Kathy Bates prepares to break James Caan’s ankles in the 1990 film ‘Misery’ (Photo: Everett Collection)
If you’ve seen the horror film Misery, which opened 25 years ago this November, chances are one scene is burned into your brain: the moment when Annie Wilkes breaks the ankles of bedridden novelist Paul Sheldon with a sledgehammer. It’s the most memorable and disturbing moment of the 1990 film, based on a Stephen King novel — and yet, from the moment Misery went into production, the hobbling scene was incredibly divisive, costing the film a director and several potential stars. Based on existing reporting and new interviews, here’s an in-depth look at how Misery’s scariest moment came to be, complete with rare behind-the-scenes photos. [Warning: 25-year-old spoilers ahead.]
Based on King’s 1987 novel of the same name, Misery tells the story of a successful but disgruntled romance novelist, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), who has just written the final book in his series about a heroine named Misery Chastain and plans to leave the romance genre behind. [Update: The novel was already completed at the start of the film.] During a blizzard, Paul crashes his car and is rescued by a cheerful loner named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who calls herself his “biggest fan” and sets about nursing him back to health. However, things take a turn once Annie discovers that Paul has killed off his character Misery — and Paul discovers, in turn, that his caretaker has a very dark past. Annie holds Paul hostage in her isolated home, forcing him to write a new novel in which the heroine survives. The iconic ankle-smashing scene (watch it below) arrives when Annie realizes that Paul is plotting an escape. After drugging him and strapping him to his bed, she calmly tells Paul about the practice of “hobbling,” once used in African diamond mines on workers who tried to run off with the goods. As Paul begs for mercy, she wedges a piece of wood between his legs and picks up a sledgehammer, assuring Paul, “It’s for the best.” Then she brings down the hammer and breaks his ankles in two swift strokes. “God, I love you,” she purrs as he writhes in agony. (By the end of the movie, Paul recovers just enough mobility to get his revenge, bashing in Annie’s head with a typewriter and a metal pig statue.)
Watch the disturbing hobbling scene from ‘Misery.’
When producer-director Rob Reiner approached his Princess Bride collaborator William Goldman to work on Misery, it was the novel’s hobbling scene that hooked the screenwriter. “I could not f—ing believe it,” Goldman wrote in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade. “I mean, I knew she wasn’t going to tickle him with a peacock feather, but I never dreamt such behavior was possible. And I knew I had to write the movie.”
However, the chapter that floored Goldman is rather different than the scene in the final film. In King’s version, Annie doesn’t break Paul’s ankles: She chops off his left foot with an axe, then cauterizes the wound with a propane torch. What Goldman didn’t realize is that his Misery collaborators weren’t as enthusiastic about the foot-chopping scene as he was. Originally, Reiner hired director George Roy Hill (The Sting) to helm the film, which Reiner would produce under his Castle Rock banner. Then, out of the blue, Hill pulled out. According to Goldman, the director’s explanation was, “I was up all night. And I just could not hear myself saying, ‘Action!’ on that scene.”
Rob Reiner directs Kathy Bates and James Caan in ‘Misery’ (Photo: Everett Collection)
Hill’s refusal to direct what he called the “lopping scene” was a deal breaker for Goldman and Reiner, the latter of whom decided to direct Misery himself. But Hill had planted a seed of doubt in his mind. In the weeks that followed, said Goldman, Reiner took an informal survey of everyone at Castle Rock, calling Goldman with updates like, “A good day for the hobblers today, three secretaries said leave it alone.” Meanwhile, the scene was interfering with casting. Bette Midler turned down the role of Annie, a decision she later told the New York Times was “stupid,” because she “didn’t want to saw off someone’s foot.” Warren Beatty was initially very interested in playing Paul, according to Goldman, but he expressed his concerns about the hobbling scene to the production team. “Beatty’s point was this: He had no trouble losing his feet at the ankles, but know that if you did that the guy would be crippled for life and would be a loser,” Goldman wrote.
After all this back-and-forth, Reiner and producer Andrew Scheinman took another pass at the script without Goldman. When the screenwriter read their final draft, he was furious to discover that Paul’s dramatic maiming had been cut, so to speak, and downgraded to two broken ankles.
In his DVD commentary for the movie, Reiner explained his decision to change the scene. “We wanted Paul Sheldon at the end of this movie to emerge victorious over Annie Wilkes, and if he wound up without a foot — even if he winds up beating her and she dies — then he maybe paid too high a price for that,” said Reiner. “Most of the people who have seen this movie say it was pretty darn painful to look at, so I don’t think we compromised it too much.”
Prosthetic legs created for the hobbling scene by special effects makeup artist Howard Berger, modeled from casts of Caan’s own legs. (Photo: KNB EFX Group)
Even after the hobbling scene was dialed back, casting Paul proved a challenge. For six months, Reiner was rejected by one actor after another, including Beatty, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Redford. In the end, they went with Caan, then somewhat of a Hollywood pariah. As for the role of Annie, that turned out to be much simpler, since Goldman and Reiner decided they wanted a relative unknown. “I remember we were talking once, and we were saying, ‘Would Meryl Streep be believable doing these sadistic things?’” Goldman told Broadway World in 2012. “And the feeling was no.” Both the screenwriter and director were admirers of Kathy Bates, an accomplished Broadway actress who had never starred in a film before. She eagerly accepted the offer to star in Misery. “I’m curious to see if people run away from me in the grocery store,” she joked in a 1991 New York Times interview.
As one might expect from a claustrophobic horror film with just two lead actors, filming on Misery was often tense — and the day they shot the hobbling scene was one of the most difficult, both on an emotional and technical level. In the DVD featurette Misery Loves Company, Caan recalled that Bates had a tough time. “She’s so antiviolent, or antiviolence, she literally was crying,” said Caan. “The hobbling scene was kind of horrible for all of us,” cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld concurred. “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.”
Annie tends to Paul after the hobbling. (Photo: KNB EFX Group)
In its own way, the hobbling scene was a huge special effect. To make all of Misery’s violence seem painfully real, Reiner brought in the special effects makeup experts at KNB EFX Group. “We got hired to do all the makeup effects for the movie — which are quite a few, actually, even though they’re kind of invisible and seamless,” Misery makeup artist and KNB co-founder Howard Berger tells Yahoo Movies. For the hobbling scene, Berger and his team molded prosthetics of Caan’s legs out of gelatin, the most realistic material available to duplicate human skin before silicone came into wide use. They inserted armatures with wire into the ankles of the prosthetics so that when Bates would hit the foot hard with the sledgehammer, the ankle would bend at a frightening angle.
Prosthetic legs worn by James Caan after the hobbling scene. Artist Howard Berger designed these prosthetics to be pulled over Caan’s real legs like socks. (Photo: KNB EFX Group)
On the day of the shoot, Berger and his team swapped out Paul’s bed for a stunt bed, with holes for Caan to insert his legs up to the knee. Berger then used Velcro straps to attach the prosthetics to Caan’s real legs underneath Paul Sheldon’s gray sweatpants. During one tedious close-up of the hobbling, Berger recalls, Caan actually got out of the bed, leaving just the artificial legs for Sonnenfeld to shoot. After a while, the all-day shoot took a toll on the prosthetics, forcing Berger to improvise. “I remember we were shooting it so much, the wire started to lose its memory, so when she hit it, the leg would flop and then kind of come back into the position,” says Berger. “So I went to the special effects guy, and I grabbed monofilament and sewed it through the foot. And I was right off the corner of the bed, so when Kathy hit it, I pulled the fishing line as tight as I could, and it would just keep the foot there the whole time.” The fishing-line hack worked, though Bates remembers it as one of the more arduous aspects of shooting. “It had to be pulled at exactly the right time, when I was hitting the ankle, and sometimes the filament would break, and I was like, ‘Oy,’” the actress recently told EW.
Prosthetic heads created from life casts of Kathy Bates for ‘Misery.’ In addition to his work on the hobbling scene, special effects makeup artist Howard Berger created these heads for use in the climatic fight scene between Bates and Caan. Though the effect is seamless, all three appear in the final film. (Photo: KNB EFX Group)
After the scene was finished, it was set to music — and observant audience members may have noticed the familiar song playing in the background. While the Misery score was composed by Marc Shaiman, that particular scene is scored with a recording of Annie Wilkes’s “all-time favorite” musician, Liberace, playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” — a chilling contrast to the brutality onscreen. That detail doesn’t appear in King’s novel or Goldman’s screenplay. “I believe it was Rob Reiner’s idea,” Shaiman tells Yahoo Movies via email. “I believe the movie came to me with that [song] already in there.” (Though Shaiman didn’t compose music for the hobbling scene, he says he had the perfect song title in his back pocket: “Ankles Away.”)
When Misery opened on Nov. 30, 1990, it was overshadowed at the box office by Home Alone, of all things. Nevertheless, the thriller performed well with both audiences and critics; with a domestic box office of $61 million, it was one of the 20 highest-grossing films of the year. Reiner’s most shocking scene was already infamous by the time the 1991 Oscars came around. “I actually have the Misery home game. It’s a home hobbling kit,” host Billy Crystal joked in his opening monologue. When Kathy Bates received her Academy Award for Best Actress (a first for a woman in a horror movie), her acceptance speech included the line, “I would like to thank Jimmy Caan and apologize publicly for the ankles.”
Watch Kathy Bates accept her Oscar for Best Actress for ‘Misery.’
Twenty-five years later, the hobbling scene still looms large in the annals of great movie scares. This year, Caan told EW that he’s been asked, “How are your legs, Jimmy?” about “a hundred thousand times.” Bates parodied the scene for a DirecTV commercial in 2008. And the hobbling will be performed for a live audience this fall, when a new dramatization of Misery, starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf, opens on Broadway. Director Will Frears won’t reveal any details about how he’s accomplishing the scene, but he tells Yahoo Movies via email, “When I interviewed for the job, I said, ‘You don’t have to hire me, but if you don’t smash his ankles onstage, the audience is going to hate you.’”
Even William Goldman came around on the scene Reiner created. “I was wrong. It became instantly clear when we screened the movie,” he wrote. “What they had done … worked wonderfully and was absolutely horrific enough. If we had gone the way I wanted, it would have been too much. The audience would have hated Annie and, in time, hated us.”
Of course, there are those who believe Reiner should have stuck with King’s version. Speaking on the red carpet in 2013, Kathy Bates told an Access Hollywood reporter, “I always really thought that Annie should have cut his foot off.”