Thursday, November 19, 2020

Recasting 1994: "Dolores Claiborne"

I'm providing a bit of a spoiler right from the start of this post. The next three years of recasting will consist of films that all had their theatrical releases in 1995. Conveniently for my brain--which wants really badly to be able to picture a realistic shooting schedule for the projects into which I'm retroactively inserting Meryl--all three are spaced out rather nicely in regard to their original filming. 

The first of those happens to not only be a great role, but one of my favorite movies. It's widely known that Stephen King had Kathy Bates in mind when writing his novel, Dolores Claiborne. She'd won an Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes in the film adaptation of Misery five years prior. It seems only fitting that she'd take on the title role in another of King's psychological thrillers. 

For me, the title role in this film is less of a stretch than the previous one for which I subbed out Kathy Bates in favor of Meryl (Fried Green Tomatoes). At the heart of the drama are the relationships between Dolores and her estranged daughter, Selena, and Vera Donovan, the woman whom for decades Dolores has served as a domestic. Dolores is arrested for Vera's murder, but really she was just found in a compromising position after Vera fell out of her wheelchair and was near death at the bottom of the stairs. 

Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) comes in from her hotshot job as a journalist in Manhattan to help her mother out, and it's quickly apparent that the two do not get along. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Selena's contempt for her mother dates back to when Dolores was under suspicion for the death of Selena's father. Christopher Plummer plays the disgruntled detective who's convinced Dolores got away with murder twenty years prior. 

For being a "thriller," this has always just felt like a great character drama to me with a lot of focus on a troubled family. The strained relationship between mother and daughter is heartbreaking because Selena has repressed the memory of (another spoiler alert!) her father sexually abusing her. She's gone through life just assuming her mother was likely responsible for her father going missing, and worse, that he didn't deserve it. Whether he had it coming is up for debate, but without the context of knowing he abused his daughter, it's a lot easier not to feel back when Dolores tricks him into falling into an abandoned well. 

While the complexities of the Dolores-Selena relationship are meaty, my favorite is actually the salty back and forth between Dolores and Vera. There's something weirdly relaxing in the scenes where Dolores is shown toiling away to keep the house looking perfect. It's sort of that Downton Abby or The Crown effect. Everything is so clean and perfect all the time (which is easy as long as you can have someone else do it for you). 

And despite Vera being such a hard-nosed rich bitch of a boss, we get to see a speck of her humanity after Dolores reveals that her husband, Joe, (portrayed by the great David Strathairn) has foiled her plans to run away with Selena.

Great stuff from Judy Parfitt. I have to admit that Kathy Bates's accent is a little distracting at times. It's almost routine at this point to assume Meryl would've nailed it, but I imagine it's one of those trickier ones as far as they go for the United States--like Boston or a specific borough of New York. 

There's so much to do in this role. With it spanning a couple decades of a life essentially given up in the service of one person (Vera) and for the sole benefit of another (Selena), Dolores really is the heroine of the story in every way. It's another one of those "difficult" scenarios that we know Meryl covets. Yes, it's probably wrong that Dolores premeditated her husband's death, but was the world--or Dolores and her daughter--worse off as a result? Probably not. 

I really feel the timing of this movie's original release is what got int he way of awards recognition for Kathy Bates. It was filmed in Nova Scotia from April through July 1994 and released in March of '95. Historically, films released that early aren't major players at awards ceremonies (I'm aware of The Silence of the Lambs). It seems the type of picture that could've been ready in time for a December release. '94 was a much less crowded year in terms of quality lead performances than '95 was. Had the studio opted for a fourth quarter release in the year it was filmed, I wonder if Bates and others may have been on more people's radars. 

With director Taylor Hackford at the helm (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray), the film was generally well-received by critics and a modest box-office success. Alas, Bates and Leigh only managed Saturn Award nominations. Parfitt, in retrospect, seems a perfect contender for Supporting Actress. A pity and and oversight in each case as far as I'm concerned. 


  1. Yes! This is also one of my favourite movies and I could not agree more about the bad timing of its released costing it much deserved attention. If things had worked out I'm sure KB could have given Jessica Lange a real run for the awards.

    Terrific, moody cinematography, a dark storyline, high quality (and quotable) script plus smashing performances. It puzzles me why it isn't rated higher - to my mind it's one of the best Stephen King adaptations.

    I knew too about SK having Kathy in mind from the start and maybe that's part of the reason this wasn't on my radar to switch Meryl into.

    It would have been enjoyable watching Meryl age on-screen and negotiate the three tricky relationships of the movie.

    Spoiler: when Dolores hatches and succeeds in her plan to rid herself of the husband I was cheering her on!

    As mentioned for 1995 I would like to see Meryl in Todd Haynes' "Safe" as a rather bland, submissive housewife gradually seeing her perfect life fall away as she gets more sucked into a new age "cult".

    At this point, and partially because TBOMC was such a hit for Meryl, I wanted to use some of her "free" time in 94/95 to see her win the plum role of an actress losing her mind as well as her youth on Broadway as "Norma Desmond" in Sunset Boulevard. At this point she hadn't been on B'Way for 17 years and with her children settled it would have been a wonderful opportunity to spend a limited run back with her first love of theatre.

    I know this is a reimagined filmography but couldn't resist the chance to put this in as well. Glenn Close incurred Patti Lupone's wrath as she was chosen for this role but I have no doubt, had she been available, Meryl would have been sensational in this.

    1. I've never seen Safe but you've mentioned it a handful of times in the past. I'm guessing it's worth the watch? I enjoy Todd Haynes.

      And miss Patty can be catty!

    2. Absolutely worth watching, although not to everyone's taste. It's a very absorbing character study.

      Another point in Dolores' favour is it being filmed close to where Meryl was living at the time.

      "The American President" will be my guess at what you might choose for next year, given that it was a very well received romantic comedy which would reunite her with her 1983 co-star Michael Douglas!

  2. All of this talk of recasting and awards made me realize just how long it has been since Meryl has actually won any major awards (the random Comedy Actress Critic Choice for Florence Foster Jenkins aside), she has not won a Globe since 2011, an acting Emmy since 2004 (had more hope for BLL but alas!). Here's hoping she launches on a hot streak for The Prom or others and we get her up on a stage again!

    1. She'll get back there. But they're so reluctant to reward her when she's nominated almost every year. She absolutely should have more of everything, but it's not just about the acting, as we know.

  3. You think that's bad? She went from Sophie in 1983 to Adaptation in 2003 with no major awards except for Cannes Best Actress for "Evil Angels".
    She made a great joke of it when she bagged the Golden Globe, saying she was settling in for a nice winter's nap in the corner as she hadn't won since the Pleistocene era!

    I think if it hadn't been for La La Land Meryl might have won the GG for Comedy/Musical, she was outstanding as Florence.

  4. I need to see 'Dolores Claiborne' again... of all the recastings to date it's the one I know the very least, although your rationale sounds excellent, Jeff.

    For 1995 I am casting Streep in the role of Inspector M.J. Monahan in 'Copycat'... Streep and Weaver opposite one another in a thriller... 'Baby Jane'-type sparks!!!

    1. Interesting idea Michael! I really rate "Copycat" as an excellent thriller, although the plum role is undoubtedly Dr Helen Hudson! When I saw this as a kid I thought it was a sequel because of the flashbacks to her attack and the title "Copycat"!

      I really recommend Dolores, it's a really interesting movie.

    2. Great call on 1995's film selection, Mike! Just a different role! But yes, Holly Hunter was outstanding in Copycat as well, and I could see an argument that the character is more interesting than Hudson.