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Commentary from Director Taylor Hackford
My mom relishes the power of rewatching movies. Some of them over and over again. It took me awhile to realize why DOLORES CLAIBORNE was one of them, but my most recent viewing not only cemented it as one of the great Stephen King adaptations, but also because it exemplifies and illustrates the kind of abuse my mom endured as a child and the lasting effects it has had on her as an adult. Suffice to say, another title starring the same actress, BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, is another title that has resonated with her deeply. Sometimes, when movies bring trauma to light, the experience of reliving the past can be difficult and cathartic particularly when the bad guy gets his comeuppance. DOLORES CLAIBORNE is not a film that is talked about very often, mainly due to the fact that it is more or less a straight ahead drama. The horror of domestic abuse is emphasized for certain, and King is not one to shy away from what it does to those who are vulnerable.
With my first viewing I was also expecting more, especially since the Kathy Bates of MISERY was nowhere to be found. Once you adjust your expectations and realize that this is more of a character study than a conventional Stephen King horror film, I think anyone would be quite pleased by where Dolores’ journey takes us. Published in 1993, the novel tells the simple story of Dolores Claiborne, a woman ostracized from her community for allegedly murdering her abusive, alcoholic husband, thirty years earlier. When the book begins, she has been accused again - this time of murdering her longtime employer, the sharp-tongued, senile, Vera Donovan. The 1996 film adaptation written by the great Tony Gilroy and directed by the inconsistent Taylor Hackford, has the same basic plot as the book, but adds an element absent in the original source material: the physical presence of Claiborne's adult daughter, Selina (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in real-time. Never one of King's most popular books, unfortunately (probably because it lacks the aforementioned supernatural creepiness which many longtime fans love) the stellar film adaptation is similarly forgotten by many, when it should be not only remembered, but emulated.
Bates named Dolores Claiborne as her favorite role so far from her decades-long career (appropriate, since King wrote the character with Bates in mind after seeing her play sadistic superfan Annie Wilkes in the screen adaptation of his novel, MISERY (Reiner, 1990). Besides the great performances in the film (including a bone-chilling David Strathairn as Dolores' husband, Joe St. George), DOLORES CLAIBORNE encapsulates the depth and breadth of the platonic bond between women and the internal rage that quietly surfaces when that bond is compromised or manipulated for the sake of sexual gratification. That bond can be between friends of course, but also, between mother and daughter. I’ve often witnessed and been told that mother and daughter relationships are very complex due to the myriad of emotions they wrestle with together, especially when they live under the same roof.
Selina and Dolores harbor secrets and fretfulness in regards to what happened when they younger. This adaptation channels those issues gracefully through the performances of Leigh and Bates, two of the most reliable actresses of all time. They know how to handle a wide range of varying states of grief and torment with the best of them. The reason that I am so drawn to this movie is largely in part to them, watching the mystery of their fractured psyches unfold. Right now and frankly, in the past as well, there is an apparent, abhorrent horror that we cannot turn away from: the horrendous abuse caused by men that lack control and restraint. They criticize, belittle, and ridicule women, eventually culminating in physical outbursts once a woman defends herself from any kind of attack. The abuser attempts to regain control by asserting themselves in devious ways that defy morality while sacrificing the well-being of others. It is disgusting to witness in any way, shape, or form, yet it continues to happen each and every day. There are specific scenes throughout this film that will strike a chord, whether you've experienced it first-hand or have read the news recently.
If there was ever a time to examine the damage done to the family unit here in DOLORES CLAIBORNE, that time is now. We have a Joe St. George as our nation’s leader and a plethora of similar monsters throughout a wide range of industries right now, particularly the one in Hollywood. Sometimes great works of art and literature are telling truths we want to bury and forget, but our subconscious won’t let us. This is one of those great works of art that deserves your immediate attention for it sheds light on a darkness that we cannot currently escape from. A darkness that has infested the kindest of hearts, including my own flesh and blood. That darkness is one that my mom returns to quite often and maybe it’s due to personal experience, but I truly feel that it’s due to the fact that this is classic storytelling of the highest caliber and one of the best representations of what Stephen King excels at best.
Available now from Warner Archive: