Kathy Bates received her third Oscar nomination (second in the Supporting Actress category) for her performance as Roberta Hertzel in Alexander Payne's About Schmidt. Jack Nicholson plays the eponymous Warren Schmidt, a newly retired actuary who finds himself struggling to find purpose in his old age, and feels disconnected from his wife of 42 years. After her unexpected death, he also has to come to terms with the wedding of his beloved daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) to an utter buffoon named Randall (Dermot Mulroney) alone. Even though the film is often qualified as a "dramedy", as far as I'm concerned Kathy Bates almost single-handedly injects the film with all of it's funniest moments with her frank performance as Randall's eccentric mother. She's the typical Kathy Bates character type-- brass, larger than life, and "eccentric" in that Hollywood definition of the term where she wears strange outfits and has unique parenting techniques.
It takes a good while before Bates' Roberta enters the film, and before we even meet her we have a preconception as to what exactly her and her family are going to be like through Warren's constant displays of disgust at the thought of his daughter marrying Randall. The film is intent on proving Warren's point of view correct and wants us to view the Hertzel family with a similar disdain and disbelief. Roberta is the head of the family, a woman large in voice and stature who clearly dotes on her son and overpowers her ex-husband and other family members throughout the film. She's a handful of a woman, and Kathy Bates does a great job at using her typical lightly comedic brusqueness to show Roberta's dominance over her family. Easily her funniest moment comes during a dinner scene with the whole family, as she devours a piece of meat and derides her ex-husband as he attempts to make a speech welcoming Warren into the family. Her comedic timing in executing lines such as "drink your fucking milk and shut the fuck up" is positively perfect, as are her facial expressions (those eye rolls) during his continued attempts to give speeches throughout the film.
Besides her dominance, the other main facet of Kathy Bates performance in this film is her relationship with Jack Nicholson's Warren. After he hurts his back sleeping on a water bed, she feeds and takes care of him as he is on bed rest. There is a slightly Misery-ish quality to this scene as Warren sits horrified listening to her prattle on about their children's sex life, unable to leave the bed with only Roberta to nurse him. The two actors have a warm yet purposefully stilted chemistry, and Bates does a good job of showing Roberta's ever so slight attempts to maintain dominance even over her guest. Then comes the infamous hot tub scene, in which Roberta attempts to seduce Warren by joining him completely nude. Bates keeps the scene very casual and is careful not to make Roberta overly forceful or desperate in her seduction attempts. Nicholson slightly overdoes it in his reactions, but what I love about Bates' performance is that she doesn't strain to be funny or creepy or annoying but instead just makes it all happen organically, and that is best illustrated in the hot tub scene where she doesn't even seem all that annoyed with Warren when he rejects her.
Ultimately, because Roberta isn't really all that much of an important character to the film Kathy doesn't really get a chance to do anything past the hot tub scene and we don't get a real conclusion on her character. Still, what she does bring to the film is basically all of the funniest moments through the sheer power of her comedic timing and facial expressions. Roberta isn't an overly complex role or one with a huge amount of emotional depth like some of the other nominees in this category (say, Julianne Moore) but this is such sterling supporting work. It's an effortless performance that is so effective due to Bates' perfect understanding of this woman and the role Roberta plays in the film. She lights up the film and is a joy to watch, and I'd say she gets better the more times you visit her performance. 4/5 Thelmas.