It must be a bit disheartening to make your career from being plain. Especially in Hollywood, though “plain” in Hollywood can include women like Olivia de Havilland, who frequently got stuck in “plain” roles, as did Bette Davis. But Kathy Bates isn’t Hollywood plain; she really just looks like an ordinary person, the kind of person you’d pass on the street and not look at twice. Naturally, she seems to get put in a lot of roles where the whole point of the character is that she’s plain, because Hollywood doesn’t have a grip on “it’s okay for characters to look like ordinary people just because.”
Of course, ordinary she may look, but she’s an extraordinary actress. Her Oscar for Misery comes from playing arguably one of the most chilling villains in the works of Stephen King. Oh, the internet is obsessed with Pennywise, but the scary thing about Annie Wilkes is how real she is. Kathy Bates imbued her with menace. That much is certainly true. But how much of that menace stems from the simple fact that, yes, there are really people not unlike Annie Wilkes out there, that Stephen King could, even if none of the rest of us are likely to, fall prey to such a madwoman?
Still, there’s more to Kathy Bates than just Annie Wilkes, for all that may be what ninety-plus percent of people think of her as first. There’s also her portrayal of Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoes, for example. Evelyn is a middle-aged housewife, and the thing about the casting of Bates is that you can picture her as a middle-aged housewife. When Bates is afraid that she’s growing old and unimportant, you don’t think, “Yeah, but you still look like Julia Roberts [or whoever; Roberts was really too young for the role even by Hollywood standards!]” and lose interest. Kathy Bates looked the way many of us will look at forty-three—the way I could conceivably look in just a few more years.
The role of Frankie in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was written for her, but the part in the movie went to Michelle Pfeiffer. She herself admits that the problem with her career for many years was that she was a character actress and not pretty enough. Her first movie was in 1971; her first role that people remember reliably was in 1990. (Annie, of course.) Who knows how many fine performances we might have had from her if there had been better roles for women through those decades? I’m not going to go into my Standard Tirade Against Seventies Film here, but really, it fits, doesn’t it?
Best of all, she really seems like a pretty nice person. In her Oscar acceptance speech for Misery, she said, “I’d like to thank Jimmy Caan, and apologize publicly for the ankles.” Which is pretty much in keeping with what I’ve read about her. I’m aware that not everyone is nice; certainly not everyone in Hollywood is nice. And for a certain level, we put up with it because the performances are so good. However, it really is good to find out now and again that, yes, that person up on the screen is someone who’d be worth spending time with. Especially when they’re best known for playing such a figure of evil.
Note: While searching for an image for this article, I discovered that Annie Wilkes cosplay seems to be pretty popular. It makes sense, though—she’s iconic and she’s easy to dress as, and it doesn’t matter what body type you have. I’m now curious what Kathy Bates herself thinks of it.