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The Highs and Lows of the Life of Shelley Duvall

How the actress' magnetic energy gave way to a trauma-induced struggle.

shelley duvall
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  • Photo Credit: "The Shining" via Warner Bros.

Shelley Duvall was larger-than-life, a unique and energetic acting talent during the 70s and 80s. Many knew her for her fascinating look, bubbling personality, and tendency to play the odd and more enigmatic character roles. She’s also known for her amazing performance in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic, The Shining. Of course, as with any meteoric rise, hers came with its peaks and pitfalls. 

Duvall was always a beacon of energy. As a child, she earned the nickname “Manic Mouse” from her mother due to always being so energetic and artistic. Contrary to what many might have assumed, Duvall did not have any artistic career interests. She grew up aspiring to become a scientist; later, in college, she majored in nutrition and diet therapy. On track to become perhaps a nutritionist or therapist, Duvall might have never become an actor.

Related: 7 Little-Known Facts About The Shining

Shelley Duvall's rise to fame

It was a chance encounter during a party in 1970 that changed everything. Robert Altman happened to be at the same party as Duvall, along with some of his film crew. They were all floored by Duvall’s energy and presence—as well as her “unique appearance,” which would become part of her Hollywood allure—and Altman offered her a role in his film, Brewster McCloud. Duvall wasn’t sold on it, but after enough discussion, Altman convinced her to take part. We often hear of celebrity discovery stories like these, where someone meets someone at a coffee shop or is discovered in a completely serendipitous fashion. It’s all very Hollywood, and you could say Duvall rocketed into the limelight overnight.

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The 1970s found Duvall in dozens of highly visible roles in films. She worked with top-tier directors like Altman and Woody Allen. Her “unique appearance” fostered a specific draw in Duvall’s many characters. Her large curious eyes, wide smile, and prominent teeth made her into the manic and energetic character personality that many a film fan of the time couldn't resist stopping to watch her onscreen. She had a commanding ability to take on such roles as a mail-order bride in 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as well as a spaced-out groupie in another Altman film, Nashville. The role was quite notable and helped in her continued success. 1977’s Altman thriller 3 Women saw Duvall take on a starring role as Mildred “Millie” Lammoreaux, a big landmark for her career. It also showcased behind the scenes how much talent and range Duvall had, given that much of the screenplay was loose and unwritten, forcing the cast to improvise their lines. 

The role of “Millie” helped her land a role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, and then the role of a lifetime and career, Wendy Torrance in 1980’s The Shining. Up until this role, Duvall reaped the rewards for her unique filmic draw, and seemed to be continuing to climb and grow as an actor. Simply stated, things were looking great.

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  • Photo Credit: "3 Women" via Lion's Gate Films

Shelley Duvall's struggle on the set of The Shining

However, there was a shadow looming over Duvall, an experience that would drastically change her trajectory and roles post-The Shining. Arguably her biggest and most challenging role, Stanley Kubrick pushed her to the limit to get the performance he desired. There has been discussion about Kubrick’s contrarian directing techniques, but his emotional abuse of Duvall during the filming of The Shining turned out to be one of the lows of her career. 

Related: 20 Horrifying Books Like The Shining

Kubrick treated Duvall differently than the rest of the cast. He purposefully and methodically isolated her, driving her to exhaustion and extreme levels of stress, so much that large clumps of her hair fell out. He exhibited no sympathy for Duvall, his meticulousness for getting the perfect shot famously drove her to perform the baseball bat scene, one of the most emotionally intense moments in the film (requiring Duvall to perform and sequentially relive absolute terror), a record-making 127 times. Duvall fought back, arguing with an antagonistic Kubrick quite frequently. 

Perhaps it didn’t help that critics weren’t as unanimously adoring of her performance in the film, unlike their praise in 3 Women. It was so panned, in fact, that she earned a Golden Raspberry nomination. All that exhaustion and emotional abuse, and for what? But time has been good to the film, including Duvall’s performance. Critics have revisited and truly found something mesmerizing about the authentic fear and exhaustion exhibited in her performance as Wendy.

Related: Everything We Know About The Shining Spinoff Series Overlook

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  • Photo Credit: "The Shining" via Warner Bros.

Shelley Duvall's reclamation of her joy in acting

Once again working with Altman, Duvall went from the horrors of The Shining to the big-time adaptation of Popeye, co-starring as Olive Oyl opposite Robin Williams. It would prove to be far more enjoyable and a sign of where she would go, moving forward. 

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The filming of The Shining left more than a blemish. Duvall actively chose roles in children’s films, preferring to play the role of Pansy in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits over another psychological thriller. Popeye being a critical and commercial success might have been the clincher, allowing her to avoid the traumatic experience with Kubrick.

One can hear and see it in her comments about the filming experience:

“I was there a year and a month, and there must be something to primal scream therapy, because after the day was over, and I’d cried for my 12 hours… after all that work, hardly anyone [even mentioned my performance.] The reviews were all about Kubrick like I wasn’t there.”

Shelley Duvall's battle with mental illness

Duvall continued to work roles in a variety of films throughout the 1990s, but by the millennium, Duvall fell out of the limelight. In a 2016 interview with Dr. Phil, the world saw what had become of Duvall. Though many had mentioned her struggle with mental health, no one was prepared for the state of Duvall’s appearance. Her behavior exhibited signs of mental illness, with incoherent explanations and proclamations that bordered on illusory and alarming—like her claiming that she was a shapeshifter. Dr. Phil gained criticism for running the interview, yet he stated that he was working with Duvall’s family and friends to get her the help she needs. Unfortunately, we don’t know if Duvall ever did get such help, as she rejected Dr. Phil’s aid, preferring to battle her demons alone.

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“Shelley Duvall is like a precious piece of china,” Roger Ebert once wrote, after visiting Duvall’s home in 1980, at the peak of her fame. “She looks and sounds like almost nobody else. In all of her roles, there is an openness about her, as if somehow nothing has come between her open face and our eyes – no camera, dialogue, makeup, method of acting – and she is just spontaneously being the character.” Ebert perfectly explained her allure and ingenuity. However, his description reads in hindsight like a horrific prediction, the “precious piece of china” mishandled and affected by the film industry’s toxicity. Duvall rode the wave of success and fame, and ended up, as Ebert mused, “no camera, dialogue, makeup,” completely alone with the traumas collected and endured over three decades of living onscreen as a fictional character.