A Different Kind of Masterpiece: Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990)

          With a larger-than-life screen presence and her recent resurgence in the television series American Horror Story, it’s easy to forget that Kathy Bates was essentially unknown to film audiences when she was cast as former nurse Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990), Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1987 novel; her performance earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress, beating out Anjelica Huston (who had also been offered the Wilkes role) in The Grifters, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and even Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge. For James Caan, too, who co-starred as incapacitated romance writer Paul Sheldon, Misery represented newfound stardom, kicking off a career renaissance for the former Hollywood Bad Boy of The Godfather (1972) and Thief (1981) fame who had been labeled “difficult,” and had taken a voluntary hiatus from professional acting after his beloved sister died of leukemia in November of 1981. Former All in the Family (1971-79) star Rob Reiner, conversely, had been on an extraordinary hot streak since turning from acting to directing: cult classics like This is Spinal Tap (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987), as well as regular classics like Stand by Me (1986, also adapted from one of King’s writings) and When Harry Met Sally (1989) had shown Reiner’s talent across a variety of genres, and his foray into the horror-thriller with Misery was no different.
Set mostly in the wilds near Silver Creek, Colorado, Misery‘s plot is relatively simple: a famous writer crashes his car during a snowstorm and is rescued by a passer-by, only to discover that his “number one fan” has imprisoned him in her house under the guise of nursing him back to health. Her obsession with him and his work leads to a series of encounters between the two that escalates slowly from a disagreement over the profanity in the author’s latest novel to full-blown mortal struggle, and the pacing of this escalation is one of Misery‘s greatest strengths. This exemplary “slow burn” reveals director Reiner to be smart enough as a storyteller to allow Bates and Caan ample expressive space in a cramped physical one; his squarely mainstream style adapts well to each successive genre he works in, and while he will never be ranked among the esteemed “master” directors whose work comprises the rest of our series, Reiner’s handling of the material utilizes the unspoken language of Hollywood Cinema to its fullest effect with no pretensions towards reinventing the wheel.
Comparing it to last week’s film, Stanley Kubrick’s version of King’s The Shining (1980), throws Reiner’s subtle hand into even greater relief: Kubrick’s unmistakable directorial stamp is on every frame of The Shining, while Reiner chooses to let content to take precedence over form. Like Hitchcock before him, Reiner evinces throughout his filmography a knack for bringing out the best in his stars, albeit not without the assistance of strong writing. Never a stunning aesthetic experience like The Shining despite several visual quotes from Psycho (1960) that show Hitchock’s lasting influence, Misery‘s own brand of greatness begins, fittingly for a movie about books and based on a book, with the words.
Novelist William Goldman, with whom Reiner had already worked on The Princess Bride (itself based on Goldman’s own book), penned a screenplay that was generally faithful to King’s novel and garnered praise from both critics and King himself, with many calling it the best King adaptation that had yet come out of Hollywood. The infamous “hobbling” scene, in which Annie tries to thwart Paul’s continued escape attempts by breaking his ankles with a sledgehammer, represents one of the few major changes from the novel insisted upon by Reiner; the director decided King’s version, with Annie fully chopping off one of Paul’s feet with an ax, needed to be toned down, however slightly. According to the autobiography Goldman published through Pantheon Books in 2000, he originally was strongly in favor of King’s version but, upon viewing the finished film, came around to Reiner’s point of view and felt that the change somehow made Annie a more sympathetic character. A less magnanimous eye might see no real difference, as she still comes across overall as more of a stout, strident, hot-tempered Nurse Ratched than some poor soul driven mad by loneliness and isolation.
Regardless, the hobbling scene remains an iconic one in the history of the horror genre and it cemented Annie Wilkes as one of modern American cinema’s greatest antagonists. If Misery was somewhat overshadowed in the popular consciousness during the month of its release by huge films like Home Alone and Dances with Wolves, not to mention another Stephen King adaptation in the television mini-series It, we have all the more reason today to revisit it and appreciate the gripping performances, the terrifying yet unassuming villain, and the arresting storytelling that make Misery a different kind of masterpiece.

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