Dolores Claiborne

Five years after she won the Best Actress Academy Award for Misery, Kathy Bates was back on the big screen in another Stephen King adaption: Dolores Claiborne.

To be sure this moody, flashback-heavy tale—which takes place in Maine beneath the shadow of a solar eclipse, is less in-your-face (and on your ankles!) than Misery. But the topics covered—domestic violence, elder abuse, alcoholism, depression and, incest—pull you in and keep you asking questions.

Kathy Bates, in all her requisite splendor, is titular Dolores Claiborne (nay St. James), a woman with a tarte, funny, idiosyncratic tongue and a survivor’s work ethic. Her perpetually dour estranged daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shows up after Dolores is charged with murder.

You see, the mailman walked in and discovered Dolores’ wealthy boss Vera (Judy Parfitt) lying at the foot of a staircase—with Dolores standing over her wielding a rolling pin! Incriminating evidence to be sure.

Dolores’ husband Joe (David Strathairn) is an omnipresent nemesis; dead, though he is, he’s still, via flashbacks, repulsively front and center. So is Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer) a man who’s known Dolores for years and is looking to even a score: he believes she murdered once before—and got away with it.

If there’s an unexpected standout performance in Dolores Claiborne it’s the one given by Judy Parfitt as Vera, Dolores’ rich but penny-pinching taskmaster matron. Parfitt is exemplary; bringing to terrifying life the world of the rapidly deteriorating invalid who hasn’t even the ability to commit suicide. And it’s Vera’s favorite one-liner: “sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hold onto,” that gives Dolores and Selena strength during challenging times.

A what-really-happened-here? film with beautiful cinematography by Gabriel Beristain, sharp direction by Taylor Hackford, controversial subject matter and a haunting score by Danny Elfman, make Dolores Claiborne worthy of a return visit. It’s a disconcerting, sometimes cruelly laugh-out-loud funny and vulgar look at the secrets we keep.


Josiah Howard

Josiah Howard is the author of four books including “Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide” (now in a fourth printing). His writing credits include articles for the American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Readers Digest. A veteran of more than one hundred radio broadcasts, Howard also lectures on cinema and is a frequent guest on entertainment news television.

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