The Shining – All Work, No Play for Shelley Duvall

1980’s iconic horror film The Shining saw acclaimed actress Shelley Duvall trapped in an abandoned hotel and terrorized by a madman – but it wasn’t the film’s antagonist, Jack Torrance. In a film notorious for its axe murders, ghostly twins, conspiracy theories, blood-vomiting elevators, and um… interesting NSFW scenes, one of the most infamous secrets of all is the treatment endured by Duvall from the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick

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Duvall has become something of an enigma in recent years. She hasn’t appeared in a film since 2002, and her absence has been enough to make her the subject of tabloid speculation about her overall state. But in the early 80’s Duvall was riding the wave of success.

She’d appeared in Annie Hall and a few years later had satisfying comedic turns in films such as Time Bandits and Popeye. Indeed, based on her unique appearance and voice one might even say that she was born to play the role of Olive Oyl in the latter.

But for horror fans Duvall will always be best remembered as Wendy Torrance, feebly clutching a kitchen knife against the advance of the Overlook Hotel’s undead horrors.

As with most things about Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel, The Shining author Stephen King has been critical of Duvall’s portrayal of Wendy, citing it as “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film” and the antithesis of the character that he wrote. King originally wanted Jessica Lange in the role.

While Lange would go on to become a horror queen in her own right with American Horror Story, Duvall quickly found herself at the mercy of the one who had lobbiedfor her to get the role: Kubrick himself.

While co-star Jack Nicholson has spoken favorably of Kubrick, and the director took great pains to ensure that child actor Danny Lloyd didn’t know he was in a horror movie, the auteur was relentless in his treatment of Shelley Duvall. The scene where she is trying to keep Jack at bay with a baseball bat? Her red eyes, puffy face, and shaky hands are the result of her genuinely crying from the 127 takes it took before Kubrick was satisfied – a number that has landed the scene in the Guiness Book of World Records! The ordeal left Duvall’s hair falling out in clumps, but Kubrick didn’t care.

When he wasn’t cutting Wendy’s lines from the script he was keeping Duvall isolated from her co-workers, ordering crew members not to be nice to her – or to ignore her entirely – and refusing to praise, compliment her, or say anything good about her performance in any way.

Image: Warner Bros.
Image: Warner Bros.

How about The Shining’s legendary scene with Jack breaking through the door with the axe?

That scene took three days to film.

While Jack Nicholson got the relatively fun job of hacking through 60 doors, the improvised nature of the scene meant Duvall spent those three days with no idea what was going to happen at any given time.

It’s been said that her panicked cries of “Please, Jack!” are aimed at Jack Nicholson the actor, not Jack Torrance the character. Nicholson himself would later tell Empire magazine that her job in that scene was the toughest of any actor he had ever seen.

Duvall’s mental and physical agony on the set of The Shining are the stuff of legend. One would think that crying to the point of physical dehydration would leave an actor bitter about their experience. But in a surprising twist as worthy of The Shining as anything, Duvall accounted her experience with the film as a positive one. Speaking to Roger Ebert in 1981, she summed it up as:

Almost unbearable…But from other points of view, really very nice, I suppose…After the day was over and I’d cried for my 12 hours, I went home very contented. It had a very calming effect.

Image: Warner Bros.
Image: Warner Bros.

Many legendary actors have done excruciating things to themselves in the name of getting into character for a role. Likewise, many directors have used aggressive methods to push actors beyond what they previously thought themselves capable of.

What Shelley Duvall went through in The Shining is probably not something most people would volunteer for. But despite everything that happened, she made Wendy Torrance one of the most unusual and memorable heroines of modern cinema.

The ideas might have been Kubrick’s but the character that emerged is her own. Her experience with the role might be controversial, but without question, Shelley Duvall has earned every bit of the iconic status that The Shining has brought her with blood, sweat, and very literal tears.

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