Watching Shelley Duvall


From the backseat of a two-door, four-seat Ford Fiesta (or was it a Festiva?), I listened to the talk of my fellow travellers. They were chatting in that loose, unstructured way of happy friends who have spent some continuous time together. ‘Hey Crumbs, you know what you wanna read? You wanna read Moby Dick.’ ‘Nah, man, I tried to read that about a year ago.’ ‘Not for you?’ The car was parked on the Stradbroke Island ferry; facing the island, we were on the return trip, travelling backwards towards the mainland. The atmosphere was sleepy after three days of beach. On the first day we’d seen humpback whales breaching and dolphins surfing along the island’s eastern coast. I closed my eyes. The recommender was explaining why he loved Moby Dick, or rather, why it was good. ‘It’s not for any literary reason…’ I opened my eyes. The sky was overcast, a bit sharky. Two of the holidaymakers were scientists, and I wondered how an analogous statement might sound. ‘Yeah, I think childhood vaccination is good. But not for any scientific reason.’ But no, this is a stupid analogy. And besides, I myself nearly always like books ‘not for any literary reason.’ I’m not certain that my studies, and rather obscure career, have ever provided any particular reason for why I’ve thought or done anything to do with books. More telling than that comment was the tacit response to it in the car, the lack of any kind of request for further explanation illustrating an acceptance that the speaker of course, naturally, should not recourse to ‘literary reasons’ to justify taste or interest. Naturally: the position is a given. If the study of literature doesn’t provide any reason, if the sense of its irrelevance is general, pervasive and monumentally casual, what is the point of the discipline? Is there any service the discipline supports other than pointless mental exile, which I briefly acknowledged in the reflection of the window of the Festiva (or Fiesta)?

I read somewhere that Shelley Duvall (3 Women, The Shining) had wanted to be a scientist; that growing up her hero was Marie Curie. I read that she never trained as an actress, and that Robert Altman, who discovered her in Texas, instructed her to simply be herself, or not take herself too seriously, to just be in the moment, something like that, in front of the camera. No theory. Be in the moment. Whenever I see her movies two things strike me. First: she’s a star-maker’s star. Like John Cazale, she’s a weird combination of inimitable and forgettable, a freak that flies under the radar. Playing one-on-one against Sissy Spacek or Jack Nicholson, she provides this deeply charged space for her co-star to deliver the god-like performance. Her psychic generosity is immense. Second: watching her is a physical ordeal. I think there’s something really sick about my fascination with on-screen thinness, and worst of all, I suspect I am in the majority regarding this cultural spectacle. There’s something about extreme thinness that is visually hypnotic, like a puzzle we can’t figure out. How can that be a body? A woman’s body? Something like that. I’m also enthralled by Duvall’s hysteria, her hyper-domesticity (think of those wonderful recipes she catalogued as Milly in 3 Women); these excessive identities are utterly linked in my mind to the visual cue of her spectacular thinness.

Maybe this seems like so much posturing. But there’s a fabulous protest embodied by Shelley Duvall that gets me every time. She’s the ultimate weakling, a tearful, high-pitched loser, famously bullied on set by Kubrick and Nicholson. I read that she cried for a year and a half while shooting The Shining. She’s anti-strong; everything she represents is against the idea of the strong woman. Against, and perhaps a protest. But what’s wrong with the strong woman? What could be more feminist, more equal, than a tough, resilient female role model? It’s what we always hear: there aren’t enough strong women in cultural representations (film, music, political offices). There aren’t enough strong role models. The ideal strong woman is a warrior: she goes to war and fires an arrow just like she goes to work and fires the arsehole. That’s how strong she is. And that’s great, I suppose, if you’re telling a story in the heroic era. But I reckon the strong woman is a big fat lie. Rather than standing for modern ‘equal rights’ as such, the strong woman is a flat character consistent with the pre-modern imagination. She doesn’t really doubt, or wonder, or wander in the twin realms of inertia or overexcitement. She doesn’t have the psychology to pretend to be something she’s not. Where is her personhood, her round character? Where is her insecurity, her metaphysical angst? Where is her damage, the thing that makes her interesting? I like Duvall because her hysteria, her thinness, her spectacular self-effacement are brilliantly anti-heroic. A brittle emblem of anti-strength, she embodies trauma and crisis and bad faith and alienation and everything else modern. ‘Hi Tom,’ says Milly as she passes her neighbour’s pool party. She receives no response. She’s been saying it all movie. She continues past the group and takes a lounge by the pool. It’s night-time. She reads a magazine. She waits for someone to talk to her. She’s hard to watch, and she makes everything interesting.

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