SPOILERS AHEAD …
“Sometimes,” Vera Donovan tells her housekeeper, Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), on the occasion of a total solar eclipse in coastal Maine, “you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive.”
“Sometimes,” she adds, “being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to.”
It's a classic line — a call to action, really — in a classic Saturday afternoon movie, one of those terrifically engrossing dramas that always seem to be on network TV on lazy weekend afternoons, the kind that suck you in to the extent that you're willing to sit through an incalculable number of commercials for household cleaning products.
A 1995 screen adaptation of one of Stephen King's not-exactly-horror novels, Dolores Claiborne is about everyday monsters: abusive men, overzealous law enforcement officers and unresolved grief and trauma. It's also about all of the best things for a Saturday afternoon movie to be about: fraught mother-daughter relationships, unlikely but powerful friendships between women, and murder. OK, well, Dolores doesn't exactly murder her husband, Joe (a menacing David Strathairn), on that day in 1975 when Vera sends her home from work early to (wink) enjoy the eclipse with her family. Joe's an alcoholic who, besides being physically abusive to Dolores, has begun sexually abusing their 13-year-old daughter, Selena. He also cleaned out a bank account Dolores had started for Selena so she could afford to get the hell out of Dodge when the time came.
As the shadow of the moon overtakes the surface of the sun, Dolores provokes Joe, leading him on a chase through their yard and — unbeknownst to her drunk, angry husband — toward an old, unused well. Vera has also previously reminded her that “husbands die every day” and that “an accident … can be an unhappy woman's best friend …”
Dolores is suspected of killing Joe, and though she's never successfully convicted, she's alienated from the community all the same. Selena, who blocks out the abuse she suffered at her father's hand, resents her mother and the two become estranged. The younger woman moves to New York and becomes a journalist, and only returns home when her mother is accused of killing her longtime employer, Vera.
Vera (Judy Parfitt) was a rich bitch who worked Dolores until the skin on her hands was raw and cracked. Dolores was a poor bitch who surely despised spending 20 years toiling under a tyrant who valued her collection of china pigs more than the people around her. Of course, the view of their relationship from the inside was quite different — harsh words, tender acts — but people seldom bother to examine the inner worlds of old bitches.
Detective John Mackey, who failed to nail Dolores for Joe's murder, comes after her for Vera's murder with a vigor resulting from 20 years' worth of resentment. It was the embarrassment of his career, and — in typical male fashion — he decides it's much more emotionally expedient to blame Dolores for the failure than to blame himself.
Eclipses always represent change in dramatic narratives. Dolores' life changes for the better simply because she's freed her daughter from a life of abuse, but there's still soooo much misery. Women like Dolores don't get happy endings — they get berated and ignored by angry daughters. They may escape prison, but they get sentenced to lives of indescribable loneliness. It's not life-affirming cinematic fare in a typical sense — a critic from the Kansas City Kansan called it “dreadfully depressing” — but it certainly succeeds in affirming many a woman's impression of what being a woman can be like. You do have to be a high-riding bitch to survive, but that doesn't mean you won't be punished for it every step of the way.
Kathy Bates won an Oscar for another Stephen King adaptation, 1991's Misery, but told NPR in 2011 that Dolores was the “favorite role of all the roles I've done.” Next time you catch it on TV on a Saturday afternoon, set down the remote.
(Oh, and no, there wasn't a total solar eclipse in Maine in 1975, but there was one in 1963, which is when the book was set.)