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The horrific 'Misery' scene that nearly broke Kathy Bates

If you’ve seen Rob Reiner’s 1990 psychological thriller Misery, you’ll probably remember the infamous ‘hobbling scene’ in which Annie breaks the ankles of novelist Paul Sheldon with a sledgehammer. The scene is actually far less gruesome than Misery writer Stephen King intended. He had Annie chop off Sheldon’s foot with an axe and then cauterise the wound with a flame thrower. Still, Reiner’s less explicit scene proved hugely divisive, losing the director countless potential actors and nearly breaking the spirit of the great Kathy Bates.

Misery is based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel of the same name. It tells the story of Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a cynical romance novelist who intends to leave the genre behind by killing off his central heroine, Misery Chastain. After crashing his guitar during a snowstorm, Sheldon is rescued by an affable stranger called Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who just so happens to be Sheldon’s biggest fan. Wilkes takes Sheldon to her home and begins nursing him back to health. However, when Annie finds out that Paul has killed off Misery, things take a far more sinister turn.

Annie’s dark past soon comes bubbling to the surface as she keeps Paul captive in her isolated rural cabin, drugging him and forcing him to re-write the novel. On learning that Paul plans to escape, Annie decides that the only way to keep the author where she can see him is to break both of his ankles. Paul is asleep when Annie injects him, but wakes when she begins explaining the practice of ‘hobbling’, a punishment suffered by workers in African diamond mines who tried and failed to steal the diamonds.

The scene is incredibly unsettling, not least because Annie seems to take such pleasure in Sheldon’s excruciating pain. “God, I love you,” she says as Paul’s body is devastated. But it could have been much worse. Originally, the plan was to keep King’s foot-chopping version in the film, but the plans backtracked when the first director he’d hired to helm the film, George Roy Hill, backed out of the project at the last minute. Explaining the reasoning behind his premature exit, Hill recalled: “I was up all night. And I just could not hear myself saying, ‘Action!’ on that scene.” That same hesitancy was shared by many of the cast and crew working on Misery. Reiner found it nearly impossible to find an actor willing to play Sheldon, losing out on the likes of Warren Beatty, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Redford – all of whom had problems with what, at that time, was called the “lopping scene”.

Eventually, Reiner settled on James Caan. But there was still the problem of finding an actor willing to play Annie. After debating whether Bette Midler or Meryl Streep might be up for a little bit of sadism (they weren’t), Reiner and his screenwriter William Goldman proposed Kathy Bates, an accomplished Broadway actress who had yet to star in a film. Keen to do just that, Bates accepted the offer immediately. “I’m curious to see if people run away from me in the grocery store,” she told the New York Times in 1991.

Reiner was equally curious to see if Bates could handle the intense violence of the hobbling scene. As it turned out, she could not. In the DVD featurette Misery Loves Company, Caan explained: “She’s so antiviolent, or antiviolence, she literally was crying!” Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld was equally taken aback. “The hobbling scene was kind of horrible for all of us,” he said. “For Rob, you know, anything where an actor doesn’t talk, it’s like a huge special effect. So I remember he was sort of in a bad mood about having to do it.” Special effect or not, the hobbling scene provides an essential tonal shift in Misery, marking both the peak of Sheldon’s suffering and the beginning of the end for Annie, who eventually has her head smashed in with a typewriter. How appropriate.

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