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A Dog's Life

Kathy Bates makes an art of being a bitch in Dolores Claiborne

Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hang onto. This is what the women in Dolores Claiborne say. Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), the high-riding bitch in the mansion, says it first. Her housekeeper Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) learns fast. After a few crisp words of instruction from her employer, Dolores spends 18 years with nothing but being a bitch to hold onto. Finally, Dolores' daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gets a clue, stops her yapping and whimpering and learns how to fight.

When the women in this film say bitch, they don't mean the run-of-the-mill movie bitch. The Dolores Claiborne bitch is not a manicured vamp accenting her wry remarks with a ten-inch bamboo cigarette holder. The Dolores Claiborne bitch is a forlorn, shaky-legged cur at bay; beaten, but going out with a fight.

This women-as-dogs analogy works all the way through the movie -- Dolores is a tough mutt, Selena is a high-strung indoor dog and Vera ... Vera is the purebred who suffers from inbreeding. She looks good through middle age and then falls completely to pieces. Though big hunks of the movie are corny and predictable, as in any good dog movie, the scenes that are supposed to make you all choked up make you all choked up. The odd truth is that Dolores Claiborne combines the best elements of The Chalk Garden, Enid Bagnold's psychodrama about a confused young girl, and Old Yeller.

Being a Stephen King tale, Dolores Claiborne is set in Maine, on a cold and lonely island. The story is about three women, and told half in the present and half in flashbacks. When we begin, Dolores has been accused of murdering Vera; in the opening sequence we see the old woman tumbling down a flight of stairs and Dolores standing above her crumpled body, a rolling pin raised as if to deliver a coup de grace. Dolores' daughter, Selena, now a magazine journalist working in New York, receives an anonymous fax -- a newspaper clipping about the murder charge from the Bangor paper with Isn't this your mother? scrawled on the cover sheet. Selena, a little tense under the best circumstances, wigs out and returns to Maine. She hasn't been home since college, because when she was 13 her mother was accused of murdering her father, who was found dead at the bottom of a well. When her father died, Selena had what her mother calls "a bad patch," i.e., a nervous breakdown. Selena still travels with a pharmacological arsenal. And chain-smokes. And starts drinking as soon as the sun goes down.

The reunion of Selena and Dolores is not a Kodak moment. Dolores, in her stoic New England way, struggles to make small talk. Selena hears every word as an accusation.

Bates plays the older Dolores as a worn-out woman resigned to almost everything, as a woman who no longer has any expectations, save one: Dolores cannot stop herself from hoping that one day her daughter will understand her. As Selena, Leigh offers a high strung young woman who clearly has some unresolved issues. Where Dolores is tough and responds to hurt with fangs bared, Selena is willing to snap a little, but is basically defenseless.

Selena retrieves her mother from the police. They drive home from town to find their house defaced by vandals. Windows are broken, "bitch" has been spray-painted on the walls and someone has drawn a fat woman, bending over, on the door with the caption, "Kiss my fat ass." Selena can't look; Dolores sets about cleaning up. At night, a truck full of louts with shotguns buzzes the house. Dolores grabs an ax and dares the "piss squirts" to fight. Selena watches through a screen door and weeps. In the beginning, the mother and daughter have different responses to pain. Still, it's clear that part of their suffering is from sympathy for each other, sympathy that they both, for different reasons, don't express.

We learn from flashbacks that Dolores' relationship with her employer, Vera, was hardly warm. Vera, Dolores says, certainly had her ways, and she was ruled by them. She chided her housekeeper to "use six clothespins, not five," to hang the sheets and she wanted the silver cleaned every week. But Vera wasn't just a tyrant. She did insist to Dolores at least once "that women who have hysterics in my drawing room call me by my Christian name." Still, the relationship between Dolores and Vera was strained. In fact -- and Dolores admits this to anyone who asks -- she talked about killing Vera almost every day for decades. Of course, Vera had a mouth on her, too. Their banter, with Bates mashing out flat Maine vowels and Parfitt sipping martinis and being snide, is delightful. If this weren't a "women's film," and if the two of them weren't always fussing about housework, the scenes between Dolores and Vera would look an awful lot like something from a buddy movie.

Let's not forget those two murder accusations, though. When Dolores is shown buying her alcoholic husband (David Strathairn) a bottle of scotch on the day of an eclipse, she's obviously up to something. And, of course, earlier that day Vera had told Dolores that "husbands die every day." Dolores is obviously planning something, but whether or not the events that lead to her husband's tumble down the well were part of a plan she created for that exact purpose isn't clear-cut. Dolores Claiborne puts forth moral issues with some wiggle room. At two points Dolores has to make life-or-death decisions. And then she has to live with her choices.

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