Six Damn Fine Degrees #30: Shelley Duvall in The Shining

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

In the inaugural awards ceremony for The Golden Raspberries back in 1980, Shelley Duvall was nominated for her performance as Wendy Torrence in The Shining. This fact is a useful reminder as to how mixed to hostile the critical reception was for the film on its initial release. And that the annual exercise in lazy trying-to-be-cool snobbery that is the Razzies really don’t know what they’re talking about.

The more I watch The Shining the more I think that the best performance – also the key performance – to the whole thing is Shelley Duvall. This is a horror film based around the idea of a loved one turning into a monster. To work, it needs one key performance that has to be utterly convincing. This isn’t the performance of the monster. The moment the Dad starts growling and picks up an axe, we know he’s gone bad. It’s the performance of the person who knows and loves the person who becomes the monster. Who gets to see their whole world utterly unsettled and destroyed. Who is terrified and broken by the experience.

This isn’t necessarily a complicated or deep role. In many respects it is one-note, and Stephen King has a good point in his criticism that the film reduces Duvall’s part to just that, a woman who falls apart into babbling uselessness – “She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid.” One of Kubrick’s key changes to the script was to cut out many of Duvall’s lines. But given that Kubrick decided to build a film around just this being a key character development, Duvall’s performance is perfect.

So much of the rest of the film feels like an exercise in stylishly showing us the terrible nature of the Overlook Hotel. This is a satisfyingly nasty mythology, where we learn about the terrible party that once took place here, and the grisly fate of the previous caretaker and his family. And the characters that play their part in this side of the story all relish in the grand theatrics of this dark Universe.

But Shelley Duvall isn’t doing that. Shelley Duvall is playing it straight. She’s naturalistic in her performance; if this had been a realistic drama about a married mother who is broken by her violent partner, there would not be a note different. Her slide from quiet but doting wife who keeps the family unit running to utterly impotent despair is both gripping and heartbreaking. I’ve seen many horror films where folk meet grisly ends. I’ve seen horror films where you can tell at the end that the leads are just about to be broken by something awful. There aren’t many films that spend scenes showing something as basic as the total emotional destruction that would be a part of a truly horrific supernatural situation.

All of this, though, is impossible to talk about without addressing the elephant in the room. Kubrick’s treatment of Shelley Duvall on set, which from the accounts of several people who worked on the film, seems tantamount to bullying. A cruelty inflicted by an all-powerful director on an actor who was made to feel isolated throughout the shoot – even going to the extent of forbidding the crew to be sympathetic to her obvious distress. As take after take was shot, each one leading to the director frequently attacking her performance in front of the crew. There’s a horrible awkward question to be asked at this point: could this behaviour possibly be justified if it is responsible for the performance?

I last re-watched The Shining at the end of a binge on Jack Nicholson’s ’70s output, a run of films where I think a case can be made that he was one of the most charismatic actors Hollywood has ever produced. There’s an edgy, dangerous quality to him: sometimes it feels like he’s breaking new ground as to what a leading man can get away with. By the time you get to 1980, though, it feels like he’s being hired to give a “Jack Nicholson” performance. It’s the beginning of a recognisable type that he would go on to play throughout the Eighties.

But after the watch, I decided to track back through Duvall’s previous work in the ’70s. A set of performances for Robert Altman where, like Nicholson, there’s something unique and engaging about her performances. And by the tine I’d reached the end of the truly bizarre (and not necessarily “good-bizarre”) Altman film 3 Women there’s no doubt in my mind she had the range and talent to play the full emotional breakdown that The Shining requires.

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