Shelley Duvall never wanted to be an actress and for all of her onscreen triumphs, the harrowing tribulations that went along with them and the toll they have taken perhaps prove she found herself in the wrong shoes all along. Not many people fall into the profession of acting, and that alone makes her career almost inexplicable, but not nearly as mystifying as what followed when she plunged into the rabbit hole of stardom.
The story goes that in 1970 Robert Altman was shooting Brewster McCloud in Duvall’s home state of Texas. At a party, he became captivated by the almost otherworldly presence of Shelley Duvall, who was inwardly a very reserved yet upbeat young lady, but her striking appearance and enigmatic ways gave the outward impression that she was some sort of benevolent alien entity bringing life and vividity to the drab gathering. In short, Altman wondered whether the party provided the perfect pastiche of what she might add to a movie scene.
Thereafter, Duvall was badgered to be part of the film and she acquiesced to the demands of potential fame and fortune, in the same sort of baffling way that someone might give in to working overtime. “I got tired of arguing,” she said in 1977 regarding her debut appearance, “And I thought maybe I am an actress. They told me to come. I simply got on a plane and did it. I was swept away.” Now, having garnered awards and accolades throughout her career, she is plagued by mental and physical stresses, making appearances on Dr Phil to claim that Robin Williams was a shapeshifter and that she is being hunted by the Sherriff of Nottingham. This is the story of that unspooling tragedy.
Duvall had never left Texas before flying to Hollywood to star in a Robert Altman movie no less. Whatever the director had seen in her at that party translated seamlessly to the screen and he was vindicated in his judgement. She subsequently formed a creative collaboration with the great American auteur and starred in many of his projects including the seminal film Nashville.
Around 1976, she was even shacked up with Paul Simon. Duvall and the little folk songsmith lived together for two years until she introduced him to her friend, Carrie Fisher, in what was retrospectively a bad move. Fisher and Simon began a relationship shortly after and Duvall was left alone in Hollywood once more following her earlier divorce from Bernard Sampson in 1974 after four years of marriage. Roles, however, continually came to her door and acting saved her from isolation.
Within her first decade of being in the film industry, with not a day’s training or thespian work under her belt prior to it, she had established herself as a sui generis Hollywood go-to girl. The interesting paradox is that in some ways she remained a square peg in a round hole, but that was also ineffably part of her appeal. She seemed to be harnessing some sort of jazz acting, she might have been unconventional in every which way, but she undoubtedly seized the mood of the moment and propagated emotion with an almost perturbing sense of personal poignancy. This brought her to the attention of Stanley Kubrick, and he fatefully cast her alongside Jack Nicholson in The Shining, during which this jazz acting comes to the fore in such a way that she doesn’t seem to realise that the whole thing is make-believe at all, and Jack Nicholson really isn’t an abusive husband cashing her around a haunted hotel with an axe and writing weird letters.
While the long-term effects of the role are debatable, there is no doubting that it had a disturbing effect on her at the time. Kubrick once compelled Harvey Keitel to call him a “fucking lunatic” and quit Eyes Wide Shut after filming him walking through a door over 50 times. On that occasion, his supposed “we don’t print anything until at least the 35th take” mantra was infuriating, but for Duvall, it was rather more exhaustive both emotionally and physically. She spends most of The Shining sprinting around The Overlook Hotel carrying her superpowered toddler and bawling her eyes out in a state of delirious terror.
That is not an easy thing to do day-in-day-out for at least 200 days. To be in the correct state of mind, Duvall would induce emotional pain and sorrow by listening to sad songs on her Walkman and reliving unhappy memories. This was extremely exhaustive, “You just think about something very sad in your life or how much you miss your family or friends,” she said in a recent interview with Hollywood Reporter. “But after a while, your body rebels. It says: ‘Stop doing this to me. I don’t want to cry every day.’ And sometimes just that thought alone would make me cry.”
Interestingly, however, Duvall has also stated: “[Making The Shining was] almost unbearable. But from other points of view, really very nice I suppose.” This in itself seems unfathomable. From the outside, it seems too much of a dichotomy to endure such daily horrors that your hair begins to fall out and yet say that it was also “really very nice” while describing Kubrick as “warm and friendly”.
Her very next film following The Shining was playing Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s version of Popeye, starring alongside Robin Williams. The legendary film critic Roger Ebert described it as “the role she was born to play”. Duvall relished in the light relief following her previous ordeal and often described it as her favourite moment in her career.
She continued acting, often in more lighthearted roles thereafter and eventually married former Breakfast Club lead singer Dan Gilroy in 1989 having met him on the Disney Channel show Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme. They have remained in a happy and contented relationship ever since, returning to Duvall’s native Texas and retiring from the industry to live a more private life than fame affords.
However, her 2002 retirement doesn’t always seem to have been the withdrawal by choice that it is often portrayed as. In an Instagram post of her swigging a beer, she wrote the caption: “Life itself is one big roller coaster. When you reach fame it’s as though you’re right at the top of this wild ride and you don’t come down until your image starts to, when you’re getting less roles and the public aren’t as interested. In some years time a person will mention your name and the other might go ‘who in the world is that?’ Unless you’re Shakespeare or God. This hasn’t happened to me yet, the point where I’m no longer relevant, but it will.”
“It’s not that I can predict things, it’s just that after a certain age people in Hollywood are suddenly getting offered less roles in films,” she added, “It’s a bit – okay, it’s definitely – ageist, I know. To me the age that you are doesn’t define the talent you have. A 20-year-old can be just as capable of remembering lines and doing what is needed just as much as a 55-year-old.”
Now, it would seem she spends her days in her car with her husband picking up takeout food and chatting with locals, and despite the widely condemned Dr Phil show which shows her clearly in distress talking about alien surveillance and nefarious figures who work nights at the bank, she has been contacted by many fans, old friends, co-stars and journalists and seems to have found some solace and peace in the Texan hills of her childhood.
While her film work clearly has come with the sort of cost that makes you wonder whether she should have ever boarded that plane to Hollywood, this apparently peaceful recent chapter offers hope that it will stand out in future as the transfigured artistry of a troubled star and allow the industry to learn from past mistakes.