As a gawky youngster growing up in Texas, Shelley Duvall used to cringe when kids taunted her with “Nahhh, Olive Oyl! Olive Oyl!” Plus ça change. After playing the bean-pole bombshell in director Robert Altman’s Popeye, the 5’8″ and 106-pound Shelley now reports, “Children grab me around the legs in the grocery store and say, ‘You’re Olive Oyl!’ That’s really, really good. It makes that movie one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Such katzenjammer praise is welcome solace after some snooty adults predicted that she and Robin Williams, who co-stars as Popeye, would take a Bluto-size beating at the box office. Most critics, while praising Duvall, said the movie was spinach and the hell with it. “They treated it like it was War and Peace instead of a cartoon,” Shelley scowls. She’s also miffed that neither she nor the movie got a single Oscar nomination. “They never nominated me for anything before, so I guess I shouldn’t expect it now,” says Shelley, who escaped Jack Nicholson’s ax in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining last summer and whose memorable waifishness has been a staple of Altman films since 1970’s Brewster McCloud. “Of course I was disappointed,” she adds. “I had hoped.”
Despite those setbacks, Popeye has grossed a robust $45 million and is headed for lucrative TV and foreign sales. That’s far from flopping—and a happy ending to rival Duvall’s own. While on location in Malta for the role that Altman told her she was “born to play,” Shelley, 31, swooned for actor Stanley Wilson and is still swept away.
“Stanley fell in love with me the day I wore pale blue long Johns with purple hearts and a ‘back door’ to exercise class,” grins Shelley. The 29-year-old Wilson, who plays the film’s bit barber role, admits, “I was just in heaven.” It was love at first boogie, says Wilson, who once roomed with Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve while a student at Juilliard (Stanley was the only one to graduate). “I asked her to dance at a pub,” he recalls, “which we did for two hours straight. That did it.” Shelley adds, “I couldn’t believe how much we had in common. I’m from Houston and he’s from Abilene. Our fathers are both lawyers. My mother said: ‘At last you’ve met a nice Texas boy.’ I used to wind up with such exotic types.” Her brown eyes widening, she marvels: “We started living together from the first night. We couldn’t bear to leave each other. It was just like a blessing.” For the final six weeks on Malta the couple rented a yacht and romantically sailed to location when the seas were-calm. “It was fun, like summer camp,” remembers Shelley.
Unlike, certainly, the boot camp experience of filming The Shining in London where, she says, Kubrick had her “crying 12 hours a day for weeks on end. I will never give that much again. If you want to get into pain and call it art, go ahead, but not with me.” Still, The Shining brought one new pleasure: fame. While driving with Stanley to Texas to visit their families, Shelley was spotted by a waitress. “When somebody recognizes you at a Dairy Queen in Texas,” she observes, “you’re a star.”
Duvall’s comfortable Texas background scarcely pointed the way to Hollywood. Her attorney father (Robert Duvall, no relation to the actor) and land dealer mother divorced in 1975, but Shelley can’t recall a childhood trauma any greater than having to diaper her three younger brothers. At a Houston junior college, the skinny youngster studied, ironically, food research and diet therapy. Then one night at a party for her artist boyfriend, Bernard Sampson, she met three associates of Robert Altman, then in Texas to shoot Brewster McCloud. Despite her total lack of experience, Altman gave her a series of roles—and growing confidence. “If you think I can do it,” she recalls telling him, “I guess I can.”
And she has, memorably in 1975’s Nashville and in six other Altman films like 1974’s Thieves Like Us with Keith Carradine and 1977’s Three Women, a succés d’estime that won her a Best Actress award at Cannes. In the meantime Duvall and Sampson married and divorced four years later. “There were no arguments or contests,” she explains. “We were just so young.” She dated an L.A. psychiatrist just before Popeye, but her only big-time steady was pop rocker Paul Simon. They met in New York in 1976, while Shelley did a bit in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. She and Simon lived together for two years—until she introduced him to her friend Carrie Fisher. Carrie took up with Paul, and Shelley took off for The Shining. Her only consolation was a pup named Tupp that she bought to keep her company. “He’s a Cairn terrier,” says Shelley, “exactly like the dog in The Wizard of Oz.”
The loneliness has been replaced by something like a fairy-tale life these days. Shelley and Stan share a rented (from actress Yvette Mimieux) two-bedroom home with guest house on three and a half wooded acres above Beverly Hills. With its wicker furniture on a spacious front lawn, the house could have popped out of one of those treasured children’s books Shelley collects (author Maurice Sendak is a favorite). They occasionally see Robin and Valerie Williams, but rarely socialize, preferring old movies on TV, playing pool or listening to music. “They just hang out,” says Robin. “Ask ‘What are ya doin’ tonight?’ and they answer, ‘Oh, we’re just home.’ They are two gentle people.”
Shelley has a passion for style. She collects rows of Maud Frizon shoes, which she seldom wears but buys at $200 per pair for their beauty. Her closets contain “lots of Armani and Krizia suits” just for trips to New York or London. At home it’s mostly jeans. Shelley has wrapped the upcoming Monty Python comedy Time Bandits, with Sean Connery, but her pet project, co-producing and starring in a movie version of author Tom Robbins’ novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, seems frustratingly stalled in finding a studio deal. What about marriage? “There’s a strong possibility,” says Stan, “but not immediately. We’re happy as we are.” Shelley, much like Olive, plays it coy. “I plead the Fifth on marriage. But Stanley,” she coos, “is my fairy-tale prince.”