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The Shining: In Praise of Shelley Duvall

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Post-Doctor Sleep, there was a great deal of talk in book presses and blogs about Stephen King’s well known take on Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining. No secret by now that King has strong dislike for the film, mostly owing to Kubrick’s interpretation of the characters and his cold tone. Wendy, for example, King says, is one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman ever committed to film (his take paraphrased). I recently re-read Roger Ebert’s review of The Shining, one of his Great Movies, and at the end of the review he tells the story of asking Shelley Duvall what it was like working on the picture. “Almost unbearable,” is her answer. She describes the year-long shoot as nine months of crying, five and six days a week.

She means crying in the role of Wendy Torrance, of course, but in Vivian Kubrick’s documentary, Making The Shining, we catch glimpses of very real tears. Duvall has a fainting spell; the assistant director cracks wise. Jack Nicholson ignores her, directs his flirtations elsewhere. Kubrick himself mutters impatiently, occasionally yells at her. Duvall, as tall and strikingly pretty as she is, like a weird, wide-eyed forest creature by way of Tim Burton, seems small and frail on set, almost overlooked. “After all that work,” she tells Ebert, “hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick. Like I wasn’t there.”

King noticed her, though. His comment to the BBC is that she’s basically just “there to scream and be stupid, and that’s not the character that I wrote about.” In this, King’s both right and wrong. No, he didn’t write a stupid screamer in Wendy Torrance, but it’s no stupid screamer that Shelley Duvall’s playing. In light of what Duvall says to Ebert, I don’t wish to give Stanley Kubrick any more credit here for how great The Shining is than I’ve given him in the past (a lot). I say, instead, let’s talk about Shelley Duvall’s Wendy, about misogyny, and why she’s every bit as strong as King’s character in the novel.

First, it’s important to note that Wendy, in the movie, performs no action that Wendy, in the book, does not do. Wendy in the book looks out for Danny. Wendy in the movie looks out for Danny. Wendy in the book stands up to her husband when her son appears with bruises on his neck. Wendy in the movie does, too. In fact, Wendy in the movie locks Jack Torrance in the pantry all by herself, whereas in the book, her hands are shaking so badly her five-year-old son has to slide the bolt in place for her (granted, that’s because she’s been beaten with a mallet by her deranged husband, but Wendy in the movie never allows herself to be beaten). My theory is that Shelley Duvall simply isn’t the Wendy King describes: long blonde hair, great legs, beautiful. Not that Duvall isn’t beautiful, but she’s not King’s Wendy. She’s an altogether different kind of woman whose long features and odd physicality are amplified by near-constant screaming and crying (all of which is perfectly logical within the circumstances of the film; her terror is meant to be our terror). Simply put: she doesn’t look strong because she looks odd and she cries and screams a lot. But how or why do these things equal weak? Does a woman have to look or act like Rebecca DeMornay to be strong?

Was Kubrick a misogynist? On this set, probably. Does he destroy Duvall’s performance, crush her spirit? No. Conversely, does the way he treats her somehow add to her performance, make it better, more natural, more harried? Not in the least. She persists in spite of Kubrick, I think, not because of him. To endure a year-long shoot in such isolation with so many men, I think, is the strength we’re ultimately seeing in the film version of Wendy Torrance. Is it a quiet performance? Not always. Is it pretty? Not always. Is it graceful? You bet.

Consider what’s happening in Shelley Duvall’s early monologue about Jack dislocating Danny’s arm. Notice the fragility she conveys, the complex psychology at work behind her mask. She tells the psychiatrist it was just “one of those things you do to a child a thousand times,” but we get the sense that Wendy has never done any such thing to Danny, or would she ever. It’s her husband she’s really talking about in this scene, and the subtext of her fear of him is all there in the way she trembles, the way her eyes widen, the way her cigarette ash lengthens, forgotten. The way she smiles. Hers is, in fact, the first great moment of naturalistic acting in the movie, following a scene of oddly calculated, mannered dialogue between Nicholson and the manager of the Overlook Hotel. How is this, then, a misogynistic portrayal, to shoot her in light and colors so becoming, to make her the first great moment of the movie?

One thing I will give Kubrick credit for here, because it’s relevant: he understands Jack Torrance. Detractors of Nicholson’s take on the character often cite the fact that he seems crazy from the beginning. But in the novel, well, Torrance is, in fact, crazy from the beginning. He’s the heavy, an angry man whose issues with rage, not alcohol, seem to be the true root of his madness. Yet in the novel King allies Danny with Jack, creates a bond between them that his Wendy is jealous of. Kubrick, to his credit, makes Jack the villain with no apology, and allies Danny with his mother, not his father. It just makes sense.

In fact, in the movie, Duvall saves Danny’s life on at least two occasions. She drops him down the snowbank away from Jack and takes up a knife to defend herself. She finds him outside the hedge maze and drives the Snow Cat down out of the mountains. What’s more, she’s confronted with the horrors of the hotel after the horror of her husband, and she survives both.

In Vivian Kubrick’s documentary, there’s an unforgettable moment in which Scatman Crothers, who plays Dick Halloran, is asked what it was like working on the film. His eyes water. Tears spill down his cheeks. Extraordinary, he says. Just extraordinary. Shelley Duvall’s answer to that same question, ten years later, from Ebert: “Almost unbearable.” In light of the fact that Kubrick put Crothers through almost 160 takes of a single scene, I can’t help wondering if the actor was spilling tears of relief just to have survived.

Duvall’s Wendy is just that: a survivor. Her performance is one of the great naturalistic performances in horror, made even more special by the fact that it’s found in one of the most mannered horror movies ever made. She’s the warm light at the center of this cold, cold movie. She’s the one we root for.

Published by Andy

Andy Davidson is the author of IN THE VALLEY OF THE SUN. He lives in Georgia with his wife and five cats.

2 thoughts on “The Shining: In Praise of Shelley Duvall”

  1. Nico Estrella says:

    Hello Andy, I have just watched The Shining on netflix and was so moved by Shelley Duvall’s performance. I immediately googled for reviews on her performance and was disappointed that she was not recognized for her performance on this film. I stumbled upon your review and totally agrees on your take on this film especially for Duvall’s performance. Her performance is one of the most natural and raw acting i have ever seen. I felt her fear, her persistence to survive, her love for her husband and especially for her son Danny. Everything felt real and for that I applause Shelley Duvall!

  2. Lindsay says:

    Great, nuanced take on Duvall’s spectacular performance.
    P.S. I love that you have five cats.

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