How Shining star Shelley Duvall was destroyed by Stanley Kubrick’s on-set abuse

The woman on screen had long, stringy grey hair, drooping skin and cracked teeth – but her eyes were just as bright and alert as they ever had been.

Shelley Duvall's appearance on Dr Phil's show in 2016 was the first time fans had seen her in over a decade. She'd retired from acting in 2002 after years of failing to find work, bar a stint as executive producer on a couple of TV movies and her Bedtime Stories series.

But in the long period since she was last seen in public, Shelley's mental health had deteriorated to the point where viewers were uncomfortable with the way she was being questioned.

Asked by Dr Phil about her health, Duvall replied: "Well, you know, damned if I do, damned if I don't. I mean, if I say I'm healthy, first thing they'll do is hurt me tonight."

When pressed on who she was talking about, the actress replied: "Whoever is in the security… or at the bank… doing night work…"

The Sheriff of Nottingham was after her and a revolving dish had been implanted in her knee, she claimed.

She tailed off before the conversation turned to Robin Williams, who Shelley had co-starred opposite in the 1980 hit Popeye.

Robin, who had died earlier in 2016, wasn't actually dead but had 'shapeshifted' into different forms, she said.

"Well beetles escapes," she told the concerned TV host. "I don't know, stones escape.

"He looks real good in some forms and in other forms he doesn't," she added, before admitting she was "very sick" and "needed help".

Twenty-nine previously, Shelley was at the top of her game.

She was an up-and-coming Hollywood movie star who had been headhunted by the genius director Stanley Kubrick to star in the silver screen adaptation of Stephen King's haunting horror novel The Shining.

King himself wanted another actress – Jessica Lange – to take on the role of the tough but naive cheerleader-esque wife and mother Wendy Torrance, whose mental health in the book is twisted by terror as her husband Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) loses his sanity and becomes murderous.

But Kubrick was adamant Duvall was the right person for the job and set about recruiting her. Unfortunately for the then-28-year-old star, the next 13 months of working with the legendary director would drive her to the brink of madness.

"I guess this is what most people know me for, right? And look, I won't get into too much detail now, but that film was hell to be a part of," Shelley admitted years later.

"I mean, there was a great cast — Jack, Scatman [Crothers], Danny [Lloyd]. They were all wonderfully hilarious people, but then there was Stanley Kubrick, the director of this iconic masterpiece. All I'll really say for now is that if he hadn't director the way he did, if he hadn't done everything with force and cruelty, then I guess it wouldn't have turned out to be as it was."

From her first day on set, Kubrick took every opportunity to punish Shelley for unidentifiable misdemeanours – and forbade the other cast and crew from offering her any comfort, telling them to ignore her whenever possible.

"Don't sympathise with Shelley," he bluntly instructed them, leaving the young actress utterly alone and friendless during the most challenging role of her life.

In order to get the most authentic reaction to the famous baseball bat scene – in which Jack Nicholson's character slowly stalks and advances on his wife as she desperately tries to escape – Kubrick never explained to Shelley what was going on.

He handed her a bat and captured her genuine fear and terror as Jack prowled up the stairs towards Shelley, who by the end of the recordbreaking 127-take scene was exhausted, hoarse and dehydrated from crying.

She had bloody, raw wounds on her hands from clutching the weapon after tyrannical Kubrick coldly ordered her and Nicholson to repeat take after take to get the terrifying scene exactly as he wanted it.

Shelley even started losing her hair from the stress of being on set and being subjected to the director's so-called 'special' requirements.


Kubrick would cut her lines without notice and keep her isolated from the rest of the cast, not even giving her a single compliment about her acting to keep her in a state of stress throughout filming.

"From May until October I was really in and out of ill health because the stress of the role was so great," she later told David Hughes in his book The Complete Kubrick.

"Stanley pushed me and prodded me further than I've ever been pushed before. It's the most difficult role I've ever had to play."

The legendary door scene – in which the unhinged Jack Torrance breaks his way through a bathroom door with an axe to get at Wendy as she desperately tries and fails to escape from the tiny window – was another source of torment on set.

The scene took three entire days to film, with Shelley once again expected to produce take after take of full-body hysteria to Kubrick could get his perfect shot.

Nearly 60 wooden doors were used during the shooting, and Nicholson admitted Shelley had the toughest job he had ever seen.

Jack said she came to him at the end of one day to show him clumps of hair that had fallen out of her scalp, adding that Shelley often felt physically sick from the pressure she was under to perform to Kubrick's exacting standards.

After her appearance on the Dr Phil Show, fans were shocked to see how drastically Shelley had changed in the years since the height of her fame.

One viewer – Stanley's own daughter Vivian Kubrick – was disgusted by what she called the exploitative nature of the interview, and wrote to the show to complain about the "utterly heartless form of entertainment".

"You are putting Shelley Duvall 'on show' while she is suffering from a pitiable state of ill health. Unquestionably, this is purely a form of lurid and exploitative entertainment – it's appallingly cruel," she tweeted to Dr Phil.

"Shelley Duvall was a movie star… whatever dignity a mere unfortunate creature might have in this world, is denied her by your displaying her in this way.

"I recoil in complete disgust. I hope others will join me in boycotting your utterly heartless form of entertainment, because it has nothing to do with compassionate healing," she raged.


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Vivian had personally witnessed some of the treatment dished out by her father, which was captured on camera in her making-of documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures.

In it, Nicholson praised the director and the film they created together, but admitted Kubrick became a "different director" around Shelley.

Kubrick was caught on camera telling her she was wasting everyone's time on set and rubbishing her suggestions in front of the crew.

Rumours of the infighting and tension on set quickly made their way into the public, despite Kubrick's fierce dislike of the media.

When the film was eventually released, critics immediately pounced on Shelley's overwrought acting, which was described as 'comically bad'.

Both she and Kubrick were nominated for the inaugural Golden Raspberry Awards, a foil to the glittering Oscars ceremony to highlight the worst movies of the year.

A hurt Shelley retreated into herself after the poor reception, later telling film critic Roger Ebert that she felt overlooked by the public after going through such a production. 

"Jack Nicholson's character had to be crazy and angry all the time. And in my character, I had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week," she pointed out.

"I was there a year and a month, and there must be something to Primal Scream therapy because after the day was over and I'd cried for my 12 hours, I went home very contented. It had a very calming effect. During the day I would have been absolutely miserable.

"After all that work, hardly anyone even criticised my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick like I wasn't there."

Stephen King famously hated what Kubrick had done to his portayal of Wendy, complaining to Rolling Stone in 2014 that: "[The movie] is so misogynistic. I mean, Wendy Torrance is just presented as this sort of screaming dish rag."

His dislike of the movie was so strong that he even paid out of his own pocket for a TV mini-series of the novel in 1997.

In order to get Kubrick's approval to re-adapt the source material, King had to agree in writing to stop criticising the original film apart from its portrayal of Jack Torrance being insane before arriving at the Overlook Hotel.

As for Shelley, she occasionally gave interviews about her experience of working with the perfectionist director and the trauma she experienced at his hands.

She's believed to have retreated to her rural Texas home and is rarely seen in public anymore.

The Actors Fund of America reportedly stepped in after her Dr Phil interview to help pay for treatment.

Her last social media post was in February 2017 when she shared a throwback picture of herself with Sissy Spacek in the 1977 drama 3 Women.

Shelley had also blasted ageism in Hollywood in a previous Instagram post next to a picture of her younger self swigging a beer.

"Life itself is one big roller coaster," she captioned it.

"When you reach fame it's as though you're right at the top of this wild ride and you don't come down until your image starts to, when you're getting less roles and the public aren't as interested. In some years time a person will mention your name and the other might go 'who in the world is that?' Unless you're Shakespeare or God. This hasn't happened to me yet, the point where I'm no longer relevant, but it will.

"It's not that I can predict things, it's just that after a certain age people in Hollywood are suddenly getting offered less roles in films," she added.

"It's a bit – okay, it's definitely – ageist, I know. To me the age that you are doesn't define the talent you have. A 20-year-old can be just as capable of remembering lines and doing what is needed just as much as a 55-year-old."

 

 

 

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