Sunday, September 24, 2017

Dolores Claiborne

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Since two TV shows, Pretty Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale, recently won several Emmy awards, I decided to talk about this 1995 movie, directed by Taylor Hackford and based on a Stephen King work, since these stories address a topic which is important to me, the abuse of women by men.
The movie starts with an upward shot of an opulent house, emphasizing the elevated status of its owner, Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). The story begins in the present, with Vera, in a wheelchair, shouting at her maid, Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), in the upstairs hallway. Vera is yelling, “Let me go Dolores!” Vera then topples down the long staircase, crashing into the spokes of the banister. She is bleeding and in agony, and then says to the other woman, “Please Dolores.” She runs into the kitchen, knocks objects onto the floor in a frenzy, looking for something, and settles on a rolling pin. She stands over Vera, ready to end the woman’s life, but cries and shakes, and is interrupted by the mailman. Vera then dies from her injuries.

It appears at first glance that Dolores is trying to kill Vera, but her conflicted emotions about harming the other woman leaves us with a mystery concerning what really happened. The narrative then moves back and forth between flashbacks and the current situation in order to let the audience know what truly occurred.
There is a cut from the site of the death on the island off the shore of Maine to New York, where Dolores’ daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh - the three lead women here should have received Oscar nominations. They are excellent), pleads with her boss, Peter (Eric Bogosian) to cover an important story in Phoenix. In economic fashion, we quickly learn that Selena is an excellent journalist, but slept with her boss, who now has moved on to the next pretty young worker, and Selena will probably not land the next important assignment she deserves. Here we have a talented woman who, despite her success interviewing famous people, must be made subservient to a man, both professionally and sexually.

Selena receives an anonymous fax indicating that her mother is under suspicion for killing Vera. Out of responsibility, she returns to her home which she ran away from not long after her thirteenth birthday. The sunny skies of New York change to the overcast chilliness of the island, symbolizing the somber and troubled mood of Selena and her relationship with Dolores. The ride on the ferry stresses the isolation in which Dolores resides, both physically and psychologically, and the mental journey of returning to an unpleasant place is mirrored on Selena’s grim face. Indeed, Selena appears irritable and sad throughout the movie because of how she perceives her mother, until more information comes to light, and her buried memories of what really happened in her youth are unearthed.

Mother and daughter have been estranged for so long that Dolores doesn’t even recognize her. She is glad to see Selena, hugs the emotionally distant daughter, but she did not send the fax, not wanting to involve Selena in more sordid business. Because this incident is the second time Dolores is a suspect in a death. Selena’s father, the alcoholic Joe St. George (David Starthairn) died and Dolores was accused of killing him. She was acquitted, but the detective, John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), lost the case, and now wants to make sure that Dolores doesn’t get away with it again. But, the fact that Dolores did not actually hit Vera with the rolling pin only makes her a suspect in the death of Vera, and can’t be arrested, much to Mackey’s disappointment. So, she goes back to her abandoned house with Selena because she had been living full time at the Donovan house, taking care of the invalid Vera.

Mackey is another male in the story trying to subjugate a woman with his power. But, to her credit, and, as Selena points out, to her mother’s own detriment, Dolores refuses to be bullied. Her colorful and combative language vents her hostility, but also provokes anger in others. She says that the police station is a mess, and starts to tidy up, despite the mild protestations of Constable Frank Stamshaw (John C. Reilly), one of the few males in the film that is not depicted in a negative light. When going home, some young men shout out to Dolores if she has killed anybody else today, and her angry retort is to say, no, but she knows where to start. After getting fed up with Mackey’s snide comments and vindictiveness toward her, she wittingly and aggressively says, “Now, you listen to me, Mr. Grand High Poobah of Upper Buttcrack, I’m just about half-past give a shit with your fun and games.” She explains to Selena that she is hostile many times because, “Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to.” This phrase is repeated in the movie to show that women have to use the only tool at their disposal to survive.

The return to their house allows for memories to emerge in the form of flashbacks, primarily for Dolores, but a significant one for Selena toward the end of the film. Selena does not want to remember her childhood, but subconsciously she flinches as she enters the house again, and looks wary of ascending the stairs. But, she is stuck there because the only hotel is closed for the season, and the inn burned down. The coldness of the season suggests the harshness of confronting negative thoughts and the desire to close the mental door on what is threatening, and withdraw into one’s comforting status quo. Selena’s selective way of looking at things is seen by her accusing her mother of not getting in touch with her after Dolores mentions that she hasn’t recently heard from Selena. She can’t see that Dolores kept away to shield her daughter from unwanted reminders of what happened to her father since Selena believes, just like Mackey, that her mother killed her father.

While Selena gets washed, Dolores unpacks her bags in Selena’s old bedroom. There are newspaper articles on the wall showing her daughter’s interest in current events, and the books on the shelves are those of prominent writers, such as Saul Bellow, Doris Lessing, and Kurt Vonnegut. These items show us that Selena was a very bright girl and young woman with great potential, who was able to overcome prior trauma, but who is psychologically damaged because of past abuses. Indeed, Dolores finds several bottles of medicine to treat psychiatric conditions in Selena’s travel bag. Dolores may be wanting to rationalize when she says her daughter only went through a “bad patch.” Selena corrects her, saying she had a nervous breakdown. But, despite the terrible experiences Dolores has endured, and her resultant bad humor, we see Dolores remembering a pleasant time, when she played hide and seek with the young Selena.

In addition, Selena smokes and drinks, and the latter upsets Dolores because she is afraid the daughter may have inherited a tendency toward alcoholism from her father. While Dolores admits Selena has been under a great deal of pressure, maintaining her reputation, which includes interviewing noteworthy people such as President Richard Nixon, and drinks to alleviate the stress, she, nevertheless, advises Selena to “slow down” on the booze. Selena says, “Trust me, I know my limit.” Dolores says she’s heard that before, from her husband. Selena angrily justifies her father’s drinking by saying, “What did he have to be happy about.” Dolores says that Joe was happy when he made other people miserable. Selena then directly accuses her mother when she says,”Is that why you killed him?” She goes on to say that the few memories she has of her father, she would like to keep. This is an ironic statement, because she has been successful in making herself forget many disturbing memories about her dad.
It is at this point in the movie that Dolores feels she must fill in those parts of their history that either Selena has repressed or of which she was unaware. The flashbacks that follow reveal what a brutal and humiliating man Joe was. There was the time that he came home and Dolores urges him to sell some old machinery because they have money problems. He fights her on it, and she says if he hadn’t lost his fishing boats, they wouldn’t be desperate, and she wouldn’t have to spend so much time working for Vera. When he bends over he reveals a split in the seat of his pants. She laughs. He deceptively laughs with her, then takes a chunk of wood and slams Dolores in the back. He blames her for provoking him, saying, “Why do you make me do it?” He thinks she is acting superior to him because of where she works. He later piles on his verbal attacks, saying that she should look at the women on the television beauty pageant to see what “a real ass should look like.” He tells his pals that Dolores didn’t look so bad when he decided to marry her because he was too drunk to know better. The abuser of women usually has low self-esteem, and refuses to do a self-assessment of inadequacies. So, he builds himself up by blaming the female for everything, and refuses to take any responsibility for his violent and demeaning actions.
Dolores is in severe pain after the attack, but hides it from the young Selena, saying she is just tired. However, Dolores is no pushover. When she drops a plate, Joe says it better not be one that belonged to his mother, who said Dolores couldn’t cook and would get fat. Right then, Dolores smashes a bottle over Joe’s head. She has a hatchet in her hands and now Joe is scared, because bullies are really cowards at heart, hiding their fear behind an intimidating cover. But, she drops the hatchet in his lap, and dares him to kill her, because if he doesn’t, and he hits her again, she says, “one of us is going to the bone yard.” He backs off as Selena enters the room, and Dolores shields her, literally and figuratively, from what has happened, blocking her daughter’s view of Joe. In the present, Selena yells and cries, sarcastically shouting, “Thanks for sharing!” to her mother. She does not want to believe Dolores, who is establishing what kind of man Joe was, and that hits too close to home to what Selena has worked to forget.
A flashback to Dolores’ first days as Vera’s employee shows Mrs. Donovan as a domestic tyrant. She has endless rules on how Dolores should take care of the house, even on the number of clothespins that have to be used to hang up the washed linens. “Six pins, Dolores. Six pins, not five!” she shouts at her maid. In her narration to Selena, Dolores sums up the suffering involved with working for Vera when she says, “Hell ain’t somethin’ you get thrown into overnight. Nope real hell comes on you slow and steady as a line of wet winter sheets.”

But, Dolores has that ability to see both sides of the situation. She says that Vera was a prisoner of these rules herself, having to feel compelled to insure their enforcement. Also, she observes that Vera’s husband, Jack Donovan (Kelly Burnett) ignored his wife, not even acknowledging her remarks to him as he practiced his golf. The man was also dismissive of Dolores as she interrupts his swings because she must hang the clothes out to dry. He only would visit his wife once during the summer stay at the island house. So, even though Vera may lord over the premises, her husband, the man, still is the ultimate ruler. However, Jack Donovan dies in a car accident, and Vera, not a grieving widow, decides to move into the summer home permanently. Dolores agrees to work for the exacting Vera all year round to save money for Selena’s education.
In the present, Mackey comes around to gather evidence. He needs one of Dolores’ hair follicles. Dolores lets him pull it himself from her scalp, in a scene stressing how men use force against women. Dolores admits that she threatened Vera regularly because the invalid woman became more and more nasty toward Dolores as Vera’s illness progressed. But, Dolores points out to Mackey that saying something and doing something are very different things. Selena questions why her mother is so nasty toward Mackey, and Dolores must again remind Selena of her past. Mackey ruthlessly grilled the young Selena, implying that she conspired with her mother because the daughter was not at home on the day of her father’s death, thus removing herself as a witness. In fact, Selena was working at the hotel because of the additional visitors there to witness the solar eclipse on that day. Mackey, like many men, likes women to be demure and submissive, and Dolores is the opposite of that type of female.
How Selena is also a woman at odds with the male gender is demonstrated in the next few scenes. In a phone conversation with Peter, her love-them-and leave-them boss, she learns that he gave the important Phoenix story to another reporter. She quits her job, becoming even more isolated, like her mother. She then encounters Mackey in a bar, and he is intimidating about how he underestimated Dolores before but won’t let her get away with murder this time. He says that he successfully closed over eighty cases, and Joe’s death is the only one in which he was unsuccessful. Selena then realizes that it was Mackey who sent her the fax, because the detective figured that Selena’s estrangement from her mother indicated that she, too, blamed Dolores for her father’s death, and that Mackey could now use Selena against her mother. Selena now sees him as another manipulative man. When Selena goes back to Dolores’ house, her mother tries to be encouraging about future companionship, despite her negative experiences with males. Selena is pessimistic. Is response to Dolores’ question, “You tellin’ me there’s nobody?” she says, “I’m telling you there’s a lot of nobodies.” Subconsciously, her childhood has prevented her from trusting any commitment to a long term relationship. The current harassment of Dolores by locals resurrects Selena’s memories of the same onslaught when her father died. We see her flashbacks of trying to hurt herself with a broken glass Christmas ball. In the present, Selena storms out, ready to escape the current torment. She takes her pills to escape the mental pain. But, she remains, maybe because deep down she feels a need to help her mother in her world of male oppression.
A visit to the Donovan house to collect Dolores’ belongings causes Dolores to be outraged that the police left Vera’s unclean bedpan, with Mackey claiming it as evidence. Mackey drops a bomb onto Dolores when he says she had motive because Vera left over a million dollars to Dolores in her will. Since the document was executed eight years prior, Mackey argues she must have known about it. Dolores is dumbfounded and swears she knew nothing about the inheritance. The visit triggers another flashback, which shows Dolores became the only person Vera could rely on in her decrepit state. Dolores tells Selena that as Vera’s illness grew worse, she moved into the Donovan home, and fed Vera, helped with her transfers from her wheelchair, cleaned her bedpan, and dealt with Vera’s incontinence. The actions showed Dolores’ caring attention, even if their words were antagonistic to each other. In that verbal hostility was demonstrated how the employer-subservient worker relationship developed into one of equality and familiarity.

Dolores then tells Selena what really happened on the day that Vera died. Vera was a strong woman, and hated the idea of being helpless. She tried to throw herself down the stairs. Dolores was trying to prevent her suicide. However, after Vera was suffering following her fall, she pleaded with Dolores to end her life. So, Dolores chaotically searched for an object to put Vera out of her misery. But, when she stood over Vera with the rolling pin, she couldn’t find it in herself to end the life of the woman she had shared so much time with.

Selena, trying to escape the situation, feels she no longer has to be responsible for her mother since Dolores now has money and can hire a good lawyer. Selena gives her a list of prominent New York attorneys. Dolores wants to know that Selena believes her story. Selena doesn’t understand why, if life with Vera was so terrible, her mother didn’t leave. Selena says that’s what she does, implying that her mother hurt her and that’s why she left. Dolores now realizes the extent of Selena’s selective amnesia concerning the actions of her father. Tired of being accused as the one who hurt Selena, she makes Selena sit and hear the truth. In a flashback, Dolores tells her that she questioned young Selena why her honor student grades started dropping to C’s and D’s. Selena stopped washing her hair and taking care of her appearance, as if trying to look unattractive as a defense against unwanted attention. Selena tells her mother not to touch her. Dolores also noted that Joe gave his daughter a pretty necklace that was handed down from her mother’s side of the family. Men give gifts when they want to seduce women, or money to prostitutes for sex. Dolores voices her realization to her teenage daughter that Joe was sexually abusing Selena.

Once Dolores realized Joe’s incestuous activity, she went to the bank to withdraw the savings for Selena so the two could escape. But, Joe went with a story about how the passbook was lost, and the bank issued a new one to him. He closed the account, taking the savings, and opened up a new one in his name. We have another example of male abuse, only here it is financial. The bank manager is condescending, another man who wants his women submissive and quiet. But, Dolores is outraged, and tells the bank manager loudly that she lost her money because she is a woman. If she had come in and tried to take the money out of her husband’s account, they would have contacted Joe.

Continuing with her retelling, Dolores says she broke down and cried while in the presence of Vera. After Dolores tells her what has been going on, Vera now tells Dolores to call her by her first name, as their sisterhood in opposition to male abuse becomes more established. She says Selena didn’t want to deal with the situation when she was thirteen, and ran off to work at the hotel so she wouldn’t be around when her father came home. Running after Selena, Dolores found a covered over hole on the property, which was the place where Joe’s body was eventually found.

At this point, Selena doesn’t want to hear anymore because the story is becoming too painful for her to listen to. She gives Dolores the discovery evidence she acquired from Mackey to give to a lawyer, and she packs and leaves. But, Dolores has slipped a tape in her belongings so that she would listen to the rest of the story. Dolores counts on the reporter part of Selena, in the absence of her mother’s offputting presence, to want the facts. In the recording, Dolores relates how she told Vera about her husband’s advances on the teenage Selena. Vera wants to know if he has gone all the way with his daughter, and Dolores says that if he hasn’t already, he soon will. We now discover that it is Vera who initiated the “bitch” line. She tells Dolores, “Sometimes, you have to be a high riding bitch to survive. Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to.” She then says, “It’s a depressingly masculine world in we live, Dolores.” She goes on to advise Dolores that the little bit of money she saved will not protect her. It is Vera who covertly suggests doing away with Joe, by admitting that is what she did with her husband, Jack. He says, “Husbands die every day, Dolores … They die and leave their wives their money. I should know, shouldn’t I? Sometimes they’re driving home from their mistress’ apartment and their brakes suddenly fail. An accident, Dolores, can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.”

After listening to Vera, she realizes how the deep hole she found on their property can be used to cause Joe’s “accident.” With everyone at eclipse parties, including one at the Donovan house, Vera tells Dolores she can have the rest of the day off, to go home and watch the eclipse with her husband. Of course, her words are code for doing him in. Dolores gets Joe a large bottle of whiskey, and in his drunken state, he is slowed down and clumsy. Dolores then tells him that she knows about the money, and persuaded the bank to gain access to the account, except for $500 Joe had taken. She then accuses him of sexually abusing Selena, and says she will get him arrested for child molestation. The taunts work, as Joe goes after Dolores, and she leads him to the hole, where Joe falls to his death. Before he drops, Joe begs his wife by saying “please,” which reminds us of what Vera said. But, this is not a plea that deserves mercy; it is a desperate request from a monster. Dolores looks up at the eclipse, the darkness, possibly representing Joe’s evil and maybe Dolores’ dark deed, but with the subsequent reappearance of the sunshine comes the hope for a brighter life to live. Everyone knew Joe was an alcoholic, and his death was ruled an accident while intoxicated. Dolores says on the tape that she will tell the truth about what happened to Vera, but will not get a lawyer and fight whatever is decided. If she is convicted of murdering her, then it will be payback for killing Joe.
Now, Selena has a flashback of a memory she was not able to face until her mother initiated her rediscovery of her history. She is on the ferry, and she remembers her dad buying her hot chocolate (another bribe), and forcing her to perform manual sex on him. Selena, now understanding that it was the paternal part of the family that harmed her, shows up at the inquest to help her mother. She argues that if, indeed, Dolores knew for many years about the will, why would she endure several years of cleaning bedpans and backbreaking work before she would kill Vera? And, why do it at the time that the mailman showed up at the same time every day? Selena says the two women, despite their arguments, really experienced supportive love for each other. She reveals to the magistrate that the real reason the case is being made against her mother is because Mackey has an agenda because he was angry for Dolores spoiling his all-win conviction record. It is about revenge for a prior case, and Vera’s death should have nothing to do with their shared histories. She tells Mackey that she will get a New York lawyer to tear his case apart if he pursues it. Selena finally shows affection toward her mother, taking her hand and they leave on the ferry.
Selena says that she doesn’t know how to feel about what her mother did, but she knows she did it for her. Dolores is relieved because she is finally understood. Selena leaves her, but Dolores is no longer alone in spirit. When the “bitches” are united, as is the case in Pretty Little Lies, they win.

The next film is The Deer Hunter.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share your thoughts about the movies discussed here.