The Chilling Tale of Shelley Duvall’s Disappearance from the Spotlight

The Shining actress Shelley Duvall, who struggled with anxiety, said her mental state worsened after an intense performance in Stanley Kubrick’s late film.

When Duvall appeared on the 2016 Dr. To Phil, her erratic mental state was evident. She babbled about being threatened by the “Sheriff of Nottingham”, didn’t believe her Popeye co-star Robin Williams was dead but rather “shape-shifting” and called for help.

In the 1980s psychological thriller The Shining, Duvall played Wendy, the wife of Jack Nicholson’s predatory Jack Torrance. The ideas of the film were so terrifying that it affected the actress.

After a vacation in Hollywood, the 73-year-old Duvall is barely recognizable today, despite being a legend in the 1980s thanks to her distinctive, eccentric, and almost elfin looks, huge brown eyes, and petite frame.

A chance meeting at a party hosted by Duvall and her ex-boyfriend in junior college marked the beginning of her acting career.

Three people close to M*A*S*H director Robert Altman suggested she try out for his film Brewster McCloud. She had no acting experience, but took the bait and won an award for her subsequent role in Altman’s 3 Women (1977).

The newcomer gained recognition in Hollywood and went on to appear in films such as Time Bandits (1981), The Shining (1980) directed by Stanley Kubrick, and Annie Hall (1977) starring Woody Allen. In addition, she created and hosted the fantasy television shows Tall Tales and Legends and The Faerie Tale Theatre, for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award.

The Torrances and their young son Danny spend the winter maintaining a majestic remote hotel in the Rocky Mountains that is closed to visitors but haunted by the ghosts of victims killed by the previous caretaker. This is the plot of Stephen King’s novel The Shining, which was adapted into a film.

Jack’s mental health begins to deteriorate after witnessing visions of terrifying creatures haunting the hotel. As he descends into corruption, Wendy and their newborn child are in danger.

Duvall’s mental state was crumbling when the cameras were off. Her own travails contributed to her transformation into the tortured Wendy in The Shining.

Duvall’s first marriage broke up in 1974 after she introduced singer-songwriter Paul Simon to her girlfriend Carrie Fisher, who would become an international celebrity as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars film.

Simon ended their two-year relationship at the airport, just before Duvall got on the plane to start filming The Shining. Simon then began dating the late Fisher, whom he eventually married.

After her breakup, Duvall was in a state of emotional turmoil until she had to meet the exceedingly high expectations of renowned perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick holds the Guinness World Record for the number of attempts to shoot one scene – one scene he did with a then-young Danny Lloyd required 148 takes.

To match Kubrick’s standards, it took 127 takes before the famous scene on the stairs where Duvall’s character swings the bat at Nicholson.

According to Duvall, this scene took three weeks to film and “was very difficult”.

“Jack was so good — so damn scary,” Duvall said. He continued, “It was a difficult scene, but it turned out to be one of the best in the movie.”

Jack Nicholson acknowledged that Stanley Kubrick was “a different director” when he worked with Duvall in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures.

Nicholson, who showed off tufts of hair falling out from the stress of filming one scene, allegedly teased Duvall repeatedly, according to People.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2021, Duvall — who no longer had the endearing elfin sheen that adorns her — explained the physical and emotional toll that playing Wendy takes on herself.

“(Kubrick) won’t print anything until at least the 35th take,” she said. “Eventually your body starts to rebel. ‘Stop doing this to me,'” it says. I’d rather not cry all the time. And sometimes I’d cry at the mere thought. I’d immediately start crying if I woke up early Monday morning and realized that I had to cry all day because it was planned, “Oh no, I can’t,” I’m not sure how I did it. That’s what Jack told me, too.

At the time of filming, award-winning actress and director Anjelica Huston was living and dating Jack Nicholson. She stated: “They don’t seem that likable and Shelley had trouble even dealing with the emotional content of the piece.

She took the role. I believe she has shown incredible bravery.”

However, Duvall praises the legendary director. “He was very warm and friendly to me,” she said.

She gained notoriety despite being nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress.

“In 1981, if someone recognizes you at a Texas Dairy Queen, you’re a star,” she told People.

Duvall then appeared with the late Robin Williams as Olive Oyl in Popeye. She also had a small role in the 1987 film Roxanne, starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, and another small role in the 2002 film Manna from Heaven.

She then withdrew and lived quietly in her small Texas town until she became a household name thanks to her appearance on Dr. Phil McGraw, who used her interview as a case study.

Duvall talked about recent hardships and expressed paranoid delusions of being hurt, slipping between reality and fantasy, demonstrating her apparently unstable mental state.

Then when she remembered how beautiful she used to be, she described herself as “grotesque”.

On McGraw’s advice, she was sent to California for therapy, leading to a minor run-in with the law that her critics say was meant to happen closer to home.

Shelley Duvall’s journey through Hollywood and her subsequent struggles with mental health is a moving account of the harsh realities that can accompany fame and artistic determination. Her iconic role in The Shining and her collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, a director known for his relentless pursuit of perfection, pushed Duvall to the brink, deepening her anxiety and leading to a decline in her mental health. Despite her exceptional performances and her significant contributions to film and television, Duvall’s later years were marked by retreating from the public eye and battling her personal demons.

Her appearance on Dr. Phil in 2016 brought her mental health issues into the spotlight and sparked a conversation about the media and the public’s responsibility to address and promote mental health, especially among ex-celebrities. Duvall’s candid revelations about her experiences—both the highs of her career and the lows of her personal struggles—underscore the importance of compassion and understanding toward those who entertain and inspire us.

Duvall’s story is a powerful reminder of the impact mental health can have on individuals, especially those in the spotlight. It calls for a more humane approach to dealing with mental health issues and recognition of the pressures actors and performers face. Shelley Duvall remains a testament to the resilience and enduring influence of art, even in the face of overwhelming personal challenges.

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