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How Shelley Duvall was almost paralysed on a film set

Rising to prominence throughout the 1970s, actress Shelley Duvall was one of cinema’s most recognisable faces and was well known for her portrayal of bold, eccentric characters. Duvall became an acting chameleon, taking on various roles throughout the latter part of the century, from an introverted mother in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to a dreamy therapist in Robert Altman’s 3 Women.

Her route into the industry was a rocky one too, having initially held aspirations to become a scientist at a young age, with little more than her own ceaseless energy and upbeat attitude to take her to new heights in the film industry. It was director Robert Altman who would give the young actress a significant leg-up in the industry, gifting her landmark roles in Brewster McCloud, 3 Women and Nashville to help catapult the actress to international success. 

Her most recognisable starring turn is no doubt in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in which she plays the mother of a family plagued by the insanity of the father whilst living in a desolate, remote hotel. Duvall thrived alongside Jack Nicolson, putting together one of her greatest ever performances with genuine fear radiating from her depiction. Though, due to Kubrick’s methodology, this fear wasn’t entirely fabricated as the actor felt increasingly tormented by the director on set. 

Forced to enact the exhausting baseball bat scene 127 times, Duvall reported that her time on the set of the film was “almost unbearable”, with Kubrick’s classic psychological horror being both the actress’ triumph and downfall. 

Just one year later, Duvall was due to appear in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, a film entirely different from Kubrick’s intense thriller, which saw a young boy join a band of time travelling dwarves on a quest to steal treasure. The fantasy adventure film was one of the first roles Duvall would take after the trauma of The Shining, so was expecting an altogether calmer time on set, particularly as she only held a minor role in comparison. After one, near-tragic incident, however, this would prove not to be the case.

One scene in Terry Gilliam’s classic, surreal comedy, involved actors leaping from scaffolding, landing with a thud next to Shelley Duvall and co-star Michael Palin. Adamant that the actors were careful before they jumped, Terry Gilliam climbed the scaffolding himself to perform a demonstrative jump, leaping and landing on Shelley Duvall in the process. 

As funny as it may sound, this was no slapstick joke, Shelley Duvall was seriously injured, telling Roger Ebert at the time of the film’s release, “I could have been paralysed, As it is, there’s just a pain that comes through my ears to my eye, then goes away”. Thankfully, the symptoms faded away after several weeks and Shelley Duvall was able to return to acting. 

Though considering both her psychological torment in 1980s The Shining and her physical injury a year later in Time Bandits, it’s fair to say that the 80s was not an entirely stable time for the actress.

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