When Kathy Bates smashed that sledgehammer into James Caan’s ankles 30 years ago in Misery, the world may have collectively cringed, but it made Bates an unforgettable force in Hollywood history.
The then 42-year-old actress wasn’t a household name when she took on that role of homicidal nurse Annie Wilkes. She’d had theatrical successes before, and appeared in a few smaller films and television shows like St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law. And yet, that year, she took home an Oscar, proving the game wasn’t up for women over 35. Not by a long shot.
This year, Bates is enjoying her fourth Oscar nomination, this time for Richard Jewell, the Clint Eastwood-directed true tale of a heroic security guard falsely accused of planting a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, although he actually found the device and saved many lives.
Despite the Academy recognition, it’s only very recently, in conversation with Eastwood, that she allowed herself to consider her success.
“I said to Clint, ‘I’ve been doing this for 50 years, but I finally feel like I hit the big time,’” she says. “And I don’t mean with all the marching bands and the confetti, I mean, working with another incredible director, and doing a story that matters.”
And Richard Jewell really does matter, in that telling the true story of a wrongly-accused person will always matter. Jewell surely deserves all the public exoneration a big-name feature film can deliver, even after his untimely death at 44 in 2007.
The film details his intense media and FBI hounding, while his mother Bobi, played by Bates, suffers under the weight of defending her son.
Feeling “extremely nervous”, Bates flew to Atlanta ahead of the shoot for her first ever meeting with Eastwood. “I remember asking him why he wanted to make this movie,” she says, “and at first he looked up with those eyes and I thought, ‘Oh God, here we go.’ Then he said, ‘Well, I think it’s a movie I’d like to see.’ He was so angry at how Richard had been treated. He felt this was an American tragedy, and that it needed to be told.”
So, she went to work, researching Bobi Jewell. And then they met. “We sat and talked for two or three hours and I recorded her voice. We went through the script and she corrected a few things. She teared up quite a few times. She was very determined. She gave me the Vanity Fair article that Marie Brenner had written that the film is based on. Bobi looked very different then, she was more my size, so that made me feel good. At one point I said, ‘I just want to get this right for you Bobi.’ And almost like a little girl, she said, ‘Well, just be me.’ And I thought, ‘Oh God, if that were true, I’d have 15 Academy awards by now.’ I had to, as an actor, create a character of Bobi, otherwise it would have been robotic. You can’t just go in and try to mimic somebody.”
Jewell resonated personally for Bates though. “I grew up in Memphis, and she reminded me of my mother a lot,” she says. “She’s a Baptist, my mother was a Baptist. She has that poise, that sense of humor, that grit. It’s in her posture. She’s in her 80s and has this wily sense of humor that’s flirty and fun. And she baked me a pound cake because it was my birthday.”
The importance of taking that space to really embody roles was first impressed upon Bates by Alvina Krause, “a wonderful, wonderful teacher and director who ran Northwestern for years.” Krause had told her, “You bring the character, you know who the character is, how they dress. What’s precious to them. The jewelry they wear, what it means. The music they listen to.” Says Bates, “It means you really have to work hard before you get to the set, which is what Jessica Tandy used to call our ‘kitchen work’. When you’re slicing the vegetables and you’re getting everything ready to make soup, which reminds me of Lily Tomlin and her wonderful one-woman show, [The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe]. Making soup, is it soup or is it art? You don’t even realize it’s happening.”
Bates shared the screen with Tomlin in Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog, and with Tandy in the double Oscar-nominated Fried Green Tomatoes, both in 1991, hot on the heels of Misery. The ‘90s served up some great roles for Bates, including ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ in Titanic, and a part in The Waterboy opposite Adam Sandler—who, despite his own Oscar nomination snub this year for Uncut Gems, was one of the first to congratulate his onscreen ‘Mama’ on Twitter.
Bates has also directed, and in 2004 got a DGA nomination for Six Feet Under. Having taken the helm herself, she appreciated Eastwood all the more. “I remember Mike Nichols saying this to me years ago when I did Primary Colors,” she says. “I was getting ready to do my first directing gig for PBS. And I said, ‘So Mike, what’s your advice? How do I talk to actors?’ And he said, ‘Just love them.’ And it really was true with Clint.”
Eastwood’s reputation for doing just two takes, is, Bates says, “just BS”. What he actually does is keep the camera rolling, “and what happens is, you just keep going and you just keep relating to one another in that particular scene, and he gets little bits that are just little gold nuggets for him that he can put together. And we, as actors, get the opportunity to relate to each other as characters in an improvisational situation. If you do it right, you only need to do it a couple of times.”
“The secret sauce” is also there in Eastwood’s longtime camera operator Stephen Campanelli, known affectionately as ‘Campi’. “You don’t have to be hitting marks, which is very unusual,” Bates says. “And you can just live. There’s a wonderful shot in the movie, it was one of Clint’s favorite shots, where the FBI has come in, and a gazillion times we’ve told Richard, ‘Don’t say anything. Don’t talk. These are not your friends.’ And there’s a shot of him at the end of the dining room table putting on the gloves. And it pans over to Watson [Sam Rockwell] and Bobi looking at him like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ That wasn’t scripted. That’s Campi’s magic, picking up those things.”
Shortly after the film’s release, controversy erupted around the depiction of journalist Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. Scruggs’ then-employer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution railed against the insinuation that she gave sexual favors to an FBI agent, (played by Jon Hamm), in exchange for information. So how did Bates feel in the wake of that furore? “[It] really clouded, I felt, the film. I worried that it would affect how people would feel toward the film,” she says. “As an actor, all I can say is I just really hope that it doesn’t turn people off from going to see it.”
At this point in her life, Bates has battled cancer twice and still deals with painful Lymphedema, a swelling in her limbs caused by the removal of lymph nodes as a part of her cancer treatment. And yet, her focus remains on bringing her best work. “You can’t focus on limousines, you can’t focus on awards,” she says. “We all know when it’s good, it rings a bell in us as human beings. And to do it for someone on behalf of someone, that’s been a real gift for me at this stage of my career. This was such a different thing for me, to play a real person.”
At the premiere of Richard Jewell, she ran into Bobi Jewell on the red carpet. “She loves the film,” Bates reports. “And I have this feeling that she has been brought some relief. She just wishes that it could have happened when Richard was alive.”
But then, beyond the film, there has been other progress for the memory of Jewell. Officials at Atlanta’s Centennial Park, the scene of his heroism, announced they’ll unveil a plaque honoring the man who saved so many lives that summer day in 1996. Some wrongs have been righted, and for Bates, that brings great meaning to her work, and even her life.
“I think all of us want to feel useful,” she muses. “We all want to do something useful in this world because all of us say, ‘Why am I here? Why was I born?’ And it’s that Mark Twain thing: ‘The two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you know why.’”