Quick, other than The Shining and Popeye, name a film starring Shelley Duvall in a leading role. I guess you could count the incredibly watchable 1990 TV movie Shelley Duvall’s Mother Goose Rock ‘N’ Rhyme which has an amazing mix of actors and musicians: Woody Harrelson, Teri Garr, Howie Mandel, Cheech Marin, Katey Sagal, Garry Shandling, Cyndi Lauper, Bobby Brown, Simon & Garfunkel, and Little Richard, to name a few. But aside from these films Duvall has been primarily absent from projects giving her a significant amount of screen time, and that is an injustice!
Sure she doesn’t have traditional good looks, but you can’t deny her screen presence. Those peepers of hers made her Buscemi before Buscemi was Buscemi. (#BuscemibeforeBuscemiwasBuscemi) If you watch her work, and move past the choppy aesthetics, you’ll find an inane ability to enhance the performances of her co-stars. This is where The Shining and Popeye come into the conversation.
Both films were released in 1980, and they couldn’t be more polar opposites. One film is about a man in a first seemingly innocent surrounding which eventually turns and causes him to go on a vicious rampage in the final act. The other film is The Shining. Seriously, at the end of Popeye Robin Williams is in a boat race to chase after his kidnapped son, loses a sword fight, gets beaten up and then forced to choke down a can of spinach before being left to drown. Fortunately, all those vitamin K’s kick in and turn his arm into the size of a canoe which he uses to punch out Bluto and then has a boxing match with an octopus he skyrockets into the stratosphere (take that, PETA!). Do yourself a favor and watch that shit!
Anyway, Duvall is given the ridiculous task in these films to compliment two incredibly gifted actors, and she not only holds her own but actually ends up stealing several of her scenes. In that bat shit crazy ending to Popeye, the most memorable part is Duvall’s Olive Oyle (the greatest, and most obvious, bit of casting ever… those gams!) tied up in the water with one of the octopus’ tentacles rubbing up her leg as she says, “Who’s down there? Oooh, don’t get fresh.” Then she’s pulled under while basically deep throating the tentacle. Amazing. She also doesn’t do too bad singing (it’s a semi-musical) the solo He Needs Me. Robin Williams absolutely nails the role as Popeye, but Duvall perfectly plays Olive Oyle with some heavy odds stacked against her.
In nearly the first half of The Shining Duvall almost seems to be an afterthought. A necessity to a story all about Nicholson’s slow and beautiful spiral into the best case of cabin fever (including Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever) you’ve ever seen. Jack has many quintessential “Jack” moments including one of the 10 best “guy loses his shit” scenes (the other 9 belong to Nic Cage) while telling Wendy to “give me the bat. But Duvall catapults Nicholson’s mania to another level with the fear she displays which authenticates Jack’s inevitable violence. You first see it as she begins thumbing through page after page of his “novel.” You believe the panic on her face and horror building inside her as she finally sees her husband’s work over the past couple months. Then she hears Jack behind her and whips around, holding a bat and prepared to defend herself. Jack begins with eerie calm and lethargic steps towards her, but Wendy has seen this before. She knows the terror he’s capable of. She watched in shock when Jack had his “momentary loss of muscular coordination” when he nearly ripped off Danny’s arm. Sure, he loves the little son of a bitch, but when his temper takes control there are no limits to what he might do. She’s frightened for her life. In a room with seemingly endless space around her in which to flee she slowly shuffles backwards from a man with an absence behind his eyes that somehow stares deep into her psyche. And by the end of it all, when Jack huffs and puffs and chops the bathroom door down, it’s the shot of Duvall shrieking with a knife clenched in her hand that is as eponymous with that scene as Jack announcing, “Here’s Johnny.”
Shelley Duvall owned 1980 with those two roles and is overlooked for her contributions. And if those aren’t proof enough of her underrated talent then you should consider how in 1991 she single-handedly made you completely forget about the huge leading male at the peak of his prime in the movie Suburban Commando.