Shelley Duvall: From Her Shining Movie Moments to Her Life Away from the Spotlight
Shelley Duvall’s blood-curdling screams of terror in the climax of The Shining are an indelible part of film history, and the leading lady of the 1980 horror classic went on to work in everything from comedies to children’s television shows in the decades that followed.
The actress, now 67, has stepped away from the spotlight in recent years, but that hasn’t diminished the imprint she’s left — those curious wide eyes, that high-pitched voice, her signature slender frame — in films like Popeye and Annie Hall, and in her collaborations with auteur Robert Altman (Nashville, McCabe & Ms. Miller, 3 Women).
Duvall, who reveals in an upcoming appearance on Dr. Phil that she’s been suffering from mental illness, started her Hollywood career on a whim. Altman was directing the 1970 film Brewster McCloud on location in Duvall’s home state of Texas when he crossed paths with the doe-eyed 20-year-old student.
Altman offered her a role in the film, which she initially refused due to her studies. However, she quickly gave in.
“I got tired of arguing, and thought maybe I am an actress,” she told the Boca Raton News in 1977. “They told me to come. I simply got on a plane and did it. I was swept away.”
Altman continued to cast Duvall in his films throughout the 1970s, and she eventually hosted Saturday Night Live and landed a minor role in Annie Hall.
However, Duvall’s most memorable performance was as the terror-stricken Wendy Torrance in The Shining, tormented by a raving-mad husband (Jack Nicholson) haunted by gruesome spectral visions in an empty hotel in the dead of winter.
Behind-the-scenes, Duvall was tormented as well.
In the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Jack Nicholson revealed that the iconic filmmaker was a “different director” with Duvall. He claimed she was constantly antagonized by him, and it reportedly came to a head when Kubrick had the actress perform the film’s memorable baseball-bat scene — in which Wendy recoils in horror from her predatory husband — a reported 127 times. After, Duvall was said to have showed him that clumps of hair that had fallen out due to the intense stress of filming.
She even told film critic Roger Ebert that working with Kubrick was “almost unbearable.”
In the book The Complete Kubrick, Duvall said, “From May until October I was really in and out of ill health because the stress of the role was so great. Stanley pushed me and prodded me further than I’ve ever been pushed before. It’s the most difficult role I’ve ever had to play.”
Despite receiving criticism for her acting in The Shining, even being nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Actress,” it also brought her fame.
“When somebody recognizes you at a Dairy Queen in Texas, you’re a star,” she told PEOPLE in 1981.
Duvall’s next film role was opposite Robin Williams in Popeye as Olive Oyl, a name she was once teased with as a child for her lanky figure, she told Ebert during a 1980 interview.
“After all of that crying, it was a real treat for me to play Olive Oyl. I loved her,” she told Ebert. “Now don’t laugh: I’ve never before been allowed to play a woman of any strength, of depth. And although Olive Oyl is a cartoon character, I think she does have depth. All of the other characters I’ve played in the movies … to me, they never really broke the surface. But Olive Oyl is 101 percent woman! She’s not Popeye’s ‘girlfriend’ … I see her as a real femme fatale.”
Duvall continued to act throughout the ’80s and ’90s, appearing in films such as Time Bandits (1981) and doing bits on television series such as Frasier and the revival of The Twilight Zone.
She also served as an executive producer on Faerie Tale Theatre from 1982 to 1987, telling PEOPLE in 1987 that “producing allows you to take control of your life” — and the steady paycheck didn’t hurt either.
“It was just offered to me,” she told PEOPLE the same year. ”I didn’t even have to audition for it. I know Steve socially, and he suggested it to me. I did it just to work with him — and just to see if I could still act.”
Her last acting credit is a small role in the 2002 independent film Manna from Heaven.
After stepping away from the spotlight, Duvall returned to her home state in the small town of Blanco, Texas.