Few widely recognized, successful women on television and in film have built an acting career without an “ingénue phase,” which fits snuggly between an actress’s late teens and mid-twenties when she must capitalize on her looks before she expires–like a pint of yogurt–at age thirty. When Kathy Bates repeatedly heard she would never work because of her looks, she managed to succeed on Broadway and in Hollywood without capitalizing on glamour, and she has the Tony, Oscar, Golden Globe, and Emmy nominations (and wins) to prove it.
Actress and director Kathleen “Kathy” Doyle Bates was born in Memphis on June 28, 1948, as the youngest of three daughters to Langston Doyle Bates, a mechanical engineer, and Bertye Kathleen (Talbot) Bates. Though Bates speaks wryly of her date-less adolescence at White Station High School, her lonely Saturday nights most likely fostered her creativity; she played guitar and wrote songs and poetry. This creative composition perhaps led her to declare an English major at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, but discovering acting there led her to switch her major–for a third and final time–to theater. In 1970, one year after graduating from SMU with her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Bates moved to New York City to pursue acting with only five hundred dollars from her father.
Before earning her Actors’ Equity card in 1973, Bates worked as a cashier at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and as a singing waitress in the Catskills (her last job before reaching Equity status was playing a duck in a children’s theater in Virginia). Fellow SMU alumni and playwrights John Heifner and Beth Henley played no small part in her early career: Heifner’s Vanities, a 1976 Off Broadway play, served as Bates’s New York breakthrough, and Henley wrote 1981’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart, which originally starred Bates at the outstanding Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Despite small guest roles in television shows like St. Elsewhere, Cagney & Lacey, L.A. Law, and China Beach, Bates cut her thespian teeth at respected regional theatres like the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in Waterford, Connecticut, and the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Cambridge in 1982, she originated the role of a suicidal divorcée in Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother. The play’s depressive theme proved contagious for Bates shortly after the real-life suicide of a close friend. After her character’s depression became inseparable from her own, she entered therapy and emerged to finish the show’s run with a new ability to safely immerse herself in her role. Critics loved her performance, and after the play moved to Broadway in 1983, she earned her first Tony nomination.
Although Bates kept attracting attention in the mid-1980s for an acting style lauded as realistic and unaffected (in Fred Manley’s Rain of Terror and Ellen McLaughlin’s Days and Nights Within, again at Louisville), her craft did not immediately guarantee commercial success in Hollywood. Despite the 1987 Obie Award she won for her lead role on Broadway opposite F. Murray Abraham in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Bates’s full-figured five-foot-four-inch frame brought her criticism, most scathingly from New York Magazine’s John Simon, who called her “enormously overweight.” Hollywood executives apparently agreed, for although playwright Terrance McNally wrote the character Frankie with Bates in mind, the film Frankie and Johnny starred slender, glamorous Michelle Pfeiffer. This situation would twice repeat itself with the screen versions of Crimes of the Heart (with Diane Keaton) and ’night, Mother (with Sissy Spacek).
Weary of creating characters only to have other actresses reap the financial benefits, Bates moved to Hollywood in pursuit of a more financially rewarding career. Her film breakthrough as the sociopath Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s terrifying Misery (1990) garnered the actress both an Oscar and a Golden Globe. In 1991, Bates found time to marry her long-time companion, actor Anthony Campisi. In that year, she also filmed her Golden Globe-nominated role in Fried Green Tomatoes as an average Alabama woman who transforms her life after befriending a nursing home patient. More memorable roles followed, as murder suspect Dolores Claiborne in the film of the same name (1995) and as the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown in Titanic (1997). Bates’s and Campisi’s divorce in 1997 coincided with the death of Bates’s mother Bertye.
Despite, and perhaps because of, that 1997 wave of personal upheaval, Bates worked more than ever; she acted in eight films in three years. She proved versatile as an actress: contrast her outlandish character Mama Boucher in The Waterboy (1998) with the surprisingly sexual appeal of her bohemian artist in About Schmidt (2002). Bates also displayed functional flexibility as a director. She directed multiple episodes of HBO’s acclaimed shows Six Feet Under and Oz.
In a fabulous trump of the usual Hollywood formula, Bates has worked and succeeded in an industry that values air-brushed “make-believe” over ordinary reality. With her mid-American accent, her round face and figure, and especially her seeming ability to “just be” rather than “act” for a camera, Bates makes “ordinary” glorious–and audiences love her for it.