Focusing on the best Kathy Bates movies of all time is an interesting opportunity. It gives us the chance to focus, if only for a moment, on someone who is frequently taken for granted as one of the finest actors/actresses in the world. Some people just make it look too easy, I guess. Even if they do win an Oscar against hefty odds and conventional wisdom.
Although she does more TV than film at this point, no one can deny Kathy Bates as having one of the most consistently impressive filmographies of anyone working today. That doesn’t mean every movie she has done has been good. Like everyone else, particularly anyone with 30+ years in the industry, she has appeared in more than a few wretched dogs. However, like most of the greats, she herself is rarely a disappointment.
In even the worst movies on her resume, it’s hard to find fault with whatever Bates brings to the proceedings.
Yes, that includes Bad Santa 2. Honestly, she was the best thing in that movie. You can reach that consensus for a number of less-than-stellar projects she elevated simply by showing up. Her talents as an actor are numerous, and there is something about the energy and personality she projects on screen that engages the audience so strongly, they accept her in almost anything.
After all, this is the woman who won a Best Actress Oscar for playing a delusional psychopath in a horror movie. Those Motion Picture Arts and Science clowns went to great lengths to not call Misery a horror movie, but we all know better.
Kathy Bates has the capacity to surprise you like few others can. Any list of the greatest Kathy Bates performances will make this abundantly clear to you.
1. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Director Robert Altman left behind one of the strangest filmographies ever assembled by a major filmmaker. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a striking comedy-drama about a group of women who reunite their Jimmy Dean fan club years after its heyday in the 1950’s, is certainly among Altman’s most interesting entries.
The ensemble offers strong performances from the likes of Cher, Karen Black, and Mark Patton. It also features Kathy Bates in one of her first films. Her screen time is limited, but she is a riveting presence, nonetheless. Her ability to dominate a scene by existing deeply and respectfully within the material is clear, even at this early stage.
2. Misery (1990)
After nearly twenty years of film, TV, and theater work (including Broadway), Bates scored a somewhat-surprising Oscar nomination for playing the delusional, dangerous, and even sympathetic Annie Wilkes in Misery.
Directed by Rob Reiner, the adaptation of yet another Stephen King bestseller proved to be a rare crossover with not only casual audiences, but the fun-loving, open-minded folks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Not only did Bates get the nomination, but she won in what is still regarded as one of the most shocking wins in Oscar history. Obviously, these things are subjective, but it’s hard to imagine successfully arguing she shouldn’t have won. It is one of the most compelling screen villains of the 20th century. It is a ferocious showcase for Kathy Bates’ many gifts.
I know of at least a few people who consider this to be the better of the two Stephen King adaptations starring Kathy Bates. To be sure, no one would ever mistake the sad, quietly extraordinary Dolores Claiborne for the wild-eyed disbelief and maddening optimism of Annie Wilkes. As Kathy Bates happens to be a fairly distinctive face and voice, it can be easy to lump her characters together. As is always the case with deceptively varied performers of any kind, this can be a mistake.
With excellent supporting performances from Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and David Strathairn (playing one of the most chilling, wretched men in the annals of Stephen Kingdom), Dolores Claiborne gives Kathy Bates one of her most unique characters to date. Dolores isn’t always likable, but she is a survivor of the most remarkable kind. Bates plays that specific quality to the hilt, and the results are still amazing 20+ years later.
4. Primary Colors (1998)
If you didn’t know until now that Mike Nichols directed a film in which John Travolta essentially plays Bill Clinton (and well, I might add), then you are in for a surreal treat. Primary Colors is a fascinating political drama that seeks to understand the ideals and people who shape politics in one form or another. It also depicts the fascinating, terrifying atmosphere that is created through the way Americans deal with and discuss politics.
Travolta’s presidential hopeful Jack Stanton is the right kind of face and charisma for all of the above. However, Primary Colors also boasts an incredible supporting cast from top to bottom. Bates was nominated for another Oscar for playing a friend of Stranton and his family, who is hired to investigate claims that could derail Stranton’s election dreams. As Libby Holden, we meet a shrewd, tough woman. We also meet someone who perhaps worships the potential of her oldest friends a bit too much. The tragic consequences of that offer one of Bate’s most devasting on-screen moments as an actor.
About Schmidt is a great way to shut up anyone who claims Jack Nicholson played the same character over and over again. That fact aside, this very depressing comedy about Warren R. Schmidt, a recent widower trying to make sense of his life. Among other things, it is a life filled with hideous, and sometimes hilarious, friends and family members. At the top of either list is Kathy Bates as the mother of the awful, bone-stupid guy who is set to marry Schmidt’s embittered daughter.
Roberta Hertzel might be the most hysterically funny of all the loud eccentrics Bates has played in her prolific career. The best Kathy Bates characters are often the ones who are either unaware of their eccentricities or just don’t give a damn. It seems probable that Roberta is in the second category, despite her stupefying dedication to her son.
Of course, About Schmidt is famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for Bates’ having a nude scene at the tender age of 53. Bates doesn’t seem to have a single fuck to give about her age, the various rolls and heavier parts of her body, and everything else that defines her physically. I personally never thought she looked that bad, but even with that aside, there is something wonderful about that any actor who can project that kind of on-screen confidence. Regardless of who she’s playing, Bates seems to be able to bring that quality to the proceedings.