and TV. She did not reveal her illness publicly until 2009, when she said she had been in total remission for over five and a half years. She did some of her best work during that time, including a cameo role as Queen Victoria in Around the World in 80 Days in 2004, Warm Springs in 2005, and Bonneville and Failure to Launch in 2006. And her voice “appeared” in several animated family films, including Charlotte’s Web, Bee Movie, and The Golden Compass.

More movie and television hits followed, including Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys, Revolutionary Road, and Cher. Kathy portrayed Michael Oher’s tutor, Miss Sue, in The Blind Side and the Queen of Hearts in Alice, a 2009 futuristic retelling of Alice in Wonderland. She starred in her own TV series, Harry’s Law, in 2011. As Harry (Harriet) Korn, Kathy plays a retired patent lawyer who opens a criminal practice in a rundown Cincinnati building she shares with a shoe store. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

First Emmy After Nine Nominations

In April 2012, Kathy made a guest appearance on Two and a Half Men as Charlie Harper’s ghost. This guest appearance earned her the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. This was her first win after nine nominations. In September of that year, Kathy Bates revealed via Twitter that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had undergone a double mastectomy two months earlier.

Kathy was the Executive Committee Chair of the Actors Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors. She is also active in many national charities and advocacy groups, particularly those involving children’s literacy and homeless animals.

Intermission

  • Which of Kathy Bates’ movies do you like best? Why?
  • Do you think Kathy Bates would have had even more success as an actress if she had been taller, slimmer, and prettier? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever wanted to be an actor or director? Have you ever been in a play or a movie?

Can You Guess?

  1. On what show did Kathy Bates make her TV debut?

    On an episode of The Love Boat on ABC.

  2. On which daytime TV show did Kathy Bates appear?

    She appeared as Belle, Erica Kane’s cellmate, on the ABC daytime drama All My Children in 1984.

  3. What was Kathy Bates’ directorial debut?

    She directed the PBS Production Talking With in 1995.

  4. When did Kathy Bates do her first nude scene?

    Kathy Bates did her first nude scene at the age of 43 in At Play in the Fields of the Lord in 1991. She disrobed again for About Schmidt in 2002.

  5. Did Kathy Bates ever appear in a movie with other family members?

    Yes, her two sisters appeared briefly with her in Primary Colors.

  6. Kathy Bates was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress in which genre?

    She was the first woman to win Best Actress in a horror/thriller for her performance in Misery.

  7. What is Kathy Bates’ full name?

    Kathleen Doyle Bates.

  8. Has Kathy Bates ever appeared under another name?

    Yes, she appeared in Taking Off in 1971, and the credits listed her as Bobo Bates.

  9. What did Kathy Bates do before she became famous?

    Kathy Bates worked in the gift shop at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and as a singing waitress at a Catskills resort.

  10. Kathy Bates’ great-great-grandfather served President Andrew Jackson in what capacity?

    He was President Andrew Jackson’s doctor.

  11. In what TV series will Kathy Bates appear during the 2013 season?

    She will appear in American Horror Story.

  12. To what cause did Kathy Bates contribute $1 million?

    Relief for Hurricane Katrina victims.

  13. About which famous historical figure did Kathy Bates’ grandfather write a book?

    Her grandfather wrote The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth in 1907.

  14. What distinguished Kathy Bates’ performance in The Family That Preys in 2008?

    Kathy Bates was the first white actress to have a lead in a Tyler Perry movie.

  15. Which movie role does Kathy Bates consider her favorite?

    She has said that Delores Claiborne is her favorite character.

  16. For which comedienne is Kathy Bates often mistaken?

    Roseanne Barr.

  17. Where was Kathy’s character Annie Wilkes in Misery ranked on the American Film Institute’s villains list of the top 100 Heroes and Villains?

    She ranked #17.

  18. What was Kathy Bates’ father’s occupation?

    He was a mechanical engineer.

  19. How many times has Kathy Bates been married?

    She was married only once to Tony Campisi. They were married in 1991 and divorced in 1997.

  20. What are Kathy Bates’ sisters’ names?

    Their names are Patricia and Mary.

Let’s look at two of Kathy’s outstanding films.

Misery (1990)

Based on a Stephen King novel, Misery opens with Paul Sheldon (James Caan) completing work on his latest novel, the topic of which was a break from his popular series of novels featuring the character Misery Chastain. He gets into a severe car accident on his way from Silver Creek, Colorado, to Los Angeles, California. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a reclusive nurse who brings him back to her remote cabin and does not report the accident. With two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder, Paul is completely bedridden and dependent on Annie.

As it turns out, Annie is Paul’s “number one fan,” and she finishes reading his new novel while Paul is convalescing. She becomes so enraged when she discovers he has killed off Misery that she almost kills Paul. Instead, she makes him burn his latest manuscript. When he is well enough to get up, she insists he write a new novel entitled Misery Returns in which he brings the character back to life. Paul does so reluctantly, believing Annie will kill him if he does not.

Paul has found a way to escape from his room when Annie leaves the house and has started to stockpile his pain medication. He puts the painkillers in wine and tries to drug Annie, but his plan fails. Annie now realizes he can get out of his room, so she drugs him, straps him to his bed, and smashes his ankles with a sledgehammer so he can’t get out again.

Meanwhile, a local sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) and Paul's agent (Lauren Bacall) attempt to find out what happened to the missing author. The sheriff suspects Annie has something to do with Paul’s disappearance and visits her cabin. While there, the sheriff discovers Paul has been drugged and hidden in the basement. Annie shoots the sheriff and tells Paul they must die together. He tells her he wants to finish his novel first, “to give Misery back to the world.” She agrees, and when he is finished, they toast the completed manuscript with champagne. When Annie is distracted, Paul pours lighter fluid on the manuscript and sets it on fire. Annie and Paul struggle, and Paul ends up bludgeoning Annie to death.

Intermission

  • Authors often kill off or introduce new characters to their series books. Have you ever written to an author or told him or her in person that you were angry or upset about what they did to a character in their book? What was the author’s response?
  • Have you ever been sick or hurt and felt completely at the mercy of the person taking care of you? Did it change your opinion of that person?
  • Do you consider Misery a horror movie? Why or why not?

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Set in Birmingham, Alabama, Fried Green Tomatoes is the story of a friendship between two women and the strength it brings both of them. Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is a frustrated, emotionally repressed housewife who uses food—candy bars in particular—to fill the emotional voids in her life. She is taken for granted by her husband Ed (Gailard Sartain), who visits his aunt at a nursing home every week. The old aunt does not like Evelyn, so she is not permitted to come into the room.

On one particular visit, Evelyn strikes up a conversation with Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), a frail but feisty old woman who lives at the nursing home and loves to tell stories of her life and family. Over the course of several visits, she tells the story of Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson).

Back in the 1920s, Idgie was a kind but fiercely independent woman whose way of doing things was often at odds with the rest of the townspeople in Whistle Stop, Alabama, where she ran the town cafe. Idgie was very close to her brother, Buddy (Chris O'Donnell). When he died, only Buddy's girlfriend, Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), could console her. Later, when Ruth took her son and left her abusive husband, Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy), Idgie gave her a job at the café and a place to live.

Idgie never hesitates to stand up for herself and helps Ruth learn to stand up to Frank. When Frank threatens to take their son, Ruth knows she must take action, and Idgie helps her kill Frank. The police suspect that Idgie, Ruth, and their friends are responsible, and ultimately arrest Idgie.

The story of Idgie’s strength and independence in the racially and sexually repressed 1920s gives Evelyn the courage to take control of her own life and assert her independence from Ed. As the story ends, Ninny goes to live with Evelyn and Ed. Some people think Ninny and Idgie are the same person, but that is never really made clear in the movie.

Fried Green Tomatoes is based on the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by actress/author Fannie Flagg, who makes a cameo appearance as the leader of a women’s self-help group.

Intermission

  • The strength of friendship can help us through the darkest times. Can you recall a time when friends helped you or you helped them?
  • How important is independence in a marriage? Is it as important for men to be independent as women?
  • Why do you think Evelyn and Ed bring Ninny home with them?

Roll 'Em

  1. For additional movies to watch during the month, check out Kathy Bates’ filmography.
  2. View Craig Ferguson’s interview with Kathy Bates.
  3. View a YouTube trailer from Misery.
  4. View a YouTube clip from Fried Green Tomatoes.