Famously discovered by Robert Altman while working behind a cosmetics counter in Houston, Texas, Shelley Duvall is one of the weirdest and most beguiling performers to ever find regular work in movies. Duvall epitomizes a certain kind of huge-eyed, skinny Texas girl: diffident, flirty, innocent, addled by marijuana (Duvall has said that she used to smoke up all day and all night long), and generally unnerving. Very much a creature of the 1970s, she featured mainly in Altman films, often in small roles, like her fresh-faced prostitute in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and her scene-stealing Mrs. Grover Cleveland in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Aside from her three Altman leads and her besieged Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Duvall has been restricted to one-scene bits and supporting parts, probably because she’s seen as too idiosyncratic and troubling to take center stage for long. In the ’80s, she made her own opportunities by producing the innovative Fairie Tale Theatre cable series. Most kids of my generation will know Duvall mainly through her inimitably out-of-it introductions to each segment: Her enormous brown eyes would shift around ever so slightly when she talked about “tonight’s tale,” trying to paste what she thought of as “normal” reactions on top of her obvious eccentricity. There wasn’t much work after that, and she’s made no films since 2002. But her major appearances, listed below, are still as fresh and complex as ever.
1. Thieves Like Us (1974): Bathed in pearly primary colors, awash in Coca-Cola and old radio programs, this Altman movie serves as his tribute to the ambiance of the ’30s, and as his least abashed love letter to Shelley Duvall. Her Keechie is introduced obliquely, gradually; Keith Carradine’s Bowie sees her several times entering and leaving a room. When we first see Duvall up close, Altman stays on her with laser-like focus, scrutinizing her narrow, flat face, with its drawn-on eyebrows, her over-sized teeth, her shiny skin, and the way her big ears stick out of her greasy, lank black hair. In conventional movie terms, Duvall’s Keechie couldn’t be less alluring, but under Altman’s gaze, we see Keechie’s (and Duvall’s) hints of worldliness and her motherly feelings for Carradine, which gives her an off-kilter kind of sexiness. Emerging from a bathtub, Duvall makes a beautifully elongated, painterly nude, but this “ideal girlfriend” figure can also be loopy in a menacing way, and petulant. Altman’s doubts creep in when he frames Duvall’s face in a warped mirror so that it swells up on one side, revealing a funhouse freak beneath the lovely woman we’ve learned to see. Her penultimate scene pushes her to hysteria, which Duvall takes to like she takes to every emotion: with complete, unstudied naturalness. And in Keechie’s very ambiguous last scene, Altman shrinks back from Duvall, as if he’s wondering if her strangeness might not be some sort of spiritual, or at least moral, void.
2. 3 Women (1977): This is Duvall’s magnum opus, her tour-de-force for Altman. She wrote some of her own role, the unforgettable Millie Lammoreaux, a Texan Alice Adams/Stella Dallas, and Duvall plays this isolated, deluded creature with such risky comic and tragic precision that it belies (or maybe confirms?) her seeming lack of technique. Millie’s eyes are blank, and she moves stiffly beneath her yellow sun dresses (the hem of her skirt always gets caught in her car door, marking her as one of life’s big losers). You could call what Duvall is doing here minimalist, but that implies a choice of some kind, and I think that she’s really just working within the set confines of her own droll personal style, as a person, as an artist, but not really as an actress, per se. Millie talks and talks to the air in her light, fey voice, like a Beckett heroine, and her inane babble reveals what artist Jack Smith once termed the “uninterrupted commercial intrusions into our daily lives.” Desperate for attention, specifically male, Millie chats up some hospital interns with the priceless come-on line, “Would you check my glands for me?” Everything she says is absurd, but even if we laugh, we aren’t really laughing at her. The sad truth of her empty life is too apparent for that release, so that every laugh she gets holds the audience in a vice of sympathy and horror. Millie is a chattering black hole, a zombie doing an infomercial for various recipes and magazines, and, underneath, she’s a real, hurt, limited girl. We find out where she came from: “My mother was sick. Couldn’t keep me,” she says, briskly, to her deranged admirer at work, Pinky (Sissy Spacek), as if she can’t linger over this loss. When Millie is made to finally feel her own loneliness and lashes out at Pinky, Duvall’s big eyes water with suppressed anger and her girlish voice seizes up as she shouts, which feels shocking. She later redeems herself by taking care of Pinky after a suicide attempt, realizing, on a pre-conscious level, that Pinky is the only person who has ever loved her. 3 Women casts an unbroken spell until the last act, when identities morph in a clumsy way. Though the ending doesn’t do justice to Duvall’s conception, Millie Lammoreaux stands as one of the most believable, detailed portraits of an outcast in all of cinema and literature.
3. Popeye (1980): In Altman’s intriguingly awkward and sometimes downright ugly comic book movie, Duvall gets to do the part she was “born to play,” Olive Oyl. She changes her physicality, moving like a hyped-up chicken, and plays a cartoon variation on her dominant mood, a kind of persnickety, blithe materialism. The role enhances Duvall’s poignant two-dimensionality, making her into a female Pinocchio longing to be a real girl. Altman dresses her in red to set off her pale white skin and ink black hair, and he makes a perverse movie, thumbing his nose at the producers (which included Disney and Robert Evans) while paying final tribute to his Texas rose. The sweet, plangent way Duvall chirps the song “He Needs Me” was tenderly appropriated by Paul Thomas Anderson for Punch-Drunk Love, but Altman subverts Olive’s epiphany by cutting to windows shutting around her as she sings. This is one more point in the film where Altman emphasizes the meanness of Sweet Haven, the seaside setting of Popeye, but it might also be a signal of his disenchantment with Duvall. After steady collaboration in the seventies, Altman and Duvall never worked together again after Popeye. Did they have some kind of falling out? It’s a shame that she didn’t get to turn up in Short Cuts, or Kansas City, or any of Altman’s later films. Duvall always brought the prickly director as close to warmth and wonder as he would ever get.
4. The Shining (1980): As Wendy Torrance, a wrung-out dishrag of a woman who has to find reserves of strength to protect herself and her son from an increasingly psychotic husband (Jack Nicholson), Duvall is much like Lillian Gish in a sadomasochistic D.W. Griffith movie, bringing her purity and humanity to a role that could have been laughably overwrought. She has to spend the second half of this distended movie in a state of constant hysteria, and the trouble she had with Kubrick’s many-take methods over the year it took to shoot the picture is documented in a short documentary on the making of The Shining, directed by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian. In some ways, this brief on-set doc is more interesting than the film itself: We see what look like panic attacks for Duvall, and we see Kubrick’s impatience with her child-like, attention-seeking behavior. After the film is finished, Duvall tells the younger Kubrick that making the movie was finally a positive experience, in her real, almost alto, steady speaking voice. Watching her in the film, though, remains an uncomfortable experience; however effective Duvall is in The Shining, the experience of being (not acting) hysterical under Kubrick for such a long period may have soured her burgeoning creativity.
5. The Portrait of a Lady (1996): Toward the middle of Jane Campion’s well meaning but mostly unfortunate adaptation of the Henry James novel, up pops Duvall as the sprightly Countess Gemini (the operative word here is pop). She puts together a detailed, merry bit of character work in just a few scenes, then disappears, leaving us wanting more. The next year, Duvall had a lead in Guy Maddin’s typically marginal Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, in which she seemed a bit unhappy, and there’s been nothing substantial now for a while. Some rather dark rumors on her IMDb page count as the only information I’ve been able to find about what’s happened to Duvall. According to some of these posts, she has retreated back to Texas and lives in a small town. Two eyewitness accounts state that Duvall might be suffering from health problems. I can only hope these stories are false, but if they have a basis in truth, let me drop my writerly stance completely and simply say, we love you Shelley! Get better soon. David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and others would benefit from your uncanny presence on screen.