Shelley Duvall was the 1970s actress that audiences came to know and love for her distinctive look and odd, eccentric characters. Her most famous role as Wendy Torrance in The Shining however, might have pushed her right over the edge. But there’s no question about it: The wide-eyed girl was born to be a star. Albeit, a quirky one.
Shelley Duvall was born in July 1949 in Fort Worth, Texas. Throughout her career as an actress, Duvall developed a reputation for her quirky looks and bubbly personality. But she definitely didn’t get it from her parents, who were real estate brokers and cattle auctioneers-turned-lawyers. She was, however, always an oddball.
Duvall’s famous quirkiness wasn’t an act—she was born that way. She remembers being an artistic child bursting with energy. But that energy didn't always have a good place to go, and her parents could barely keep up. She would rip around their house, knocking things over and leaving chaos wherever she went. Her mother eventually gave her the nickname "Manic Mouse".
As a child, Duvall never considered a career in entertainment despite her entertaining personality. In fact, she wanted to be a scientist and, at first, that’s what she pursued. But one gruesome moment changed everything. That fateful day in biology class, her teacher had the students observe a vivisection of a monkey. Her gentle heart (and stomach) couldn’t take it.
Once she decided that science wasn’t for her, Duvall went on to study nutrition and diet therapy at South Texas Junior College. She then found a job selling cosmetics at the department store Foley’s and put her distinctive looks to work as a model. It looked like she was going to lead a quiet life. But then a chance encounter changed everything.
In 1970, Duvall became engaged to and married an artist named Bernard Sampson. To help showcase her fiancé’s work, Duvall decided to throw a party. By chance, three members of the crew for director Robert Altman’s film Brewster McCloud happened to be in attendance. But they weren’t there scouting out her fiancé’s artwork.
Fascinated and enthralled by Duvall’s unique look, boundless energy, and hyper-enthusiasm, crew members devised a plan. They told Duvall to collect some of the paintings and present them to a group of "art patrons". Unbeknownst to Duvall, however, the "art patrons" were director Robert Altman and producer Lou Adler.
Her life would never be the same.
Duvall left a lasting impression on Altman and Adler. Though neither of them cared much about the paintings, they couldn't take their eyes off Duvall. She was bursting with energy, but her bizarre look might have had something to do with it, too: "She looked like a flower; her face was painted with marks around her eyes to accent them. Adler later described her as overwhelming. Well, she was also overwhelmed.
After Duvall finished her sales pitch, Altman and Adler dropped the ruse. They told her that they were filmmakers and asked her if she wanted to be in a movie. But Duvall got the wrong impression. "I thought, ‘Uh oh, [an adult movie], my mom’s going to kill me!" Fortunately, Altman and Adler had something else in mind.
Despite her misgivings, Duvall posed for a Polaroid and gave Altman her contact details. And the rest, as they say, is history. In her own words, Duvall said, "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". She had no clue what she was in for.
For the first six or seven years of her acting career, Duvall worked almost exclusively with Altman, becoming one of his favorite collaborators. Her quirks, effervescent personality, and unique looks endeared her to audiences. But not everyone was falling in love with her. Her marriage to Sampson collapsed as her fame grew and they divorced in 1974.
In order to advance her career, Duvall reportedly started taking acting lessons at the famed Actors Studio in New York. After just a few classes, however, she decided that it was "too analytical and technical" and she preferred her freewheeling spirit. Her instincts were right. She was a natural in front of the camera. And soon the world would know it.
Duvall’s breakout performance came in 1977’s 3 Women. Even though it was another Altman-directed film, Duvall was allowed to exercise her natural creative abilities. In addition to ad-libbing most of her lines, Altman credited Duvall with writing her character’s diary entries and decorating her room. It was basically the Shelley Show.
Even though 3 Women was a moderate commercial success, film critics and Hollywood insiders loved it. More importantly, they loved her. Film critic Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice compared Duvall to a young Katharine Hepburn, and she snagged the award for Best Actress at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. That wasn’t all she picked up.
Shortly after finishing 3 Women, Duvall met the singer and songwriter Paul Simon in New York. The details of how they met exactly aren’t clear but they hit it off in a big way and Duvall ended up living with Simon for a few years. Sadly, their relationship quickly turned into the least fun game of "Simon Says" ever played.
Duvall found Simon "funny and intelligent and charming"—but this was no fairy tale. Soon, Duvall's confidence was crumbling. Simon found her juvenile and once told her that he thought she dressed like a little kid. She went out and spent a fortune on brand-new clothes to try and please him, but that wouldn't solve her problems. It was a recipe for disaster.
In a 1981 interview with Cosmopolitan, Duvall remembered her time with Simon in New York with sadness. "I was hanging out with the most sophisticated, most glamorous people[...]but I felt lost, bored, depressed, like Alice in Wonderland, although it wasn’t such a wonderful, wonderful Wonderland, as Alice found out".
But that wasn't even the worst part of this relationship.
In addition to her colorful wardrobe, Duvall also gave up several career opportunities for Simon. She turned down roles, including one from Altman that caused a rift in their friendship. It felt like she was reaching rock bottom. Realizing that she couldn’t continue living like this forever, Duvall sought psychological help. Or, maybe she sought psychedelic help.
Before her first session with a psychoanalyst, Duvall had a revealing dream. She dreamed she was on a gurney with her head wrapped in bandages. She asked the person above her if everything was going to be OK. Their response was chilling: "Aw, don’t worry about it. We’re not going to hurt you. We’re just going to rearrange things a little bit".
Is that what she wanted?
Duvall interpreted her dream as a sign that it was time for a change. She introduced Simon to her close friend Carrie Fisher and the two hit it off. In the meantime, Duvall decided to return to the big screen. She gave a tearful goodbye to Simon at the airport and headed off to star in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Little did she realize, she was in for her worst nightmare yet.
Duvall’s performance as Wendy Torrance in 1980’s The Shining would turn out to be one of her most enduring roles ever. But it did not come easily. The film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, wanted to get the best possible performance out of Duvall. And he would do anything in order to accomplish that—even push Duvall past her breaking point.
In order to help her get into character, Kubrick isolated Duvall on set from her co-stars, such as Jack Nicholson. Nicholson claimed that Kubrick "picked on [Duvall] more than anyone else", oftentimes losing his temper with her, berating her and accusing her of wasting everyone’s time on set. The treatment had unexpected consequences.
Duvall revealed what it was like making The Shining. "It was grueling—six days a week, 12 to 16 hour days, half an hour off for lunch, for a year and one month. The role demanded that I cry for, whew, at least nine of those months[...]and I had to be in hysterics all the time. It was very upsetting". And it only got worse.
All of those tears and hysterics came at a cost to Duvall. More often than not, Kubrick would demand several retakes of highly dramatic scenes and Duvall would, naturally, run out of tears. But not producing the waterworks when Kubrick yelled, "Action!" wasn’t an option, so she walked around with a bottle of water to remain hydrated.
Kubrick didn’t allow anyone on set to come to Duvall’s aid when he pushed her to her limits (or well beyond them). In the documentary Arena: Making the Shining, Kubrick’s daughter Vivian said that the director wanted Duvall to feel "utterly hopeless". Kubrick told Vivian, "Don't sympathize with Shelley," before turning to Duvall and saying, "It doesn't help you".
Kubrick had a vision for her performance—and he didn't care how she felt about it.
Perhaps the best example of Kubrick pushing Duvall past her breaking point was the infamous "baseball bat scene". To really get Duvall to the point of exhaustion, Kubrick had them do 127 takes of that grueling scene—the most takes for any scene in film history. Unsurprisingly, all that stress finally took its toll on Duvall.
Duvall complained about "nervous exhaustion" and "physical illness" from the stress of filming with Kubrick. But that wasn’t even the worst of her symptoms. Throughout filming, Duvall was shedding her hair. After filming wrapped, she went to Kubrick with the clumps of hair that had fallen out because of how he had treated her.
After everything she went through in the making of The Shining, Duvall didn’t even receive praise from critics or audiences. In fact, Duvall even received the worst honor in Hollywood for her portrayal of Wendy Torrance—a nomination for a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress. Thankfully, history was a little kinder than Kubrick was.
In time, audiences learned all that Duvall had endured at Kubrick’s hands. One of the co-founders of the Golden Raspberries felt so bad that they retracted the nomination with the statement, "We have since discovered that Duvall’s performance was impacted by Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of her throughout the production".
You know it's bad if the Razzies are apologizing...
Other critics also changed their opinions in the intervening years. Screen Rant called it the best performance of Duvall’s career and said that she was "the heart of the film". Similarly, Vulture raved about her performance, writing, "Looking into Duvall's huge eyes from the front row of a theater, I found myself riveted by a very poignant form of fear".
In spite of the way he treated her, Duvall still liked and respected Kubrick. Years later, she spoke about the experience with some nostalgia, saying, "[...]there is the genius of Stanley Kubrick. He gets it out of you. But it was very tough and grueling". And, at the very least, Kubrick got what he wanted: He was impressed by Duvall's performance in the final product. Was it worth it, Stan??
After such a taxing experience with Kubrick, Duvall teamed up with Altman once again to make the 1980 film Popeye. Altman cast Duvall in the role of Olive Oyl—the role that she had been born to play. Seriously. All throughout grade school, Duvall’s classmates teased her and called her Olive Oyl. Now the joke was on them.
Once again, critics panned the film, even though it was a box office success. But they heaped praise on Duvall. Famed film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "Shelley Duvall is like a precious piece of China with a tinkling personality. She looks and sounds like almost nobody else, and[..]it is true that she was born to play the character Olive Oyl".
Far from the shrieking and shrinking character of Wendy Torrance in The Shining, Duvall learned to love Olive Oyl and embrace their similarities. Despite the fact that Olive Oyl is a cartoon, Duvall felt like she had more depth than any character she'd ever played. Do you agree?
Shortly after the release of Popeye, Duvall found herself the subject of a peculiar news story. The St. Petersburg Times reported that she was going to marry her Popeye co-star Stanley Wilson, who portrayed the town barber in the film. But there were some strange things about the story that left readers scratching their heads.
The St. Petersburg Times quoted Duvall as saying, "We have known each other for almost 18 months, and that in itself must be a Hollywood record". Allegedly, she gave the quote to reporters at Heathrow Airport before boarding a flight from London to New York. The odd story became even odder, however as she kept talking.
Apparently, Duvall continued speaking to reporters, saying that she and Wilson would "be married within the year". She went on to add, "[...]we must be serious about each other because we have both met each other’s parents". But the story, never corroborated by another news outlet, was almost certainly a total fabrication.
The St. Petersburg Times further quoted Duvall as having said that she had lost a significant amount of weight for the role of Olive Oyl. She then—allegedly—claimed, "But I put it all back on again by eating too many of your lovely English puddings". No other outlet reported the story, however, and the St. Petersburg Times never followed up.
And, to only add to the confusion, Duvall disappeared from the public eye soon after.
For the next 20 years, between 1980 and 2002, Duvall switched gears entirely. She began spending more time behind the camera, producing and narrating children’s and young adult shows. In fact, that’s how she met her long-time boyfriend Dan Gilroy (they remain together to this day) in 1989. And she imagined a life far away from Hollywood.
After a devastating earthquake in 1994 rocked her Los Angeles home, Duvall returned to her home state of Texas. By 2002, she had all but stopped any kind of work in the film and television industry and disappeared from the public eye. But when she finally reappeared (in particularly dramatic fashion), her fans barely recognized her.
Sometime in 2016, Duvall agreed to appear on an episode of Dr. Phil about mental health. What she may not have realized, however, was that she would be the subject of the interview. During the show, a remarkably aged (and totally unrecognizable) Duvall made outlandish claims that had fans everywhere concerned about her mental state.
While the cameras on the Dr. Phil show were rolling, Duvall made some disturbing admissions. She claimed that her Popeye co-star, Robin Williams who had passed two years earlier in 2014, was, in fact, still alive. And not only that, but that he was "shapeshifting". Sadly, that wasn’t even the most outlandish claim she made.
While Duvall had always been eccentric, her claims on the Dr. Phil show were outright crazy. In the interview, she went on to state that aliens had placed implants in her leg and that she was afraid of "the Sheriff of Nottingham". She further claimed that "hornets had attacked her spinal cord". The shocking interview left audiences aghast.
Almost immediately after the episode aired, the show and its host received a flood of negative feedback. Duvall’s fans, who remembered her effervescent personality fondly, criticized the show for exploiting Duvall at a vulnerable time in her life. Even Vivian Kubrick, who couldn’t help her on the set of The Shining, rushed in to defend Duvall.
Vivian Kubrick lashed out at Dr. Phil in defense of Duvall. She tweeted out, "Your [exploitive] use of Shelly Duvall is a form of LURID ENTERTAINMENT and is shameful". She continued, "[Shelly] Duvall was a movie star[...]whatever dignity a mere unfortunate creature might have in this world, is denied her by your displaying her in this way".
Something good did, eventually, come out of Duvall’s appearance on Dr. Phil. The acclaimed director Lee Unkrich had been searching for Duvall for years in order to complete a book he was writing on the making of The Shining. Thanks, in part, to her dramatic reappearance, Unkrich tracked her down to a small town in Texas Hill Country.
When he found her, Unkrich showed Duvall pictures from the set of The Shining. As he put it, "I was really curious to see how she would react and the stories that it might draw out of her". To his surprise, however, Duvall was lucid and not at all how she had seemed on Dr. Phil. But that’s not to say that she was doing alright.
Unkrich found that, in between her somewhat psychotic ramblings, Duvall "could converse for long, coherent stretches and conjure up the slightest details about her life and of her career". Additionally, she remained "very proud" of her accomplishments in Hollywood despite her unceremonious exit from her bright spotlight.
Duvall’s quirks made her into one of the most versatile actresses of her generation. Roger Ebert wrote about her talents, saying, "she has possibly played more really different kinds of characters than almost any other young actress of the 1970s". And, somehow, the final chapter in her epic story hasn’t even been written yet.
In October of 2022, Duvall announced that she was ending her 20-year retirement. Despite her setbacks, the actress decided to make her comeback in the independent horror-thriller film, The Forest Hills. Her own words sum it up best. "Don't let any setback defeat you. The world doesn't end just because one thing goes wrong".
Duvall proves that you’re only as old as you feel. "When I turned 18, I felt I was grown up. Then when I was 21, I reflected, ‘Boy, I was just a kid then; now I'm grown up.’ The same thing happened when I was 27[...]You're never grown up. We’re all still dealing with the same hopes, same fears, same dreams that we had as children".
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