Kathy Bates: From Ducks to Molly, Staying Afloat on Stage & Screen

        It started with a duck. The first Actor's Equity performance of one the greatest actresses of stage and screen was as a duck at a children's theatre in Virginia. Kathy Bates has worked in the theatre in stages across the United States. Her final destination was Hollywood, but how she got there is an inspiring tale…especially since she doesn't fit the mold that most actresses are expected to fit into. She had to be twice as good to get worthwhile roles, many times just to see them go to thinner, prettier actresses onscreen—after she had worked very hard at developing the characters. But she has taken it all in stride and has come out on top to be recognized as one of the best actresses around today.
        Kathleen Doyle Bates was born June 28, 1948 in Memphis, Tennessee (Cont. Theatre…). She is the youngest of three daughters (Newsmakers) of mechanical engineer Langdon Doyle Bates and housewife Bertye Kathleen Bates. She received her B.F.A. from Southern Methodist University in 1969 (Cont. Theatre…). She started out studying English but soon decided that she really belonged in the theatre (Sacks). After graduation she moved to New York, despite the urgings of her parents to remain closer to home. They relented after they saw her in a production in Dallas and ended up assisting her with her move (Newsmakers). She did not remain in New York very long, however, before returning to the south. She did work in both New York and different areas of the south during the seventies. She did some work in Virginia, where she had her first equity performance as a duck at a children's theatre. She said of the role, “That was my silliest role. (We played) every school in Virginia, and some in North Carolina. It was tough.” (Berger) She also performed for several stretches of time at the Actor's Theatre of Louisville, where she performed as Lenny in the original Production of Crimes of the Heart. During the seventies she also played in several small television and the movies, including a guest role on Love Boat and a part opposite Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time (Sacks).
        Kathy's true “big break”, however, came when she was cast in Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize winning 'Night Mother, a play about the last night a suicidal woman (Kathy) spends with her mother. She had met Ms. Norman and her future co-star in 'Night Mother, Anne Pitoniak, while working at the Actor's Theatre of Louisville (Sacks). Norman originally wrote the role to be played by a thin woman (Sacks), but when she came to the end of the play she hit a block. She needed to decide if the ending she had written was the one she wanted. She invited Kathy and Anne to her apartment to do a cold reading of the play. By the end of the reading, they were all crying. She chose her ending, and Kathy and Anne ended up playing the roles onstage (Gussow). The play opened at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre in January of 1983 to excellent reviews. Frank Rich of The New York Times called Kathy's performance excellent, saying “she simply embodies the daughter's dull, anonymous personality.” (Rich, Jan.) The play moved to Broadway and opened at the John Golden Theatre on March 31, 1983 (Norman). Both Anne and Kathy were praised for their acting abilities:

Certainly great is the acting of Anne Pitoniak as Thelma and Kathy Bates as Jessie. The greatness is not only in their speech and moves, it is also, superlatively, in their repertoire of facial expressions, changing through subtle gradations, splintering brusquely, or hinting at double and triple bottoms (Simon, 1983).

        Her performance in 'Night Mother brought her some much deserved attention. She won several awards for her performance as Jessie. In 1983 she won an Outer Critics Circle Award and was nominated for an Antoinette Perry Award for outstanding performance by an actress in a play. In 1986 she won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award and Dramalogue Award, also for her performance in 'Night Mother (Cont. Theatre…).
        She began to get more and better roles after playing in 'Night Mother. In 1985 she was cast in an off-Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class. While the entire play received a good review from Time, most noted was Kathy's performance:

The most remarkable aspect…is the showcase (the production) provides for Kathy Bates, 37, who since her Tony-nominated performance in 1983's 'Night Mother has firmly established herself as one of the nation's foremost character actresses….Bates perfectly balances the ruthless selfishness of the mother's ambitions, and her shameless attempt at larceny to fulfill them, against the depth of her yearning to rise from the starving to the self-assured class (Henry).

        In 1987 Kathy was cast in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, a role written for her by Terrence McNally. He said, “Kathy's is a voice I heard in my head when I wrote 'Frankie'” (Taitz). In it she played a waitress who has just had what she thought was a one-night stand with the cook from the diner she works at. He proceeds to spend the rest of the play trying to convince her that he's in love with her and they should get married. The play is somehow crude and romantic at the same time and, from the reviews, it seems Kathy and her costar Kenneth Welsh pulled it off very well: “But if they're 'ordinary' people sharing an 'ordinary' New York walk-up, the actors who portray them are not ordinary.” (Drake) Indeed, they are described as “highly skilled” (Simon) and “splendid” (Oliver).
        Kathy was replaced by Carol Kane in the role of Frankie when she moved on to replace Amy Irving as Elsa in Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca (Taitz). He chose Kathy to replace Irving because he didn't want the character of Elsa to become a certain type (Sacks). The change was not an easy one for her because she didn't get much rehearsal time and much of her character development occurred during performances (Taitz). Evidently she handled it very well, however, because she was also later chosen to play Elsa in the movie version. “She was my first choices;” said Fugard, “I went for Kathy.” (Sacks)
        It was her role as Elsa that first enraptured actress Camryn Manheim. Kathy had made a name for herself by then, and Camryn was just still struggling in theatre. Everywhere she went, people were telling her she reminded them of Kathy Bates. Having never seen Kathy onstage, Camryn wondered what the big deal was. So she went to see The Road to Mecca the week it closed. She was struck first by the fact that the only thing physically she had in common with Kathy was that they were both overweight, but when she realized what an incredible actress Kathy was she began to hope that wasn't all she had in common with her. She wrote her first fan letter and took it backstage. Not only did Kathy answer her letter, she called her and invited her to lunch. Several years later, when they happened to meet again, Kathy let her know that she had been following her career (Manheim).
        Perhaps Kathy felt a certain kinship with Camryn, having struggled for years to succeed in the theatre herself despite of her weight. Many of the reviews she received early on focused a lot of negative attention on her size. During the run of 'Night Mother especially, almost every critic had a comment on her weight. Even while she was receiving praises for her acting, she was being called fat, lumpy, and even unattractive. One critic erroneously gave her weight as one of the reasons her character was killing herself, even though the character Thelma specifically states that Jessie has not been eating enough lately and no mention is ever made of her size being a reason for suicide:

Why does Jessie want to kill herself? There are many conceivable motives. She's a fat, lumpy, anonymous-looking woman in her 30's who spends her days indoors, eating junk food (Rich Mar.).

        Criticism of her weight became less prevalent as she became better known in the theatre world, but some critics still did not let up on her size. During Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, one critic was especially viscous:

Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh are both highly skilled actors. I consider it unfortunate, however, that Welsh, who looks just right for an average guy, should play opposite an actress who, even for a midnight snacker, is enormously overweight. Frankie need not be alluring, let alone slender, but Johnny is not one of those men described…as “fat admirers”; or, if he is, that would call for a much different play from the determinedly wholesome one McNally is at such pains to contrive (Simon, 1987).

Besides considering an admiration of fat women less than wholesome, it seems the critic failed to notice the line in the play where Johnny says “I for one am very glad you didn't wake up Audrey Hepburn. She's too thin. People should have meat on their bones.” (McNally) Perhaps he just didn't want to see it. In his review of 'Night Mother, he had said she was fat and unattractive (Simon, 1983).
        The reviews she got were not the only problem that were caused by her weight. She also had to deal with losing roles because of it:

I have always had a problem with my weight. I'm not a stunning woman. I never was an ingénue; I've always just been a character actor….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.”

She also lost some of the roles she had defined to thinner actresses when they went to the screen. Diane Keaton got her role from Crimes of the Heart; Sissy Spacek got the role of Jessie in 'Night Mother; and Michelle Pfeiffer was chosen to play Frankie in Frankie and Johnny. At times the loss of those roles bothered her, especially losing the role of Jessie:

On my bad days I got tired of developing material for Sissy Spacek and other stars. I started to think, “Well, what am I up here bustin' mah hump for, while they're out there picking the gardenias off the bushes?” (Sacks)

While still not happy with her losses in the past, she does not dwell on them as failures on her part, and she doesn't harbor grudges against the actresses who got the roles. Rather she has a “That's Hollywood” sort of attitude towards this practice, one she would like to see changed to a more level playing field. She had this to say about Pfeiffer getting the role of Frankie:

Every script gets offered to Michelle Pfeiffer because she's on top right now. Nothing against her—she's terrific. The answer isn't yanking her off a pedestal. It's putting everybody else up there too (People Weekly, Spring 1991).

        These days, however, she has no trouble getting roles. She has made a name for herself in Hollywood as well as in the theatre world. She was chosen by Rob Reiner to play Annie Wilkes in the 1991 film version of Stephen King's Misery, a role that won her an Oscar and made her a household name. Since then she has played with rave reviews in movies such as Fried Green Tomatoes, Used People, and her unforgettable role as the unsinkable Molly Brown in Titanic.
        She learned a lot along the way about not only Hollywood, but also acting and life in general. When she first started acting, she took her roles very personally. She worked hard to make herself one with the character to make it more believable, a process that proved to be dangerous for her and nearly took a turn for the worse when she was playing Jessie in 'Night Mother.
        Kathy had been battling her own demons of depression for a long time. When she was a teen, she often wrote songs about death. Her bouts with depression became especially strong while playing the suicidal character of Jessie. There were nights when she had trouble even distinguishing herself from the character:

My problem was that I couldn't separate what was happening to me onstage from what was happening in my life. My feelings of identification with the character were overwhelming, and I felt I was locked inside the mantra of that play every night (Newsmakers).

Things eventually became so bad during that production that one night she came to a point where she felt she had to either walk out and not do the performance or not walk out at all. She left. She sought therapy to aid her with her depression, and she learned a valuable lesson:

Find that healthy balance between committing yourself 200 percent when you're there, and when you're not there just putting it away…It's in that nether land between creativity and madness that brilliance sometimes happens (Sacks).

        Things are going much better for Kathy now. With the help of therapy she learned how to play a role without getting too involved in it for her own good. She's getting more and better roles than she has in the past. Hers is now a household name, and she doesn't have to worry about losing roles that she worked hard on to someone else. She once said:

I keep thinking, well, Dustin Hoffman broke the mold for the guys. Although he's not an unattractive fellow, he certainly isn't your basic leading man. And maybe somebody can do it for the women (Sacks).

She's already given us a good start, and she serves as an inspiration to any actress who doesn't fit the mold Hollywood has set for them.



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