Film Thoughts: The Shining and Shelley Duvall

I want to start by getting the Stanley Kubrick hagiography out of the way, because this post is not about him: The Shining is a brilliantly realized film, the use of colors, angles, and space are all innovative and smart, and it succeeds at being very creepy.

Okay, done.  Enough of that.

If you’re not familiar with The Shining, here’s a quick recap: based on Stephan King’s bestselling novel, the film is about a family of three – Jack, Wendy, and their young son Danny- who move into an old Colorado hotel for the winter, where Jack has been hired as caretaker.  They are completely isolated, which isn’t so great, because the hotel is kind of evil, Danny is kind of psychic, and Jack, a kinda recovering alcoholic with anger issues, slowly descends into murderous insanity.  You might notice that Wendy is nowhere to be found in that last sentence.  Keep it in mind.

Horror films are infamous for their poor treatment of women, including weak characterization, sexualization and objectification, and subsequent bloody deaths.  The tropes are so standard in the film industry that Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, a parody of the teen horror genre, specifically lampshades the virgin/slut, life/death dichotomy.

Of course, The Shining is not a teen horror film, and Kubrick’s approach to the film was specifically to break the molds of horror movies that were cementing even in 1980.  However, misogyny plagues the film, from its making to its characterization, to its reception even today in the viewing public.

In the book, Wendy is, yes, a mother and wife, doing her best to deal with the issues of a tenuous marriage while taking care of her son.  She stays with Jack through his anger and alcoholism, not because she’s stupid, but because she legitimately has nowhere else to go.  She stands up to her husband and keeps an eye out for the return of reasons for divorce, although she simultaneously hopes for the best, trying to ignore the discomfort of potential dangers ahead.  She is allowed significant chunks of narration, and we know she doesn’t simply just follow her increasingly abusive partner around unthinkingly.

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In the movie, Wendy is played by Shelley Duvall.  Kubruck characterizes Wendy as indecisive, jittery, and weak, and I get the sense he blames her for just being in a bad relationship.  She stays because she’s impossibly fragile.  What’s more, Kubrick centers the blame on her lack of ultimatums toward Jack, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, Jack’s abusive behavior itself?  Even as Jack becomes more and more violent, we don’t hate him, whereas it’s easy to condescend to the pathetic and sometimes blandly frightened reactions of Wendy.

Stephen King, who famously hates the popular 1980 adaption of his book, has said of Kubrick’s Wendy that she is “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”

Watch practically any YouTube video about The Shining, and you will see plenty of hate directed at Wendy/Shelley Duvall.  Some people out there like Kubrick’s Wendy and Duvall’s performance; however there’s no lack of viewers that consider Wendy to be weepy, overplayed, and boring, and they tend to blame this on Duvall as an actress.

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It has come out over the years that during the filming of The Shining, Kubrick terrorized, verbally abused, and isolated Duvall.  He refused to give her any praise for her acting, ordering other not to “sympathize with Shelley”, constantly criticized her performances, ideas, and suggestions, and condoned her when she didn’t have the latest version of the constantly changing script.  Duvall told Roger Ebert that their were periods where she spent ’12 hours a day crying’, and she can be seen on behind-the-scenes footage showing Kubrick and Jack Nicholson tufts of hair she was losing due to the stress of filming.  And that’s not even mentioning the scene where Wendy confronts Jack on the stairs with a baseball bat, which Kubrick forced Duvall and Nicholson to do 127 times.

By contrast, Nicholson described Kubrick as “warm”.

Do I even have to say it?

It honestly enrages me that people have the gall to critique Shelley Duvall.  If her acting is indeed weak, it’s because she was being terrorized by a misogynistic director for months on end.  If her character is weak, it’s because Kubrick wrote her that way.

In the meantime, the brilliance of the film has been accredited to, (who else?), two men.  Praise is lavished on Kubrick for his control and style.  Fans say that it is Nicholson’s impeccable acting that make it so frightening and exciting.  Duvall sits through all of the adoration of the men around her (she actually calls it sycophantic) and demurely says only, “Of course, I get a little jealous.”  Kubrick and Nicholson have monopolized the narrative surrounding the making of the film.  The months of intense work Duvall put into The Shining have been washed over, or worse, labeled lazy, bad acting, annoying.

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And even worse than that is the posthumous adulation that Kubrick receives, while Duvall’s mental illness is exploited on daytime TV, like her recent appearance on Dr. Phil.  Did filming The Shining cause Duvall’s mental illness?  No, probably not entirely.  But was there an underlying condition she had that was gravely aggravated by Kubrick’s enforced ‘method acting’?   I don’t doubt it.

One of Kubrick’s daughters has sought to raise money on Duvall’s behalf, speaking out against her Dr. Phil appearance.  I may be wrong, but in this I see an act of repentance.

Just one more thing: while researching for this post, I stumbled across a short essay by Danielle R. Pearce (you can find it on her Tumblr).  In this essay, she argues that Kubrick’s “complex use of misogyny can be attributed to his authorial signature – one of using cinema to explore and develop understandings of humanity and the self.”  Pardon my french, but this is bullshit.  Kubrick’s ‘understandings of humanity and the self’ are not about humanity, they’re about men.  And believe it or not, you can make movies about men and misogyny without making them misogynistic.  Rather, Kubrick uses women across his canon as mainly objects and plot points for his male protagonists (in The Shining, we have only Wendy, who’s there as helpless audience surrogate, the female doctor, and if you really want to stretch it, the woman in the bathtub).  This isn’t a complex use of misogyny.  It’s just plain ol’ misogyny.  The fact that he has been lionized and enshrined by the academy does not make this acceptable.

Shelley Duvall deserves far better.

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