Duvall, Shelley


Duvall, Shelley
(b. 1949)
   Shelley Duvall was named after Frankenstein author Mary Shelley—perhaps appropriately, considering her connection to STANLEY KUBRICK’s 1980 horror film, THE SHINING, (based on STEPHEN KING’s novel) in which she portrays Wendy Torrance. Duvall made her feature film debut in Robert Altman’s 1970 film Brewster McCloud. She then became something of an Altman regular, appearing in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1973), and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), and turning in a memorable performance as the quirky and confused runaway, L. A. Joan, in Nashville (1976). She also had a very funny cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), as Pam, a too-energetic, younger girlfriend to Allen’s hapless protagonist.
   Stanley Kubrick cast her as Wendy Torrance, the female lead in The Shining, in 1978, and production proved to be a nerve-shattering experience for the actress. According to DIANE JOHNSON, coscreenwriter of The Shining, “Shelley seemed quite crazy . . . She told me later that she was driven crazy by the process of shooting this film. She felt that Kubrick didn’t like her and drove her unmercifully. ” The six-month shooting schedule forced Duvall, costar JACK NICHOLSON (Jack Torrance), and DANNY LLOYD (Danny Torrance) to spend an inordinate amount of time together; and Kubrick and Duvall did not get along particularly well, either. In Newsweek, Jack Kroll reported, “No one on The Shining felt [Kubrick’s velvet] glove more than Shelley Duvall, who had perhaps the toughest job . . . Kubrick would say, piercingly, but never raising his voice, ‘Shelley, that’s not right. How long do we have to wait for you to get it right?’” According to John Baxter, Kubrick played chess with Duvall on the set, something he often did with performers to “wear down their resistance. ” When Kubrick asked her to play chess with him again several years later, Duvall said she considered it,“And then I thought,‘No . . . ’”
   Some film reviewers were especially hard on Duvall’s performance. The critic for Variety, who hated the film and saw only the performances of Danny Lloyd and SCATMAN CROTHERS (Hallorann) as salvageable, said that “Shelley Duvall . . . transforms the warm, sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric whom nobody could be locked up with for the winter without harboring murderous thoughts. ” John Simon stated that Duvall was “unable to fashion a whole character out of disparate fragments. ” Robert Asahina of the New Leader claimed that “[t]he effect is deadening whenever Duvall is on screen, with her homely and expressionless face. ”And Henry Bromell of the Atlantic said that she “looks vague, as if she’s forgotten something, like her lines, or her character. ” James Hala has argued persuasively that Duvall’s somewhat wooden performance seems to be what Kubrick intended, pointing out the way Danny associates her with his toys, due to her unsettling passivity in the face of Jack’s abuse and intensifying insanity. Still other Kubrick scholars have echoed the critical dismissal of Duvall’s acting in the film, as has JOHN BAXTER, who claims that her “largely unconvincing performance” was the result of her being accustomed to Altman’s loose, improvisational style and being unable to cope with “the rigour of a Kubrick production. ” Baxter also cannot resist making some bizarre comments about her unconventional appearance, stating that “Duvall, with her tombstone teeth, long Easter Island face and giant pop eyes rolling like those of a spooked horse, evoked panic the moment one saw her. ”
   Despite all the harsh criticism, it is possible to see Duvall’s contribution to The Shining as a fine, stylized performance indeed. Her Wendy Torrance goes through various psychological states in relation to her family, starting off with an unconvincing (even to Wendy herself, perhaps) attempt to be optimistic and enthusiastic about their lives and prospects for the future, while trying to dismiss Jack’s prior abuse of Danny. Gradually, as the weeks wear on at the Overlook Hotel,Wendy becomes increasingly concerned, bewildered, and finally horrified at Jack’s behavior. These emotions fairly burst forth from Duvall, in shrieks, whimpers, and pleas with Jack. And Duvall’s reactions of sheer terror, as Jack chops his way (with an obscenely gleaming axe) into the bathroom where she is hiding, are so on-target that they form part of the basis for the international poster campaign of the film. Certainly, Duvall’s performance is exaggerated, even over the top; but to paraphrase something Kubrick once told Jack Nicholson, it may not be real, but it is interesting.
   Since The Shining, Duvall has continued to act, and has also found a great deal of success as a producer of quality television series for cable. In 1981, she starred as Olive Oyl in Altman’s live-action musical version of Popeye, a role that absolutely depended on her unusual physical characteristics. She appeared in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), the Steve Martin comedy Roxanne (1987),Tim Burton’s short fantasy Frankenweenie (1984), and Steven Soderbergh’s The Underneath (1995).
   In the 1980s, Duvall began producing for Showtime. Her critically acclaimed Faerie Tale Theatre series drew the talents of such luminaries as Robin Williams, Mick Jagger, and Francis Ford Coppola. In 1988, Channels:The Business of Communication named her one of “Ten to Watch” in cable television after she founded Think Entertainment, the first production company devoted solely to cable (Duvall was also the company chair). Turner Network Television, the Disney Channel, and the Discovery Channel all began expressing interest in Think. Duvall continued working for Showtime, producing Tall Tales and Legends and Nightmare Classics for the network. The latter series included episodes adapted from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s creepy vampire tale, Carmilla, among other sources. The series was intended, according to Duvall, “for teens and up. The focus is psychological, not blood and guts, but that only makes the effect stronger. ”
   In a 1989 profile of Duvall, American Film called her “a mogul, or at least a minimogul,” citing the stellar casts and talented directors Duvall was able to assemble for Nightmare Classics. Duvall told the magazine, “If the ’50s were the golden age of television, then the ’90s are going to be the golden age of cable TV. You have more creative freedom, more of a sense of cooperation from those networks. ” American Film gave credit for Duvall’s success as a producer to her acting career, noting that “she had been paying attention on the set; and she had the good fortune to have worked almost exclusively with great (not just good) directors: Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick. ”
   References
   ■ Baxter, John, Stanley Kubrick:A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1997);
   ■ Hala, James, “Kubrick’s The Shining:The Specters and the Critics,”Anthony Magistrale, ed. , The Shining Reader (Mercer Island,Wash. : Starmont House, 1990), pp. 203–216;
   ■ “Nightmare Classics,” American Film 14, no. 9 (July/August 1989): 56–57;
   ■ review of The Shining, Variety, May 28, 1980;
   ■ “Ten to Watch,” Channels: The Business of Communication 8, no. 5 (May 1988): 64–66;
   ■ Walker, Alexander, Stanley Kubrick, Director (New York:W. W. Norton and Company, 1999).
   B. B. V.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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