Perspective and the Past

Dolores Claiborne

A marker of getting old — not old old, but well beyond one’s 20s — is recognizing the flaws of something once adored in youth.

I’m not talking about wincing at having liked, ahem, The A-Team as a kid (and what the hell is that hyphen doing in there, damn it?), but instead looking back at something you loved as a tender adult and realizing that it’s significantly less than you remember.

Twice recently I’ve had that experience, once while watching Peter Weir’s Fearless (from 1993) and more recently with Dolores Claiborne, the 1995 movie directed by Taylor Hackford and adapted from the Stephen King novel by Tony Gilroy.

With both movies, my fondness was colored by life circumstances and a profound connection to the material. But time has provided distance and separation, and the films’ shortcomings are clear — glaring, even.

Dolores Claiborne is one of King’s non-supernatural stories, dealing with two deaths — one in the present and one in the past. Housekeeper Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) stands accused of murdering her aged and incontinent employer, the self-described “bitch” Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). The case draws two key people from Dolores’ past: her estranged daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who was convinced that Dolores murdered her boozy husband long ago but couldn’t get a grand jury to indict her.

Selena, a journalist by trade, is obviously bitter and troubled, fueled by pills, alcohol, and an open contempt for her mother. It’s clear she blames her mother for her father’s death, but Dolores sees something else: Selena seems to barely remember her childhood, or the abusive aspects of her father’s personality. Mackey, meanwhile, is trying to avenge his only professional “loss” by nailing the flinty housekeeper.

When I first saw Dolores Claiborne, I was in the middle of a long relationship with a woman who as an adult recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, so the movie had a powerful impact on me. It was, first and foremost, one of the few movies I’d ever seen that dealt seriously — at least on the surface — with the effects of sexual abuse.

Time hasn’t dulled the effects of some of the details of the abuse plot, and they remain the movie’s strongest elements. As a teenager, Selena grabs a glass ornament off the Christmas tree, crushes it in her fist, and rakes it across her neck. The adult Selena’s denial is fierce, and her loyalty to her father is strong. She’s depressed but doesn’t question it, and her anger is a tool to prevent anyone from probing the gaps in her memory. And, eventually, no longer able to deny what her father was, Selena has a panic attack in a ferry restroom, as if she were trapped with a ghost in the tiny cubicle.

The flashback structure remains solid, subtle, and effective — the movie lives in the mind of the title character for almost its entire running time before finally breaking through to her daughter — and the past flows naturally from the present, as memories are triggered by the smallest details. The film also prompts the audience to look at events from different perspectives, as the opening shows Vera’s death the way the cops see it rather than the way it really happened.

The present is shot in cold, damp blues and grays, while the past is sunny and warm. This creates a clear division, as well as an apparent contradiction; Dolores shouldn’t look back at those days fondly — particularly when confronted with her husband’s deeds — but maybe even she longs for those “bad patches.”

The years haven’t been kind to the rest of the movie, however.

The cast is phenomenal, but the performances are spotty. Bates and Parfitt are well-matched, with Dolores’ heavy working-class accent and homespun exclamations and Vera’s precise diction and memorable (if over-emphasized) lessons about bitches, accidents, and the like. Plummer menaces convincingly but can’t seem to muster the conviction of anger. David Strathairn, as Selena’s father, is a welcome addition with his coiled rage, but he doesn’t do simple well.

And then there’s Leigh. A key failure of Dolores Claiborne is the adult Selena, and part of that falls on the script and the remainder rests with Leigh. The scenes of the barely functional Selena as a headstrong star reporter at the New York Times Magazine would be hilarious if they weren’t so painfully inept, and the character is so hostile to everything in the world that it’s nearly impossible to care about her. Leigh doesn’t help matters with her one-note performance that’s delivered almost exclusively through clenched teeth. (The teenaged Selena, played convincingly by Ellen Muth, is allowed both warm interaction with her father and the frightened defiance of the abused child. Muth comes off much better than Leigh.)

A more fundamental problem is that Dolores Claiborne can never really decide what it is — a story about the present or the past. There is a narrative in the present, but it’s not terribly interesting in itself and cannot stand alone; it’s primarily a frame to see the ripples from the past. The story from Selena’s childhood, while heartier and more resonant, is presented on a need-to-know basis; the only information the audience is given is that which is necessary to the plot rather than investment in the characters.

These underdeveloped strands play off each other well and give the illusion of a fleshed-out narrative, and without a doubt it’s skillful and effective on the surface, excepting the courtroom drama at the end that sounds lifted from Matlock. (Not that I ever watched Matlock ... . Ahem.)

But Dolores remains the only character the audience understands or appreciates as a human being; everybody else is the movie exists for color or to further the plot. And that results in a well-intentioned film that, I realize years later, doesn’t have the authenticity or depth to speak meaningfully about sexual abuse. The film is Dolores’, and Selena is — unfortunately — primarily a device to spur a mother to action.

I think the reason Taylor Hackford directed Jennifer Jason Leigh to deliver through clenched teeth is that her character, after years of abuse, no longer had any nuance to give. It may be one-note, but its also an honest performance.

I don’t disagree, but I think there can still be subtlety in a character with a hard surface. The performance might indeed be honest, but I wish it were richer.

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