James Caan did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Paul Sheldon in Misery.
Most of the praise given to Misery stems from Kathy Bates's Oscar winning performance as nurse/deranged fan Annie Wilkes. Now there is a reason for that as Bates's Oscar win is one of the most deserving period, but this unfortunately leaves the leading man of the film routinely forgotten in discussions regarding the film. It's funny to note is that Caan actually does something that usually is noted, which is playing against type. The problem is though it happens to be in the way that's never given any credit. Caan is best known for playing a man's man who are usually commanding characters. That's not the case here as Paul Sheldon is a fairly unassuming writer, and in addition to that he spends the majority of the film bed ridden. We are introduced to Sheldon as he plans to finish his new book that is not part of his extremely popular Misery series of books. Sheldon's main point early on is that he wants to write something more meaningful for him and away from the books he's become tired of writing. Having Caan in the role instantly strips away the hint of pretension in this motivation as he makes Sheldon just a likable down to earth guy in the film's brief introduction.
Sheldon's car accident leaves him in the company of Annie Wilkes as the film becomes a two character piece, outside of the welcome cutaways to the investigation thanks to the fact that Richard Farnsworth plays the local sheriff. Caan has two particularly major challenges to deal with the first being that he is physically very restricted by the character's predicament, and also has to deal with the flamboyancy innate to Annie Wilkes, which is played to utter perfection by Bates. Well firstly although Caan is either in a bed or in a wheel chair for most of the film there's nothing underwhelming about his physical depiction of Paul. In fact Caan perhaps gives one of the very best portrayals of a straight forward physical anguish. Caan does not leave it to simply all the slings and made up bruises to sell Sheldon's injuries from the accident. Caan expresses every inch of that pain in his portrayal as he shows it to be almost overwhelming in the earliest scenes of the film. This particularly important as Caan properly depicts the very slow and gradual recovery of Paul over the weeks. There never is a misstep in Caan's performance he keeps the condition that Paul is in a constant.
The role of Paul Sheldon was repeatedly turned down before it was finally accepted, and it is easy to see why as Sheldon is most often a reactionary role with the big emotional moments given to Annie. Those actors perhaps correctly predicted that the actress playing Annie was likely to be the one to receive the plaudits. Caan though apparently took on the role due to the nature of the part which was very much opposed to his usual characters who often did not hesitate to speak their minds. Caan's performance is brilliant in that he creates much of the terror through the way Paul interacts with Annie. Caan's good in the earliest scenes with her as he shows Paul to be appropriately thankful towards her for saving his life, but he also does well in the role as he kinda puts on the gracious author to the fan routine. It is not that he's being overly cruel to her or anything but Caan's great at showing kinda the autopilot manner as he accepts her rabid praise as she declares her love for everything related to Misery. Caan does well though to bring honesty to thanking her as well as in the moments where Paul wonders how his daughter is coping with his disappearance.
Of course not everything stays peachy and that's when Caan really starts to facilitate Bates's performance with his own. Caan always stays at his core a realistic depiction of a man in the situation that Paul finds him in which is essential to play against the crazy horror that is Annie Wilkes. Caan is terrific in the first instance where Annie shows her dark side as she gives her thoughts on his new book, which she does not care for largely it seems due to the swearing in the book. Caan at first keeps that same gracious artist routine until she becomes more intense with her complaints and Caan's reaction is absolute perfection as he realizes the unease in Paul as he starts to see the side of her that's not so cheery. In this way Caan becomes one of the very best straight men ever. There is a very strong vein of dark humor in the film and Caan brings a great deal of this out with his performance. When Bates goes on a mad tirade about something that would seem incidental to anyone who's not her, Caan brings out both horror and the humor through his nervous reactions of complete disbelief that only grow stronger the more obvious it becomes just how bent Annie is.
Caan does not waste really an inch of himself through his down to earth performance that so well amplifies Bates's. One scene in particular I think expresses this best which is the infamous hobbling scene, where Annie gruesomely ensures that Paul stays disabled. The spine tingling nature of the scene would not be found if it weren't for Caan. His squirming in an overpowering fear as he sees what she's doing, along with his meekly asking her to please stop builds up the moments to an almost excruciating point. Then as he writhes in pain of the moment of the act, Caan brings it all home as he delivers in showing just how horrible the act is. Caan is so on point here it is incredible in the way he jumps around the part with such ease. Whether its portraying the points of the torture or the way Paul tries to handle Annie. Caan's performance is pivotal once again in the scenes where he convinces Annie to do something as he believably puts on a false charm when he tries to play into Annie's fan girl tendencies. Caan though is flawless in the way he jumps to genuine fear, if the plan goes wrong, or to such earned exasperation when she turns around or simply he's just had too much of her insanity. Also even though some of the most emotional scenes are given to Bates, that's not to say Caan has none. In fact Caan is very moving in the scene where Annie forces him to burn his new book as he expresses just how much losing the new work means to him as he is made to destroy it. Caan absolutely convincing in this meeker role, he does not allow himself to be overshadowed by Bates instead he fulfills the need of grounding her work. He realizes every step of Paul's terrifying predicament with his fantastic work. I have to say I love this performance which deserves to be praised right along with Bates's.