The film begins with the unmistakable clatter of typewriter keys. Champagne on ice and a single cigarette and match are ready by the desk. And on keyboards: James Caan as Paul Sheldon, a famous writer who is about to face the worst time of his life.
Caan died Wednesday at the age of 82. The Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor was known for roles in The Godfather, Brian’s Song, Thief and, in more recent years, Elf. But to me he will always be Paul, the author in Stephen King’s best-selling novel, Misery, which became an Academy Award-winning 1990 film. Into a difficult, limited role, Caan brought his signature toughness. As Paul, Caan was tough and tenderly He also did the unthinkable: He made writers cool.
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Misery revolves around Paul, a hugely successful novelist who has just finished the first draft of his latest book, a notable departure from his best-selling and very commercial-sounding Misery series, and Annie, his self-proclaimed “No. 1″. Fan” (Kathy Bates). Paul has gone to a resort in the mountains of Colorado to finish his book, the same place he always goes. As soon as the novel is finished and he celebrates briefly, he sets off in a snowstorm on the way to deliver him and return to his life.
Here’s the thing about patterns: Stalkers can exploit. When Paul crashes his sports car in the snow, Annie finds him comfortable, rescues him, and nurses him back to health at her remote farmhouse. But her nursing comes at a price: total dedication and a brand new book.
Those were the exciting days when an author’s photo took up the entire back of a book. Who needs a synopsis or blurb when you look vibrantly good?
The role of Paul was turned down by a who’s who of notable actors including William Hurt, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harrison Ford and Robert Redford. Misery director Rob Reiner claimed the many film stars who turned down the role were “intimidated.” Warren Beatty was also tagged for the role, but Reiner said: “By the time it got to the point where we were ready, (Beatty) was too nervous. And he left.”
It’s not easy to spend most of a nearly two-hour film playing prone from a bed (which translates into 15 weeks of shooting on your back). “Misery” also marked the return of Caan, his future leading man, to Hollywood after taking some time to deal with addiction. That made the film all the more perfect for him; Writer King said the whole story was a metaphor for his own struggles with drugs.
Physically, Caan appeared taller than he was, with broad shoulders, a ton of chest, and an energy that sparked from his performances. The Hollywood Reporter described him in his obituary as the “Macho Leading Man of Hollywood”. Keeping this man in a bed for weeks became a display of barely contained frenzy.
Actor James Caan in a scene from the film “Misery”, 1990. (Stanley Bielecki Film Collection/Getty Images)Caan had Redford’s matinee idol looks. His Paul is wealthy, successful. His books are profitable enough to have bought two houses, his agent reminds him.
The author’s photo on his books—of which Annie has a framed version in her living room closet for the writer—looks like a glamor photo, more like an actor’s headshot than a novelist’s. Those were the exciting days when an author’s photo took up the entire back of a book. Who needs a synopsis or blurb when you look vibrantly good?
A cool writer needs a cool agent. And this is Lauren Bacall, who plays the world’s most glamorous literary agent with her husky deep voice, shoulder-padded power suit with a gold brooch and feathered ’90s hair. They’re having lunch in New York. She gives him tough love speeches. This is the dashing writer’s life!
LLike any good artist, Paul wants more.
Paul, of course, drives a vintage Mustang. And he drives the small sports car ruthlessly over the snowy mountain roads of Colorado. That’s the confidence Paul has, so confident that he’ll finish his book, that his celebratory rituals lie in wait beside him.
But like any good artist, Paul wants more. He has commercial acceptance that most authors can only dream of, but he also wants literary recognition. He wants prizes. He wants respect, not just money (just like someone who Has money can tell). The same audacity that drives him to drive a sports car in a blizzard leads him to kill the main character of his popular series: the heroine Mercy, the moneymaker who provided these two homes — and floor seats for the Knicks .
Paul fills that rare layer in the book world: he’s very, very popular, but he’s also good. A writer so good that the sheriff (Richard Farnsworth, who was always so heartbreakingly excellent) who takes some of Paul’s books for research when the writer goes missing and is presumed dead can’t put them down. He reads them all the time. He underlines and memorizes lines.
His Paul is funny, smart, but not cruel, even to Annie, who is very, very cruel to him. He kills her. He hurts her first. But he never mocks her.
Is this writer character a proxy for King? Probably. King wrote authors in many of his books, including The Shining and, in later years, Bag of Bones (which is my odd favorite), but the year Misery was published we didn’t have many examples of bards on the screen. That was years before Finding Forrester or Henry Fool; before writer Jughead mused on Riverdale – even before Poetic Justice or Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
Paul falls into certain writer character tropes. He is neurotic and superstitious. He’s a man, white. “Misery” is not without misogyny. But Caan raises the scroll from the side. His Paul is funny, smart, but not cruel. Not cruel, not even to Annie, who is very, very cruel to him. He kills her; he must survive. He hurts her first. But he never mocks her.
“Misery” was one of the first examples of toxic fan culture, a toxicity whose poisons we come to expect in greater doses even today. In the upcoming novel Number One Fan, Meg Elison beautifully and chillingly turns this into an updated “Misery” story, complete with sci-fi conventions, fan fiction, and a kidnapped female writer. How can you love something so much that you want to hurt it or keep it to yourself forever? If you can’t have it, nobody can.
We believe this author has demons. We believe that this author will always have demons.
But since Annie, who turns out to have a history of murders, has a dark center, Paul also has an advantage over him. At the end of “Misery,” when he’s having intrusive PTSD flashbacks, Paul confesses to his glamorous agent at a glamorous restaurant where he’s wearing a glamorous suit that he necessary annie
Caan’s inner darkness and energy sells this line. We believe this author has demons. We believe this writer will always have demons as he will still have kindness (After all, he was trying to get home for his daughter’s birthday when he was first involved in the car accident).
he is patient He remains himself, despite his imprisonment and the terrible things that have been done to him (you know the ones). He doesn’t pet Annie’s pet pig when the friendly pig runs to his bed. Paul is too cool for that. He holds his coolness as Caan somehow restrained his energetic, kinetic self inside Paul’s injured body for weeks.
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Caan also kept the typewriter from the film as a souvenir. His co-star Bates, who won an Oscar for her work as Annie, said in a memoir: “Working with him on ‘Misery’ was one of the most profound experiences of my career as he was watching a snake. Brilliant.”
He kept the typewriter; she kept the sledgehammer. In an interview the two did together in 2015, Caan asked her, “Do you want to act?”
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