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Take Three: Shelley Duvall

Craig here with Take Three. Today: Shelley Duvall

Take One: 3 Women (1977)

There aren’t very many characters like Millie Lammoreaux in the movies. Watching Robert Altman’s 1977 masterpiece 3 Women you can see why. Essentially there are two reasons: she’s a hard sell, commercially speaking, and Duvall has played her perfectly well here already; there’s no need for an imitation version from anyone else. Duvall made Millie so singularly and categorically her own. It’s her signature performance; the centrepiece on her C.V. As per the title, she shares the film with two other women: Sissy Spacek, as her new roommate and care-home co-worker Pinky Rose, and Janice Rule as Willie Hart, a local (to Millie’s apartment complex, the Purple Sage, where much of the film takes place) artist – the one who paints the mysterious swimming pool mural which seems so significant to these 3 Women, and (metaphorically?) permeates it with an uncommon atmosphere.

Millie’s unconventional in her desire to be the picture of conventionality, and therefore slightly barking by “normal” folks’ standards. She is awkward to be around, obsessed with women’s magazines and being the girl with the utmost social purpose, to an almost unhealthy degree; she’s too-brightly presented for her own good (literally and psychologically – her yellow and purple outfits cover a multitude of personality shortfalls), self-regarding, scared of tomatoes and is passive-aggressive 23 hours a day. But she’s never less than individual. A one-off. She’s also one of the most riveting, uncontainable and unique creations in all ‘70s American cinema. There’s humour in the awkwardness and then a wrenching sadness. We see Millie change, vividly and complexly, toward the film’s last scenes – just before the film waltzes gloriously off into its own unfathomable illogicality. Duvall quite rightly won Best Actress at Cannes and the LAFCAA for 3 Women. But she should have won much more.

Take Two: The Shining (1980)

“Wendy? Darling? Light of my life. I'm not gonna hurt ya... I'm just going to bash your brains in.” A bit harsh, everything considered. I’d franticly wave a breadknife Nicholson’s way if he threatened me on an opulent staircase. (Especially if I had to do the scene 127 times, as Duvall had to in a then-record-breaking number of scene takes). Duvall’s role in Kubrick’s The Shining – as Wendy Torrance, the hysterical yet innately decent wife and mother accompanying Jack and their finger-possessed son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to a huge, spooky hotel in the dead of winter – may be her most high-profile. Maybe Wendy was too preoccupied doing all the hard work to notice that hubbie had redrum in mind? After just one look over The Overlook, surely Wendy should’ve smelled a rat – what with the corridor corpse twins, men in bear costume, mangy, over-bathed granny in room 237, blood-filled elevators and psychic caretaker, there was plenty of shifty spookiness. And that’s before Jack famously huffed and puffed and... axed her bathroom door in.

As is widely reported (particularly from the Making Ofs), Duvall had a tough time on set. Allegedly Kubrick was harder on her than anyone else. Whether he was pushing her for over-hysterical characterisation or simply being mean is the stuff of movie hearsay. But Duvall is exceptional in each scene. She’s 100% vital to how we experience The Shining – perhaps, more integral than Kubrick might have hoped. Even if we’d like to believe otherwise, Wendy is quite possibly who we would be if we were trapped in a haunted, snowbound spookhole with nowhere to run and a batshit-mad, bat-carrying Nicholson on our heels. She’s all we have to hold on to once the mayhem starts. We invest our survival hopes in her; she’s our distraught tour guide who, ultimately, knows the right exits. Kubrick may have demanded emotional severity from her, but the performance comes inherently from Duvall’s beleaguered humanity. Without Wendy, Jack was nothing.

Take Three: The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Many Take Three picks have starry casts: Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady is a particular corker. Alongside lead Nicole Kidman the thesp count factors in: John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, John Gielgud, Shelley Winters, Martin Donovan, Richard E. Grant, Viggo Mortensen and Christian Bale. However, the real scene-stealing gem – as the wonderfully-named Countess Gemini – is Duvall. The film’s a dry period haul with plenty of elegant tear-work from Kidman. But Duvall, in her trio of Florence-set scenes, brings much-needed exuberant pit stops, full of colour and folly, which jolt the film intermittently alive. She learned Italian for the part, too – though only employs it to briefly speak a few words. She drops them in unexpectedly; it’s a minor detail which raises rare, wry smiles that the film could use more of.

Portrait could’ve done with a lot more Duvall full stop. Her dotty Florentine Countess (sister to Malkovich’s Character) interrupts all the Tedious Liaisons with jovial pep, adding a healthy slice of fruitcake support. She’s (literally) the most colourful character in the film. She pops up in period garb containing much vibrant fluff and ruffle (especially the jaunty yellow- and magenta-topped hat), feeding her equally-decorated lapdog at the dinner table. My spirits soared when she alighted from a coach and darted ‘neath a landmark’s architrave to accompany a tearful Kidman to a fateful rendezvous. And, later in the film, after more central-cast tearfulness, Duvall lights up two scenes: one, where she’s admonished by Malkovich and conveys some sincere fluster; another, longer scene, perhaps the best in the film, where she gets to emotionally let out a Big Nagging Truth to Kidman about Malkovich. It’s generous of Campion to allow her these wonderful moments, but Duvall is missed elsewhere all too often. She solely gives Portrait any zest.

Three more films for the taking: Thieves Like Us (1974), Roxanne (1987), Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997)

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Reader Comments (19)

I remember reading in an interview that Duvall auditioned for POAL with some trepidation after a long, dry spell in her career (after Popeye flopped - not Duvall's fault by any means), and it was Jack Nickolson who encouraged her to go for the role. The countess is very different in the film than in the book, but Duvall made that her entirely her own. Is she the most underrated actress of the 1970's? That's arguable, but it's a shame that she's still not getting more work - she adds so much to any film she's in.

April 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Her work in "3 Women" is indeed something I've never seen before. I love the obscurity of this film, it correlates so perfectly with her enigmatic awkwardness.

April 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

i am glad someone wrote about this,i wasn't sure wether i liked millie at first but those last 10 mins convinced me,she sure shoulda got a best actress oscar nom.

April 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermark

Wonderful write-up! I adore Shelley Duvall -- her work in 3 Women is among my all-time favorites. Also impressive is that she was largely responsible for the creation of Millie Lammoreaux, providing much of the dialogue herself. The fact that she wasn't even nominated by the Academy discredits the organization, proving that the Oscar should not be treated as an indication of quality.

I would echo the sentiment that she was the most underrated actress of the 1970's. Endlessly interesting and sensational with the right material.

Rumors have been circulating these past few years that she's been living an impoverished, isolated existence in Texas. I hope it's not true, and if it is, that she gets the proper help.

Love you, Shelley!

April 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

Great post. Shelley Duvall has such a distinct look and voice that I think people take her acting skills for granted. Your selections definitely show her range. I also think she was great in Thieves Like Us and (yes) Popeye.

April 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaryn G

I really like Duvall in Roxanne. Then again, I really like everything about Roxanne.

April 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOwen

Her role in The Shining is very iconic, but once I saw her as L.A. Joan, there was no going back. Standing out in an all-cast Altman movie like Nashville (although now stealing the show), and I trust you in saying that she steals the show in PoaL. That's a good trait in an actress.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

What Owen said.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Mike, i hadn't heard that but how horrible if true. She was really a singular presence in the movies and it would be great if we could have her back in some way.

Craig , wonderful choice in which films to cover.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

This seems to be the most recent interview with Shelley Duvall.

Not sure about "isolated and impoverished." She's quoted on her Wikipedia page as saying:

"People seem to think I’ve turned into a recluse who never leaves the house and doesn’t communicate with the outside world, that’s just not true... I have a quiet life now, I have a lot of animals on my property and look after them; not a crazy cat lady yet though. I write a lot of poetry, would love to publish a book of my work one day. Still get a lot of scripts sent to me, a return to acting is never out of the question."

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Whoa, I almost thought this was gonna be about the Mom in the Brady Bunch movies (Shelley Long).

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.

I mostly love Shelley Duvall, but her performance in The Shining compromised the movie for me. It was the only time that I saw her "acting." There was just a falseness to her performance that continually took me out of that film. That's obviously not the common opinion. I don't think she had the kind of personality that could deal with Kubrick's abuse and multiple takes. She was great in everything else mentioned here, as well at McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Brewster McCloud, Nashville, and some others I am forgetting.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDBrooks

What about POPEYE!?

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Na Taraja

San FranCinema thank you so much reassuring me she hadn't lost her mind.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

DBrooks actors don't give natural performances in Stanley Kubrick movies.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

Anyone who has never seen her work in 3 Women needs to get on it! One of the best lead female performances of the 70s, her best work and one of my personal all-time faves.

I love Shelley Duvall to bits. And her director resume is rather impressive: Altman (x7), Allen, Kubrick, Gilliam, Burton, Campion, Maddin. The combination of her unconventional looks and organic style of acting leaves a lasting impression for sure. Then again, I've always had a fondness for the untraditional beauties who can act with the best of 'em. The Tildas, if you will. They have to deal with so much more than the average actress, it's a wonder any of them ever make it to the screen at all. But thankful I most definitely am that they do.

Another inspired entry for Take Three. Kudos, Craig!

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Mark - I couldn't agree with you more. And 3 Women is definitely my favourite Duvall performance. Thanks for your comments -glad you enjoyed the write-up!

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Great article. I adore Shelley Duvall and her performance in 3 Women is one of the most fascinating I've ever witnessed. Also love her in The Shining. Haven't seen Portrait but now I've got to just to see her!

April 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Clark

Awe, you forgot her role as Olive Oil in Popeye, with Robin Williams. ;-D

Jim Hinson
Raleigh Swimming Pool Contractor

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRaleigh Pool Guy
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