My introduction to Shelley Duvall was through my sister. That’s not to say that my sister introduced me to Shelley Duvall, not really, because she never sat me down to show me something Shelley Duvall was in. My sister was younger than me, and at some point she got into Faerie Tale Theater, the old school live action children’s show that Duvall hosted and narrated. And so once when we were on a family vacation, and my parents were in the front seat and my sister and I, both very young, were in the back seat, my sister spent half the time pretending to be Shelley Duvall hosting Faerie Tale Theater. “Hello,” she would say to a make-believe audience, “I’m Shelley Duvall.” She’d say a few things, then, being the jerk older brother I was, I’d ask a question and my sister, feigning, but not really, exasperation, would say exactly this: “Now I have to start all over again. …… Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall.” On and on this would go. It’s still an inside joke in my family, one that I have just publicized, and for several years all I knew of Shelley Duvall was my sister saying “Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall.”
I can still hear that line in my sister’s voice as clear as day, almost as clearly as I can hear Shelley Duvall herself in “Annie Hall” delivering the immortal line “The only word for this is transplendent – it’s transplendent!” which I am ashamed to say I did not include on my recent A Few Movie Lines That Matter More Than Most listicle because I think of that line all the time. In fact, when Usain Bolt skyrocketed to victory in the 200 meters at the 2015 World Championships I requisitely went off the deep end and went to Facebook and typed “The only word for what Usain Bolt just did is transplendent – it’s transplendent!”
“Annie Hall”, however, was not the first Duvall movie I watched. No, that would be “The Shining. You know, the one where she spends the majority of her time on screen being terrorized into a pile of jangly nerves by an overblown, if yet no less effectively vicious, Jack Nicholson. And while it is tempting here to devolve into a tangent on the brutal means by which director Stanley Kubrick is said to have extracted Duvall’s performance, I always think of her interview with the esteemed Roger Ebert where she said “After I made ‘The Shining,’ all that work, hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick, like I wasn’t there.” But, of course, she was there, even if she did such a splendid of job of seeming to recede into terrified nothingness from Nicholson’s monstrosity, only to still convincingly evince that terror welling up into resistance by way of desperation. Without Duvall, it should go without saying, even if it sometimes does, all you’ve got is a more murderous Nixon roaming the White House hallways, talking to portraits.
Seven years later in “Roxanne”, a personal favorite, Duvall has less screen time, though she is no less vital. If Steve Martin’s C.D. Bales, a modern update on Cyrano de Bergerac, is the earnest spirit of the film’s ski town setting then Duvall’s diner owner Dixie is sort of its easygoing sage. Everyone around her, from C.D. to the titular rocket scientist, can’t quite seem to see the forest for the trees, but Dixie can, and rather than foist it upon people, Duvall lets Dixie gently point it out. There’s this wonderful shot when Dixie is wearing C.D.’s firemen’s cap which always seemed important to me; C.D. might have been the fire chief, but Dixie put out the fires.
It was in the company of maverick auteur Robert Altman, however, where Duvall really excelled, which was appropriate since it was Altman’s people who famously discovered her behind a cosmetics counter, with no acting ambitions, in Texas. Pauline Kael called Duvall “Bizarrely original,” and while the bizarre might have referred to either Duvall’s unconventional appearance or cadence, I also thought the bizarre referred to the simple idea of remaining true to her own spirit, which is so much more difficult than it sounds. Altman never tried to force her into some other box labeled “acting”; he simply let her be herself. My girlfriend thinks the epitome of Altman is “Nashville”, and I think the epitome of Altman is “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” though even if Duvall was in both I also think the epitome of Duvall with Altman was “Nashville” where Duvall’s not-quite-of-this-world air allowed her California hippie touched down in Nashville just the right tone, as if she existed in some alternate dimension even as she went about her business in the present dimension simultaneously.
I am writing all this, of course, as a kind of working through in the wake of that devastating Dr. Phil clip from last week (pointedly not linking) of the psychologist turned psychologist-lite TV personality interviewing a mentally ill Duvall. It’s just awful to watch, a grotesque exploitation, so much so that Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Vivian sent what basically amounted to a cease & desist letter to Dr. Phil. Whatever Ms. Duvall is obviously battling should, as far as I’m concerned, be battled privately, not publically, not for clips and clicks and all that shit. And frankly, I have nothing to add beyond that, because whatever she is going through is strictly her business, not mine, and I wish her well, even if those wishes feel pretty much helpless.
But seeing that clip made me think of The New Yorker’s irascible, if nevertheless oft-trenchant, Richard Brody, who in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely passing, observed that it is just as important to commemorate the artists we love when they are still with us, not just when they are gone. And so I think of the last time I saw Duvall in a movie, long, long ago, so long ago that I put the reels of the movie together myself at the Wynnsong 16 in Des Moines, Iowa where I was a projectionist, and then sat down to watch it long after the theater had closed. It was called “Home Fries.” It was pretty ho hum, truth be told, and I wasn’t much engaged. But suddenly, Duvall appeared as Drew Barrymore’s - what else? - eccentric mother.
I will never ever forget how happy I was to see her.