Kathy Bates probably never figured that Stephen King would be the best friend her movie career ever had, but that's how it seems to have turned out. After all, it was her turn as an unusually demanding romance-novel fan in Rob Reiner's movie of King's novel Misery that earned her a Best Actress Academy Award. And while the just-out-on-video Dolores Claiborne did not garner the same critical praise or box office as Misery during its brief theatrical run last spring, this King adaptation provided Bates with the meatiest role she's had in some time.
Both movies are taken from King books in which the supernatural doesn't figure at all Claiborne, in fact, is more character study than chiller, and its deviation from the King norm may have something to do with its lukewarm reception. But because Hollywood knows King fans want his works translated to the screen with all their ''darkness'' intact, his books aren't routinely subjected to the prettification that the movie industry generally insists on, and that's all to Bates' advantage. The actress isn't, after all, blessed with matinee-idol looks and has as a result often been cheated out of roles she originated elsewhere. She got raves on the New York stage for her portrayal of a homely, frighteningly withdrawn waitress in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, but for the movie version, her part went to that well-known wallflower Michelle Pfeiffer.
It's hard to imagine anyone taking Bates' place (or even wanting to, for that matter) in Misery, where she embodies Annie Wilkes, the homey but, um, touchy former nurse who has the great good fortune to rescue and tend to her favorite author, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), after his car skids off a Colorado mountain road. ''I'm your number one fan,'' she tells Sheldon, but her opinion of him is somewhat compromised when she learns that he's killed off Misery, the lead character in the series of romance novels that made his fame, and now intends to devote himself to more ''serious'' work. She wheedles, cajoles, and eventually terrorizes and mutilates the bedridden Sheldon until he agrees to resurrect the character.
While King's book meditated on the Faustian bargain the popular artist makes with his audience, the screen Misery concentrates on the duel of wills between Sheldon and his antagonist. Though it serves partially as a potent reminder of Caan's talent, Misery is still Bates' show. Whether chiding Sheldon for being ''poopy'' or frustratedly calling him ''Mr. Man,'' or, for that matter, going at the writer's legs with a sledgehammer, she illuminates an imagined extreme of heartland dementia that's far scarier than any of the undead creations that pepper King's other works, even if by the movie's climax the character has devolved into a stock thriller cliche.
Initially, Bates seems to be covering similar ground in Claiborne. Here, she plays the title character, a housemaid accused of killing the rich woman she's looked after for years. Her adversary is John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), a detective who failed to nail Claiborne for the suspected murder of her husband 18 years earlier, and who's determined to make this charge stick. But the real conflict is between Claiborne and her daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a magazine writer long estranged from, and embarrassed by, her mother. As the story unfolds, mixing flashbacks with present-day confrontations, the mulish, humorless, and vaguely menacing Claiborne emerges as the story's heroine. ''Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to,'' she insists, and the terrors of her past and Selena's that the movie reveals bring that point home all too convincingly. Indeed, for the most part, Claiborne's a better that is, angrier feminist parable than Bates' earlier outing, the soupy Fried Green Tomatoes.
Bates' scenes with Leigh are particularly chewy. Confrontations between ''crude'' parent and ''sophisticated'' child have long been a dramatic commonplace, but both actresses seem hell-bent to get to the core of their characters, and their interaction has all the tension and pleasure of a great pitchers' duel. They're aided by a pithy script. Inquiring about Selena's love life, Dolores asks, ''You're telling me there's nobody?'' and Selena drawls back, ''I'm telling you there's a lot of nobodies'' as neat a summation of some career women's lot as you're likely to find. As for Bates, King's visions have afforded her the opportunity to make somebodies out of characters that Hollywood, more often than not, likes to pass over. Misery: B+ Dolores Claiborne: A-