Actress Kathy Bates takes her battle with lymphedema to the streets of Santa Monica
By Michael Aushenker
When The Argonaut caught up with Kathy Bates in May, the Academy Award-winning actress was looking forward to watching “The Shining” with her 15-year-old grand niece, an avid movie blogger who had just finished reading the 1977 source novel by Stephen King.
“I had her look up Stanley Kubrick on Wikipedia and then pick things to talk about for seven minutes,” Bates said. “She’s a big reader, [but] these kids are used to quick, quick, quick. I want to slow things down just a little.”
Previously, Bates and her grand-niece had watched “The Equalizer” and “Cabin in the Woods.” This weekend, however, they will have to put their regular cinema session on hold as Bates joins the Lymphatic Education and Research Network (LE&RN) in Santa Monica for the Run/Walk to Fight Lymphedema & Lymphatic Diseases.
Bates introduced herself as LE&RN’s national spokesperson with an audio message to LE&RN walkers at the 2014 walk in New York. On Sunday, she hosts LE&RN’s first-ever California event.
The Hollywood resident, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress and a Golden Globe for her role in 1990’s King-derived “Misery,” has seen her fair share of medical challenges in recent years. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003 and has since recovered. In 2012, she underwent a double mastectomy and, even after averting breast cancer, contracted lymphedema — fluid retention and tissue swelling caused from a compromised lymphatic system — in both arms.
However, not many people know what lymphedema is or what causes it, so Bates thought it important to raise awareness about the disease, which according to LE&RN impacts as many as 10 million Americans.
“It’s a very serious problem. It’s not just a cancer-related thing,” Bates said, noting that many military men and women coming home from war with damage to their limbs and torso have developed this condition. “Your local GP doctor doesn’t know what it is. Treatment is expensive; not a lot of people can afford it.”
Joy and Payne
Bates, of course, is not your average lymphedema sufferer.
In addition to “Misery,” she’s delivered solid performances in myriad critically and commercially successful films, including “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Dolores Claiborne,” and Academy Award-nominated performances in the presidential campaign saga “Primary Colors” and Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt.” Bates has been up for a dozen Emmys and seven Golden Globes to date and has won two of each.
For “The Late Shift,” the 1996 HBO movie chronicling the Jay Leno/David Letterman booking wars, Bates won an Emmy portraying Leno’s late manager Helen Kushnick. That said, even after Bates’ ferocious role on “Late Shift” aired, people told Bates that the real-life Kushnick was worse.
“I had a very strong manager not unlike Helen,” said Bates. “[Kushnick] was so abrasive, so horrible. I really relied on [director] Betty [Thomas] for that. She was the captain.”
Although Bates never voiced this sentiment, it’s safe to say that Jack Nicholson transformed from one of the best actors of his generation in the 1970s into dangerous self-parody by the time Payne (best known for 2004’s “Sideways”) offered the “Shining” star the challenging part he deserved.
“This is a very different role,” Bates recalled of playing opposite Nicholson in the 2002 dramedy. “There was no playing around with him. Then he walked on set — very professional, very focused on really getting into character.”
Playing Roberta in Payne’s film, Bates famously shed her clothes for a naturalistic hot tub scene.
“I sort of had a fight about that. There were certain things I felt comfortable with,” she said, adding that Payne put her at ease.
And then there are her roles opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Bates portrayed The Unsinkable Molly Brown in a little James Cameron film called “Titanic,” the second-highest grossing movie in history, only to reunite with the actors a decade later in Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road.”
“When we started, they were such babies,” she said of 1997’s “Titanic.”
Bates remembers Winslet making a strong impression: “I’ve never seen a young woman so focused on her work. She drags the script with her wherever she goes.”
She questions, given the dedication to his craft, how undervalued in Hollywood DiCaprio remains: “This is what I don’t understand: why the Academy doesn’t recognize his work. He’s a great actor. I mean, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ To be in the same room and to feel such power.”
Bates marvels at how far Mendes has come since “Revolutionary Road,” directing the 2012 James Bond thriller “Skyfall” (which she loved). She admits that she has not yet seen Mendes’ “Away We Go” (and makes a mental note to seek it), even though it starred John Krasinski of “The Office,” on which sixth season she enjoyed a run as sassy Southern belle Jo Bennett, CEO of Dunder Mifflin’s parent company.
“The reason I did it was I wanted to work with Steve Carell and the others and see how they work,” Bates said. “I wanted to try to understand how they make it look so natural. What I learned is that we can’t always be comedians; you have to be real.”
It’s a lesson she continues to apply making such comedies as “Michelle Darnell,” Bates’ collaboration with the “Tammy” team of Melissa McCarthy and director husband Ben Falcone, due out in 2016.
Bates has taken on comedies despite her primary instinct for drama. For a good segment of the movie-viewing public, no Oscars or Golden Globes can compete with her golden performance as Helen Boucher in “The Waterboy.”
“I threw the script in the trash can,” Bates said of her initial reaction. “My niece said, ‘What is this? Adam Sandler! You don’t know ‘The Chanukah Song?’”
As Sandler’s emasculating and superstitious Mama, Bates chided co-star Henry Winkler (“Mr. Coach Klein”) and had Sandler’s emotionally stunted Bobby Boucher mumbling lines like “My Mama says that alligators are ornery because they got all them teeth and no toothbrush.”
Grossing $186 million in 1998 dollars, “The Waterboy” propelled Sandler into the box office stratosphere.
“I really stuck to the script. He’s a really a stickler,” she said of Sandler.
To this day, Bates still gets fans approaching her about “Waterboy,” especially young people “who love foosball.”
Not everything has gone so smoothly for Bates, but for after every setback she seems to find success.
Around the time Bates’ ordeal with breast cancer subsided, her program “Harry’s Law” was canceled.
She remains very proud, however, of the David E. Kelly legal drama, which starred Bates as patent attorney Harriet Korn and ran two seasons before NBC canceled it in 2012.
“[NBC Entertainment Chairman] Bob Greenblatt said our audience was too old,” Bates said. “I sat shiva for ‘Harry’s Law’ at my house, sent Harry off in style.”
That same year Bates scored an Emmy as the ghost of Charlie Harper (post-Charlie Sheen) on “Two and a Half Men.”
It’s worth saying that 66-year-old Bates appears impervious to Hollywood ageism. Unlike actresses with youthful, glamorous looks that may eventually fade, her everywoman quality has served her well.
“I did not have the curse of beauty,” Bates said, chuckling.
It was after the cancellation of “Harry’s Law” that “American Horror Story” came calling, with show creator Ryan Murphy tapping Bates as serial killer Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a role that won her yet another Emmy last year.
“My eggs are all in the acting basket now,” Bates said, referring to a facet of her career that many fans may not be aware of: her directorial work.
Bates helmed episodes of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Six Feet Under,” “NYPD: Blue” and “Oz” as well as critically acclaimed TV movies “Dash and Lilly” and “Ambulance Girl.”
She says directing 1999’s “Dash,” about the tempestuous relationship between writers Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, was “a real learning curve for me as a director.” Given her fight behind-the-scenes to ditch the “Nick and Nora banter” for something grittier, “Dash” garnered a Writer’s Guild award, three Golden Globe nominations and three Emmy nominations.
“It was a big surprise,” she said.
Out of its Misery
What was also a surprise was when she learned that lymphedema had metastasized to both arms: “I was gobsmacked.”
Bates already had more knowledge of the disease than the average person.
“Going in, I knew that something was going on. My mother had it in her arm,” she said.
Lymphedema is not nearly as high-profile as AIDS, Parkinson’s, MS, MD and ALS — an additional challenge for those afflicted with the disease and one she hopes to rectify.
“The more I learned about the disease, the angrier I became that people did not know about it,” Bates said.
“Mine, thank goodness, is mild,” she continued of her condition, grateful for the course of treatment by Dr. Emily Iker, director of the Lymphedema Center in Santa Monica, as well as Stanford University’s Stan Rockson and Dr. Bill Rippichi in New York.
Bates said she is looking forward to spending Sunday in Santa Monica helping LE&RN get the word out.
She’s optimistic that more awareness and donations can eradicate the disease — an American horror story she’ll be happy to see go away.
LE&RN’s Run/Walk to Fight Lymphedema & Lymphatic Diseases starts at 8:30 a.m. (registration begins at 7:30 a.m.) at Crescent Bay Park, 2000 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. Run/Walk participants must donate $15. To register or sponsor participants (including Team Kathy Bates), visit lymphaticnetwork.org.