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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Shelley Duvall

“Take events in your life seriously, take work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously, or you’ll become affected, pompous and boring.” – Shelley Duvall

Rising to prominence through the 1970s, actress Shelley Duvall was one of cinema’s most recognisable faces and was well known for her portrayal of bold, eccentric characters. With prominent, quizzical eyes, Duvall became an acting chameleon taking on a variety of roles that challenged her preconceptions, from a bohemian socialite in Robert Altman’s Nashville to a troubled introverted mother in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. 

It was director Robert Altman who would give the actress a significant leg-up in the industry too, giving her significant roles in Brewster McCloud, 3 Women and Nashville to help catapult the actress to international success. Growing up in Houston, Texas, Duvall was an energetic child with an artistic eye, though went on to study Nutrition and Diet Therapy at South Texas Junior College.

With an aspiration to become a scientist at a young age, it was, in fact, Duvall’s ceaseless energy and upbeat attitude that would take her to new heights in the film industry, becoming close friends with Robert Altman at a young age before going on to work with Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam to name just three.

To explore just how Shelley Duvall managed to reach such cinematic heights, let’s take a look at her six most definitive films.

Shelley Duvall’s six definitive films:

Brewster McCloud (Robert Altman, 1970)

It was almost by pure circumstance led Shelley Duvall to her first film and a big break in 1970, meeting Robert Altman at a party during the time in which he was shooting Brewster McCloud on location in Texas. 

Several crew members on the set of the film, that followed an introverted loner, Brewster (Bud Cort) as he designs a pair of wings that will help him fly, commented on Duvall’s upbeat presence and unique physical appearance, subsequently asking her to join the production. Reflecting on her commitment to the project, the actress commented, “I got tired of arguing, and thought maybe I am an actress. They told me to come. I simply got on a plane and did it. I was swept away”.

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

Duvall quickly became a favourite of director Robert Altman, choosing the actress for roles as a mail-order bride in 1971s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and the daughter of a convict in Thieves Like Us in 1974. 

Nashville’s legacy, however, as perhaps Robert Altman’s greatest ever film, bringing together an unprecedented ensemble cast to paint the portrait of a contemporary America, would make it one of Duvall’s most definitive pieces of cinema. Playing a spaced-out groupie in Altman’s comedy, Duvall gives a standout performance in the crowd of characters and helps to bring the world of Nashville to life with her unique frenetic energy. 

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

Following her successive achievements with Altman, Duvall began to look elsewhere for another cinematic challenge, finding a supporting role in the whimsical world of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. 

Among director Woody Allen’s finest pieces of work, Annie Hall follows Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), a divorced Jewish comedian reflecting on his relationship with ex-lover Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) which ended abruptly. Duvall plays Pam, a spiritual character and one-time lover of Alvy who describes their sexual experience as “Kafkaesque”, stealing each scene she appears in. Although this may not have been one of Duvall’s most major roles, Annie Hall represented the actresses ambitious desires, wanting to be respected as a cross-genre star among Hollywood’s big names. 

3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)

Nashville, Annie Hall, and 3 Women came in quick succession, over just the course of two years, with the latter reuniting Duvall and Altman for their fifth film together, this time alongside co-stars Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule. 

In the psychological thriller, Duvall stars as Mildred ‘Millie’ Lammoreaux, a woman living in a dreary Californian town who shares a bizarre relationship with her roommate Pinky (Spacek). Coming to writer, director Robert Altman in the form of a dream, the filmmaker quickly jotted the concept down on a notepad before going back to sleep, well explaining the dreamy, psychoanalytical emptiness displayed in the film. A crucial success upon its release, 3 Women was shown at Cannes and Duvall received a Bafta nomination for her portrayal of Mildred. 

The film would represent her first real acting triumph in a leading role, though it would certainly not be her last.

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Duvall’s most famous film role, and potentially her most infamous, came in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel, The Shining, in which the actress would play the mother of a family plagued by the father’s violence. 

Alongside the iconic Jack Nicholson, Duvall thrived, putting together one of her greatest ever performances, her fear for her family’s life resonating through the celluloid. Though, because of Kubrick’s methodical nature, Duvall became psychologically tormented, arguing frequently with the director who would constantly push the actress further and further. 

Intentionally isolating Shelley Duvall, she was forced to execute the exhausting baseball bat scene 127 times, reporting that her time on set was “almost unbearable”. The film’s legacy would be Duvall’s making, but its effect on the actress would lead to her downfall. 

Roxanne (Fred Schepisi, 1987)

Following roles in Popeye, alongside the debuting Robin Williams, as well as Terry Gilliam’s whacky comedy Time Bandits, Duvall continued her trend working in the genre, appearing in Roxanne, alongside Steve Martin. 

The romantic comedy written by Martin was not one of Duvall’s finest roles, playing the friend of the large-nosed C.D. Bales, a man who falls for the beautiful Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), a woman who becomes enchanted by his personality but not his looks. Duvall does the best with what she is given, though is undoubtedly a minor character in Martin’s romantic tale. 

Roxanne would represent the actresses final appearance in a film of good critical and commercial success, with subsequent efforts including Steven Soderbergh’s Underground, and Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady in 1996 falling flat. In 2002 she would retire from acting after 32 years in the business, with many pointing to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as a major turning point in the actress’s career. 

No matter the reason for her early departure from the industry, Shelley Duvall’s on-screen charm will forever be remembered, perhaps most notably in Altman’s Brewster McCloud where her infectious positivity radiates from the screen. 

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