Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we explore Kathy Bates’ terrifying superfan in Misery.
Two months after the 1990 debut of Misery, the New York Times interviewed Kathy Bates, who plays Annie Wilkes, the film’s homicidal number-one fan. The actress is very candid in the profile about how she’s perceived as an actor:
“I never was an ingenue; I’ve always just been a character actor […] The roles I was lucky enough to get were real stretches for me: usually, a character who was older, or a little weird, or whatever. And it was hard, not just for the lack of work but because you have to face up to how people are looking at you. And you think, ‘Well, y’know, I’m a real person.’”
The honest self-awareness that she expresses offers insight as to why she’s such a powerful actor. Bates looks for the inner truth in each character she plays, regardless of the size of the role or how eccentric they may be written. She uses that truth as a foundation to take more risks in her performances, approaching her characters from unique angles that can surprise even the writers who created them.
Marsha Norman, who wrote Bates’ breakout Broadway show ‘night, Mother, had written her character Jessie as waifish, slowly fading away in front of our eyes as she plans her own suicide. The natural energy Bates brought to the role was diametrically different from what Norman had envisioned, but it’s what made Bates so electrifying on stage: she felt astonishingly real. As the playwright said, “Here, in fact, was someone who had managed to disappear, because in public you would look right past her.”
This ability to blend into a crowd is a major reason Bates was cast as Annie, the delusional fan of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan), whose romance novels chronicling the many loves of Misery Chastain have consumed her life. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman, who adapted the story from Stephen King’s bestselling novel, wanted Annie to have a face you couldn’t recognize.
As Goldman said on the casting process, “My feeling is that even with as brilliant a performer as [Meryl] Streep in the part, it would not have worked because sitting out there in the dark, some part of us would have known that Meryl Streep wasn’t really going to incinerate James Caan. But no one knew Kathy Bates was.”
By casting Bates, Reiner and Goldman made Annie Wilkes an everyday stranger, someone we wouldn’t notice passing on the street. Since audiences weren’t as familiar with her as an actor, they would only see Annie and her twisted mix of rage and innocence.
That’s another quality that Reiner felt Bates encapsulated, “She has that look of someone who’s a fan. That eager, naive look.” Bates uses that innocence to create a character that acts as a composite of modern fandom, both effusive and toxic. We can see our own selves in Annie’s excitement over the Misery books, twirling on the balls of her feet, exploding with genuine enthusiasm as she reads the new chapter she’s forced the imprisoned author to write, “Misery’s alive! Misery’s alive! Oh, it’s so romantic! I’m going to put on my Liberace records!”
What diehard fan isn’t stoked when their headcanon becomes a reality? As she vomits virtuosic praise on Paul, begging him to give her hints of the new book’s conclusion, Bates plays it without a hint of irony or cheesy intentional hyperbole. We believe that Annie legitimately thinks Paul’s steamy novels are works of art on par with the Sistine Chapel, “That and Misery’s Child. Those are the only two divine things in this world!”
It’s in these genuine moments of joy that Bates makes the audience briefly forget Annie is a psychopath. We just see a fan, like you or me, excited about the thing she loves more than life itself. But Bates weaponizes this earnestness so the audience doesn’t anticipate the moment her passion turns destructive. To make her switch in personalities feel real, Bates and Reiner gave Annie an emotionally devastating backstory unique to the film.
In King’s novel, Annie is conventionally evil, having killed an entire family in a house fire by the time she’s eleven before going on to murder her father, among countless others. With Reiner, Bates honed in on Annie’s patricide for the source of her character’s motivations. Rather than Annie killing her father because of some inborn evil, Bates’ saw it as retribution for a history of sexual abuse, giving a psychological backbone for Annie’s rage.
As Bates described her, “Annie isn’t a monster in a horror movie; she’s a human being who is a psychopath.” Even though it’s never verbalized, Bates bears the weight of Annie’s trauma throughout the film. She becomes a character we can almost pity and empathize with, even as we revile her descent into madness.
It is in Annie’s fury towards Paul’s dismissal of Misery that we see her embody toxic fandom. When she learns he’s killed his title character, she takes it as a personal betrayal. She has emotionally invested so much in Misery that she feels possession over her, and in killing her off, Paul has unwittingly murdered a part of Annie herself. It’s a problematic level of ownership from fans we see amplified today through social media.
Just look at the uproar from certain Star Wars fans when Rian Johnson took the beloved series in a new direction that they didn’t like. These toxic fans felt like they understood the characters better than those who were writing them, so when The Last Jedi subverted their expectations, they took it as a slap in the face of everything they profess to love. This is precisely how Annie feels towards Paul, and it’s what pushes her over the edge. It’s an aspect of her character that many fans will relate to, no matter how much they may not want to admit it.
In King’s novel, Annie Wilkes is a metaphor for cocaine addiction, a way for the writer to subconsciously confront his own struggles with substance abuse. The themes central to the book are mostly absent from the film, but Annie still serves as a commentary on a different kind of addiction, the type superfans can have towards the movies, books, and television shows they’ve devoted their life to. Annie is hooked on Paul’s novels, craving each new book like an addict looking for their next fix. When a fan loves something, it’s their greatest high. But if they think a creator doesn’t respect the work as they do, they hit rock bottom and lash out in an overprotective rage.
Annie Wilkes can be seen as a personification of both addiction and toxic fandom, but an actor can’t play a metaphor, only the character’s reality. Bates shines because she finds pathos in Annie, discovering who she is underneath all of the anger and violence. She doesn’t play her as an archetype, but a real person with dark secrets hidden below the surface of a disarming grin.
Finding the truth in a character as complex as Annie is one of Bates’ greatest strengths as an actor, one that’s been evident since she first started working on the New York stage. Athol Fugard, who directed her in an Off-Broadway play early in her career said, “Performance, for an actor, can either be telling the truth or telling a lie[…] Kathy has that formidable honesty: she never pretends. She has a way, in performance, of being.”
With Misery, Kathy Bates made a psychopath feel both real and relatable — an emotional balancing act that makes Annie Wilkes one of the most terrifying and fascinating movie villains of all time.