The film begins with the unmistakable clicking of typewriter keys. Next to the desk, champagne on ice and a single cigarette and match are within easy reach. And on the keyboard: James Caan as Paul Sheldon, a famous writer about to have the worst time of his life.
Caan died Wednesday at the the age of 82. The Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor was known for his roles in ‘The Godfather’, ‘Brian’s Song’, ‘Thief’ and most recently ‘Elf’. But for me, he will always be Paul, the writer of Stephen King’s bestselling novel that became the Oscar-winning 1990 film “Misery.” To a difficult and limited role, Caan brought his trademark toughness. Like Paul, Caan was tough and tender. He also did the unthinkable: he made writers cool.
READ: The art of Caan
âMiseryâ centers on Paul, a best-selling novelist who has just completed the first draft of his latest book, a notable departure from his successful and highly commercial âMiseryâ series, and Annie, his self-proclaimed âNo. 1â. fan” (Kathy Bates). Paul went to a resort in the mountains of Colorado to finish his book, the same place he always goes. After the novel is finished and he briefly celebrates, he drives off in a blizzard to deliver it and return to his life.
Here’s the problem with models: stalkers can take advantage of them. When Paul crashes his sports car in the snow, Annie conveniently finds him, saves him, and nurses him to her remote farm. But her nursing comes at a price: total dedication and a brand new book.
It was the heady days of an author photo taking up the entire back cover of a book. Who needs a synopsis or blurbs when you look thrillingly 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 alleged that the many movie stars who turned down the role were “intimidated.” Warren Beatty was also tagged for the role, but Reiner said, “When we got to the point where we were ready to do it, (Beatty) was too nervous. And he left.”
It’s not easy to spend most of a nearly two-hour movie acting lying down from a bed (which resulted in 15 weeks to film on the back). âMiseryâ also marked the return of Caan, its eventual leader, to Hollywood after taking time off to coping with addiction. It made the movie all the more perfect for him; the writer King said the whole story was a metaphor for his own struggles with drugs.
Physically, Caan seemed taller than he was, with broad shoulders, a barrel chest and an energy that gushed out from his performances like sparks. The Hollywood Reporter, in its obituary, described him as the “The Macho Man of Hollywood.â Keeping this man in bed for weeks resulted in a performance 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 look. His Paul is rich, prosperous. His books are profitable enough to pay for two houses, his agent reminds him.
The author’s photo on her books â of which Annie has a framed version in the sanctuary of her living room dedicated to the writer â looks like a glamorous photo, more like an actor’s head than a novelist’s. . It was the heady days of an author photo taking the whole back cover of a book. Who needs a synopsis or blurbs when you look thrillingly good?
A cool writer needs a cool agent. And it’s Lauren Bacall who plays the world’s most glamorous literary agent with her deep, smoky voice, shoulder-pad power suit with gold brooch, and ’90s feathered hair. They’re having lunch in New York City. She makes harsh love speeches to him. It’s the life of a dashing writer!
Llike any good artist, Paul wants more.
Paul drives a vintage Mustang, of course. And he drives the little sports car recklessly on the snowy mountain roads of Colorado. It’s the confidence that Paul has, so sure of himself that he’s going to finish his book that he has his party rituals by his side.
But like any good artist, Paul wants more. It has commercial acceptance, the kind most writers can only dream of, but it also wants literary approval. He wants prizes. He wants respect, not just money (in the same way that only someone who has money can tell). The same daring that leads him to drive a sports car in a blizzard leads him to kill the main character of his popular series: the heroine Mercy, the lucrative who provided these two houses – and floor seats for the Knicks.
Paul occupies that rare stratum in the world of books: he’s really, really popular, but he’s also good. A good enough writer than the sheriff (Richard Farnsworth, who was always so heartbreaking excellent) who retrieves some of Paul’s books for research when the writer is missing, presumed dead, cannot put them down. He reads them constantly. It underlines and memorizes the lines.
His Paul is funny, intelligent but not cruel, even towards Annie who is very, very cruel with him. He killed her. He hurt her before that. But he never makes fun of her.
Is this writer character a replacement for King? Most likely. King wrote writers in several of his books, including “The Shining” and later, “Bag of Bones” (which is my weird favorite), but the year “Misery” came out, we didn’t have not many examples of bards on screen. It was years before “Finding Forrester” or “Henry Fool”; before the scribe Jughead ruminated in “Riverdale” – even before “poetic justice” Where “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.”
Paul falls into certain tropes of the character of a writer. He is neurotic and superstitious. He’s a man, white. “Misery” is not without its misogyny. But Caan elevates the role of the page. His Paul is funny, smart but not cruel. Not cruel, even to Annie who is very, very cruel to him. He killed her; he must survive. He hurt her before that. But he never makes fun of her.
“Misery” was an early example of toxic fan culture, a toxicity that we continue to come to expect with poisons in stronger doses today. In the forthcoming novel “Number One Fan”, Meg Elison spins this beautifully and chillingly into an updated “Misery” tale 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, no one can.
We think this writer has demons. We think this writer will always have demons.
But as Annie, who ultimately has a history of homicide, holds a dark center, Paul also has an advantage over him. At the end of “Misery”, while having intrusive flashbacks of PTSD, Paul confesses to his glamorous agent, in a glamorous restaurant where he is wearing a glamorous suit, that he necessary Anna.
Caan’s inner darkness and energy sells this line. We think this writer has demons. We believe that this writer will always have demons, as he will always have kindness (he was trying to get home for his daughter’s birthday when he got in the car accident, after all).
He is patient. He remains himself, despite his captivity and the horrible things that have been done to him (you know those). He doesn’t pet Annie’s pet pig when the friendly pig runs to his bedside. Paul is too cool for that. He canned his composure, as Caan somehow kept his kinetic energy contained within Paul’s injured body for weeks.
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Caan also kept the typewriter from the film, as a memento. Her Oscar-winning co-star Bates, who won an Oscar for her work as Annie, said in a reminiscence: “Working with him on ‘Misery’ was one of the the deepest experiences of my career. When you look at his performance, his terror is like looking at a snake. Great.”
He kept the typewriter; she kept the mass. In a meeting the two did together in 2015, Caan asked her, “Do you want to swap?”
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