Staunch Characters pays tribute to great character actors by singling out a specific performance that illustrates their mastery.
As Annie Wilkes, the self-proclaimed No. 1 fan of self-loathing romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), Kathy Bates is disturbing even before we see her face. She plays Annie as a woman of tremendous, mousy drabness. She wouldn’t look out of place in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” dresses in K-Mart finery, and fills her house with tacky bric-a-brac. All this masks a deep-seated psychosis. Before we see Annie, we hear her distorted voice proclaiming to the incapacitated Paul that she’s his “No. 1 fan” in a way more likely to disturb him than put him at ease. From the beginning, she seems to have blurred the line from fan to fanatic, from devotee to stalker.
Annie first presents herself as an angel of mercy, however, a nurse who saves Paul from what easily could have been a fatal car accident. Her cheerfulness quickly takes on a sinister quality. She is at once a very specific character—there are wonderful details sprinkled throughout the film, like framed photographs of Liberace, every spinster’s impossible dream boyfriend—and an exemplar of a particular breed of fan whose love morphs to hate when the artist strays too far from the fan’s conception of how they, and particularly their characters, should behave.
Even when Annie is on her best behavior, buttering up Paul with honeyed words and gushing about his genius in ways that embarrass him, there’s still a dark undercurrent. Paul can never be what Annie wants, and her hunger for him can never be abated. Bates makes the concept of the “No. 1 fan,” inherently unsettling because it puts the emphasis on the fan’s psychotic devotion, rather than the object of devotion’s talent.
Annie is creepy even when she’s trying to be nice, and it doesn’t take long for the cracks in her twisted psyche to emerge, as when she responds to the profanity in one of Paul’s manuscript by screaming in a vitriolic rage, PG-rated versions of the swears she sees in Sheldon’s manuscripts. It’s infinitely more terrifying and unnerving than genuine profanity could be.
It is the faux-wholesomeness and All-American chipperness of Annie that makes her such an unforgettable monster. She is the wallflower as sociopath, the spinster as avenging angel. In the film’s tense first act, the violence and rage lies just underneath the surface, behind the bland smiles and torrents of praise. It isn’t until Annie discovers that Paul has killed off her favorite character, the aptly named “Misery,” that her facade of super-fandom gives ways to something far more violent and insane.
From then on, there is a fierce tug-of-war between the crafty and resourceful Paul, who needs to be protected from his biggest fan more than his worst enemy, and Annie, who is afforded the insane fan’s ultimate treat when she bullies her way into forcing Paul to re-write his latest Misery book so that she survives. It’s not enough to simply enjoy Paul’s books; she has to find a way to make them hers. But even this doesn’t satisfy Wilkes, and Bates is terrifying in the way she yo-yos between trying to ingratiate herself with her hero, and bullying, tormenting, and physically torturing him into being a little puppet of a writer, tapping out on his keyboard the words and sentiments she wants him to say.
Bates is all over the place as Annie, yet the whiplash tones in her performance are perfectly modulated. One moment she’s the smiling face of faux-kindness. The next, the life has emptied from her face as she dispiritingly professes to love Paul in his entirety. And the next she’s wild-eyed with rage as she physically attacks Paul for wanting to leave her clutches and her commands.
It’s a testament to Bates’ mastery of the role that it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing it. She becomes the role in a way that would be impossible if it were played by a then-better-known actress. Annie and Bates don’t represent the banality of evil so much as the evil of banality, and the way, under the right circumstances, a little nobody can inflict her will in violent, even homicidal ways.