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The Hollywood Bitchslap/EfilmCritic Hall of Fame #2
by Matt Bartley

Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where, we, the critics of this site induct a person - be they actor, actress, director or other - into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria is simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided we critics, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.

This months inductee - Kathy Bates

One of the reasons that we at this site love the work of Kathy Bates, is that she's one of the most commanding actresses of the last twenty years, but without ever seeming like a 'star'. Think about it, how much do you really know about Kathy Bates? Yes, there's the information readily available from IMDB, but if that wasn't there would we know anything about her private life? The chances are that we wouldn't. And in an era where we know everything from the middle names of Angelina Jolie's children to the house habits of Catherine Zeta Jones, this is invaluable to Bates' skill at creating characters from scratch.

And, if we're honest and superficial for a minute, Bates also doesn't look like she should be one of our most well known actresses. We're not talking about Charlize Theron here. Yet, in a Hollywood seemingly dominated and dictated by waistlines, Bates has risen above this nauseous superficiality to become a peer in her profession.

An interesting thing about Bates is that for someone who's as recognisable as she is, she's not achieved that success through sheer quantity of work. She hasn't been in that many films, particularly for someone of her age. She rarely headlines a film, instead taking small character roles, or often extended cameos. Yes, she's taken roles in films such as The Waterboy or Rat Race, but everyone is allowed the occasional easy pay day. Besides, she's clearly the best thing in them, with her one-scene role in Rat Race being far funnier than the endless mugging of Cuba Gooding Jr and Rowan Atkinson combined. As our own Paul Bryant commented, she's always great in some way, and The Waterboy actually points the way towards the essential Bates performance.

Bates is most at home playing earthy, warm characters that feel like they've seen a lot of life. This is helped by her soft, malleable features, that often twinkle with a motherly charm, and combined with the easy charisma that she exudes, makes for an actress that is never less than convincing. As HBS critic David Cornelius points out, "it's her performance in Misery that's going to land her the most attention (rightly so, as it's such a brilliant work). But let's not forget such turns in Fried Green Tomatoes, Primary Colors, and About Schmidt, which all depend on a larger-than-life attitude that Bates effortlessly provides.

Also, naked + hot tub + Nicholson = funny."

Take a look at the scene where she's feeding the temporarily incapacitated Jack Nicholson some soup - all the while regaling him with tales about his daughter's sex life with her son. Nicholson's reactions get the laughs, but only because Bates pulls off the blithe delivery so matter-of-factly with subtlety and wit.

And that's a key aspect of Bates as an actress - wit. She always gives the impression of having so much fun with her performances, but not in a smug way. Instead, she channels it through the character, in a worldly-wise manner. She is larger-than-life, but endearingly, not annoyingly, so. She's not Queen Latifah, she's someone who comes across as your favourite auntie. She's someone who you feel has really lived in her characters, and seen life through their eyes. As undoubtedly impressive as Michelle Pfeiffer was in Frankie and Johnny, it was Bates role in its original theatrical incarnation, and who would you buy more as a lovelorn waitress, dumped on by life?

Let's consider again then, that role in About Schmidt. It was her third oscar nomination, and in some ways her most impressive, considering what she was up against in the film itself.About Schmidt was quite rightly lauded for Nicholson's aged performance, so it's to Bates immense credit that she stood out in a way that Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney didn't. It was a terrific character study, as the mother of the groom embued with her usual warmth and grace. What makes it more impressive still, is that the character didn't just revolve around the fact that she gets into a hot tub naked with Jack Nicholson. For most actresses, that'd be the main characteristic in the film, but for Bates there's no self-consciousness about it, it's done and forgotten about it. There's more to Bates than simple easy comments about her appearance.

Paul Bryant and Marc Kandel also point out further appearances that merit examination:

"As far as Bates, an underappreciated role of hers is as the queen bee of the whorehouse in Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog. Her characteristic frankness radiates through the other players in Allen's brilliantly written scenes there."

"I also would submit "Dolores Claibourne" as she give us a full spectrum run of a decent, troubled young woman turned into a hard shelled damaged crone always remaining a formidable, passionate fighter in either incarnation.

The metamorphosis between present and flashbacks from her loving, playful, sweet natured wife and mother to the leathered, resigned, distant elder the years grind her into is simply jaw dropping in her ability to play both with such simplicity and relish (just look at the moment where we see a young, vibrant Dolores playing with her daughter- the joyous smile, the obvious fun she's having- then cut to this creased, worn, dry human with a spark of memory in her eyes- its not just the makeup, make no mistake). She's always been one of my favorite actresses.

Her hard-ass, witty take no prisoners persona that we see in "Primary Colors, About Schmidt," and even as a cameo in "The Stand" gets a lot of playtime, and I worry that sometimes that's all she's going to be used for, but honestly, she's so damn good at it. She's one of the most honest, interesting performers out there- granted, she's got the Oscar under her belt, but I say she's still deserving of more accolades and juicy roles."

Let's move then, to THAT role, that bagged the oscar for her - Annie Wilkes in Misery. Firstly, let's get the obvious stuff out of the way. It's a cinematic psychopath that is probably second only to Anthony Perkin's Norman Bates, and has more craft and invention to it than Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal Lecter. As David stated earlier, it is a quite brilliant performance. Is she scary? Hell yes. But it's more than just a scary psychopath with a sledgehammer. It's a rounded, fully drawn character we're talking about, not just an easy excuse to go over the top. Looking into Bates' eyes, and you can see the oceans of pain, loneliness and abuse that haunt the character. She runs the whole gamut of emotions, and sells us each and every one. That wit is there too, tied up with the devilish cruelty of the character. Just look at the way she breathes "I love you" to James Caan immediately after smashing his ankles into fragments.

But crucially, Bates takes the characters into areas lesser actresses wouldn't, as she's pitiable when she would be hateful and hateful when she would be pitiable in the hands of someone less accomplished. For instance, the scene where she brings back a load of typing paper for Caan, only to fly into a rage when told it is the wrong kind. Someone less talented would take that as an easy opportunity to go for the easy scare, but Bates makes it seem more plausible that it is actually damn irritating to have their good work rejected. Likewise, the scene where she tells Caan that when she gets seriously depressed she often thinks of killing herself. A more obvious route would be to try and tug the heartstrings here and milk the sympathy, but Bates doesn't, she actually makes this one of the more loathsome aspects of Annie here. How dare she contemplate suicide, when Caan is at her absolute mercy?

Lastly, look at the scene where Caan has asked her to fix a romantic dinner so he can slip sleeping tablets into her drink. This should be a scene where we're behind Caan all the way, but Bates plays Annie so sympathically here, lost in the giggly flush and crush of a teenage girl, that our sympathies are genuinely torn. Yes, we want Paul to escape, but can someone that naive and innocent in that scene be really that bad?

As our critic, Dancing Potato, puts it, "She achieves a level of innocence-turned-psychosis that had only been done once: in 1960 by a guy named Anthony Perkins. Unlike Perkins, however, she got the sweet end of the deal and won an Oscar."

Indeed, and there are few oscars as richly deserved as hers.

For proving that standardised looks are not a pre-requisite for a Hollywood career, for elevating simplistic films and simplistic characters into something much greater and for having one of the most diverse careers in film acting, Kathy Bates, we salute you.

Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame

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originally posted: 06/26/06 22:48:55
last updated: 10/19/06 00:22:40
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