In Defence of… Shelley Duvall in The Shining
Upon release Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was met with mixed reviews, but has since gone on to be rightly regarded as a horror masterpiece. It sits at the top of the genre along with William Friedkin’s The Exorcist as a genuine work of art. The direction is sublime, utilising sweeping pans and tension building tracking shots to create an oppressive atmosphere of unrelenting unease. The film’s score gives even the most non-threatening of scenes, such as the opening leisurely drive through a scenic hillside, a sense of impending doom. Jack Nicholson gives his most iconic performance as Jack Torrance, a man slowly (but not that slowly) becoming unhinged in the isolation of the Overlook Hotel. It is a classic film where everything, from script to score to direction, works together in perfect harmony. Everything except, if you listen to fans and critics, Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance.
Duvall’s performance is considered by many to be the weakest element of the film. Stephen King himself, who wrote the book the film is based upon and famously despised Kubrick’s adaptation, called Kubrick and Duvall’s version of Wendy “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid.” Wendy is awkward, grating, and in the film’s later scenes frustratingly ineffectual. She is also paramount to the film’s success.
When shooting the film Kubrick began cutting much of Wendy’s dialogue. He made a decision to give her less to do, to rob the character of her agency, and to strip her of choice and action. Throughout the film all Wendy does is react to Jack, and that reaction is usually open mouthed, wide eyed terror. At the beginning of the film she meekly follows Jack along to the Overlook Hotel, dragging their son along with them, where they will be completely alone for months and months. Surely she must have some reservations about this situation, about taking Danny out of school and away from his home, but if she does, she doesn’t voice them. She simply smiles, nods, and goes along with Jack. Later, after interrupting Jack’s writing, she stands there mumbling apologetically as Jack aggressively berates her. For the first half of the film Duvall’s performance seems at a remove from reality, as though there is nobody in Wendy and she’s just a shell walking around in a confused daze. But then something happens around the half way point of the movie that shines a light on Wendy. Jack and Danny have a conversation that strongly suggests Jack has hurt Danny or Wendy or both of them in the past, long before they arrived at the Overlook Hotel. This is later confirmed when Jack admits to Lloyd that he had previously injured Danny. Suddenly Wendy’s submissiveness and Duvall’s performance makes sense. Wendy has been living with a man who has a great darkness inside him, bubbling away just beneath the surface, for years. She smiles weakly and tries to act normal but she’s a nervous wreck at her wits end. The only way she’s managing to cope is to bury everything deep down inside her, all her fear and anguish, and to go along with what ever Jack says in an attempt to placate him. Her lack of anger and defiance may be frustrating, but it is recognisably human.
The Shining was a long and arduous shoot for the cast and crew, but none more so than Shelley Duvall. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist and wouldn’t move on from a scene until he was completely happy with it. For Duvall that meant months of screaming and crying for take after take after take. Kubrick wore her down to near breaking point and utter exhaustion in order to get the performance out of her that he wanted. Though his motives were questionable, Kubrick did eventually get that performance. Once Wendy finds what Jack has been writing, in one of the film’s strongest scenes, she instantly falls to pieces. Duvall is so clearly past her limit and can endure no more that to call her work in that moment a performance feels like a disservice to its honesty.
When confronted with the horror within the Overlook Hotel Jack Torrance finds no other option but to embrace it. To let it consume him. He recognises the evil dwelling there as the same evil buried deep within himself. He decides what needs to be done, to murder his family, and sets about doing it. He sabotages the radio and the Snowcat because he may be crazy, but he still has enough sense to put together a plan of action. Danny, when confronted with that same horror, stands up and faces down his homicidal father. He may only be a child but he doesn’t let his fear stop him. He keeps his wits, knowing when to run and when to hide, and at the film’s end he outsmarts Jack and escapes the clutches of the Hotel. Danny, as Grady readily admits, is a very wilful boy. Wendy, on the other hand, completely falls apart when coming face to face with her husband’s true nature. She stumbles around, arms waving in the air, unable to run properly or with any great pace. Her fear is so all encompassing that it affects every part of her body. She can’t swing the bat at Jack with any force. She can’t wield a knife with any purpose. She can’t get her legs to work. She runs as if in a nightmare, where you know you have to run like your life depends on it but you can’t pick up any speed, no matter how desperately you try. Wendy weakly spits out words, one or two at a time, never full sentences, pleadingly whimpering her husbands name, struggling to get the words out through her screams and sobs. Her fear renders her useless.
Jack is menacing and imposing, and Danny is courageous and resourceful. The audience is familiar with seeing these kinds of personalities in movies. The reason we as an audience have such a difficult time with Wendy, the reason she is so frustrating to watch, is because her reaction to horror is uncomfortably close to the truth. Wendy witnesses her husband, a man she once loved, become the devil himself. She experiences the true evil of the Overlook Hotel and the darkness that haunts it. An audience would like to believe that if threatened with the same terror we would act similarly to Danny, to find that courage inside ourselves, than to collapse in the face of it as Wendy does, to become a stuttering, whimpering mess. We’d even rather be Jack than Wendy. He might be insane, but he takes control of the situation at least. But no, the truth of it is, many of us would react as Wendy does. We would scream and stumble, and be unable to think let alone move. Shelley Duvall’s performance, from start to finish, is nothing but an unflinchingly honest portrayal of nerve shredding, soul sapping, and completely exhausting hysterical terror. She is so frustrating for many because we want her to calm down, get it together and fight back, because that is what we would want ourselves to do in that situation. The fact she doesn’t forces us to consider if we actually could, and that is a question we don’t want to ask. But that is why Shelley Duvall’s performance is so important to the film. She sells the fear. Without that fear Jack Torrance wouldn’t be the iconic monster that he is, and The Shining wouldn’t be the iconic monster of a movie that it is.