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A THIN LINE

Robert Altman, 3 Women, 1977, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Production still. Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) and Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall).

ONE OF THE PRESENTING symptoms of my Shelley Duvall fandom is amateur numerology. The actress, among the most totemic and inimitable performers of the New American Cinema, was born on the seventh day of the seventh month of 1949. She made seven films with Robert Altman, the director with whom she remains the most closely affiliated. The greatest of their collaborations, 3 Women, was released in 1977.

I focus on the dominance of seven in Duvall’s life and profession only to confirm what I already believe about occult signifiers: They mean nothing. Despite the lucky number, a hazy sense of misfortune—of a career that ended too soon, or that never quite matched the incandescence evinced in its first years—has lingered over the actress, who has not appeared in a movie since 2002. (An infamous sit-down in 2016 with an ignoble TV host suggested that she has not been well for some time.) Maybe her setbacks were augured by Altman when he spoke to Cliff Jahr of the Village Voice for an April 1977 profile of Duvall tied to the release of 3 Women, her sixth movie with the director. In the piece, Jahr conjectures that the filmmaker “has unique and untransferable rapport with his actors,” and Altman seems to concur. “I have harmed a lot of them,” he says. “I don’t quite understand it. Ronee Blakley, who got an Oscar nomination for Nashville”—for her portrayal of an unstable country-music superstar in that brilliant ensemble film from 1975—“has not even been able to get an agent to this day.” Later in the article, Altman expresses his deep admiration for Duvall’s talents, but his praise is freighted with anxiety about her fate: “Somebody better pay attention to her now, or they’re all crazy.”

It is impossible not to take notice of Shelley Duvall. With her extremely ectomorphic figure, she calls to mind a walking exclamation point. Her long, Modigliani-like face appears taffy-pulled; the focal points of her amazing visage are her enormous, wide-set brown eyes and her two jutting top incisors. If her striking physicality makes the first impression on the viewer, then her demeanor creates the most lasting one. She is unmistakably fey, but her otherworldliness connotes a planet not too far away from our solar system. Duvall is a delight not just to watch but to listen to; her pellucid voice is filigreed by a Houston drawl that she never filed down.

If Duvall’s striking physicality makes the first impression on the viewer, then her demeanor creates the most lasting one.

She was discovered in that Texas city by Altman’s emissaries, scouting talent for Brewster McCloud (1970). They met Duvall at a party she was throwing with her boyfriend. Charmed by their hostess, the movie men arranged for her to audition for Altman, though she had no idea who the director was (he’d just had a big hit with MASH) or what “reading for a part” meant. Altman was convinced that Duvall’s naïveté was a ruse. “I decided to shoot a test, so I took her out in the park and put a camera on her and just asked her questions,” the filmmaker told David Thompson for the book-length interview Altman on Altman (2005). “I was really quite mean to her, as I thought she was an actress. But she wasn’t kidding; that was her.”

Duvall’s untutored wisdom makes her performance one of the few unmitigated pleasures of the antic, exhausting Brewster McCloud. Playing Suzanne, a garrulous tour guide at the Astrodome who deflowers and ultimately betrays the flight-obsessed title character (Bud Cort), Duvall, with her Raggedy Ann eyelashes, emerges as an unorthodox femme fatale. “Hi! Are you trying to steal my car?” Suzanne asks Brewster; the actress delivers the line with vivifying, daffy ingenuousness. In her screen debut, she evokes James Baldwin’s lapidary assessment of the movie legends who held him rapt as a child: “One does not go to see them act: One goes to watch them be.”

Robert Altman, Brewster McCloud, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 105 minutes. Production still. Suzanne Davis (Shelley Duvall).

In pointing out Baldwin’s instructive ontological distinction, I don’t mean to imply that Duvall, especially in her films with Altman, simply presented her unvarnished self—that she took no care when preparing for her roles other than, say, to memorize her lines. Altman, who gave Duvall a small part as a mail-order bride in the western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Brewster’s immediate successor, insisted that she observe the entire production for “acting lessons.” She demonstrates a noticeable increase in discipline (particularly with regard to her timing and pauses) in her next project with Altman, the Depression-era-set Thieves like Us (1974), in which she plays Keechie, the sweetheart of Bowie, Keith Carradine’s on-the-lam bank robber. But even though her acting may be more polished, Duvall’s performance style isn’t entirely pruned of fascinating idiosyncrasies, such as her strange way of saying “yes”—a word she enunciates with what sounds like a brand-new diphthong—when Bowie asks Keechie if she likes him.

If Suzanne and Keechie are characters brought more vibrantly to life by Duvall’s undiluted “essence,” then Millie Lammoreaux—the prating, self-regarding employee of a geriatric rehab center she plays in 3 Women—endures as the apex of her assiduous preparation. Originating in a dream that Altman had, 3 Women traces the shifting dynamics between childlike Pinky (Sissy Spacek) and Millie, who trains the pigtailed recent arrival to Southern California in the basics of hydrotherapy for the elderly. The two coworkers soon become roommates, sharing Millie’s yellow-bathed one-bedroom apartment. Pinky, growing ever more besotted with her new friend, marvels at Millie’s professed sophisticated taste, largely shaped by McCall’s magazine, and at her refined palate, which favors such chemically saturated delicacies as banana pops and penthouse chicken.

“I played her like a Lubitsch comedy—people taking themselves very seriously,” Duvall said of Millie in that Voice profile. Blithely ignoring the fact that most people find her to be a nattering, desperate fool, Millie may have unshakable confidence in herself, but her certitude never fully masks her fragility, especially in the second half of 3 Women, when the power balance between Millie and Pinky is inverted. This indelible, richly textured character was largely the creation of Duvall. “Shelley wrote all of [Millie’s] letters, all of those recipes, all of her diary stuff. I don’t know any writer who could have done it better,” Altman told Thompson. (Duvall to Jahr: “Monologues just came out in fifteen minutes.”)

A few weeks after 3 Women was released, Duvall could be seen in a bit part in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, her only non-Altman film from the ’70s (not counting a 1976 PBS adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” in which she starred in the title role). Playing Pam, a witless Rolling Stone reporter, Duvall, in the meager screen time allotted her, proves the sole source of buoyancy in a project overpopulated by smug, charmless neurotics, its director-cowriter-star chief among them.We are meant to laugh at Pam’s preferred adjective—“The only word for this is transplendent”—but Duvall locates the dignity in the dippy journalist’s enthusiasms.

Stanley Kubrick, The Shining, 1980, 35 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall).

At the end of the most storied decade of her career, Duvall was cast in the film for which she might be most widely remembered—and for which she endured tremendous distress. In Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the actress, as Wendy Torrance, the initially sunny mom and helpmate of Jack Nicholson’s aspiring novelist, spends the latter half of the film in abject terror; Wendy continually weeps and shrieks as she tries to save herself and her young son from a psychotic paterfamilias. Duvall gives a shattering performance of ceaseless anguish—a traumatized state that mirrors the suffering she experienced in her clashes with Kubrick during The Shining’s months-long shoot, some of which are featured in the short making-of documentary by the director’s daughter Vivian. (More chilling than anything in The Shining is Vivian’s footage of Duvall, lying on the floor in between takes, saying, of an undisclosed ailment, “It comes and goes. . . . It just got so bad” as a matronly crew member tends to her.)

Duvall’s final film with Altman—a live-action version of Popeye, in which she stars as Olive Oyl, opposite Robin Williams as the spinach-loving sailor—came out the same year as The Shining. “Shelley, I want to give you the role you were born to play!” Altman told the actress. But, paradoxically, in this outsize part, Duvall seems diminished, flattened, as does nearly everyone else in the shambolic funny-pages transfer. Yet the movie, aimed at kids, can be thought of as an oblique prologue to Duvall’s signal achievement of not only the ’80s (but all of her post-Altman work): Faerie Tale Theatre, a wonderfully outré anthology television series for children (but with multigenerational appeal) broadcast on Showtime between 1982 and 1987. In addition to creating the program, Duvall executive-produced, hosted, and occasionally starred in FTT, which featured a motley group of talents ranging from Mick Jagger to Gena Rowlands as various Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen principals.

Welcoming viewers to “Rumpelstiltskin,” the second episode of the first season, in which she plays the miller’s daughter, Duvall offers a quasi confession: “And, I must admit, as an actress, Faerie Tale Theatre also gave me an opportunity for some pretty great roles.” When considered more than three decades later, the statement seems to eerily anticipate the imminent attrition of those opportunities. During the fifteen years between the end of FTT and 2002, when she stopped performing altogether, Duvall’s output consisted primarily of small or supporting parts in minor, largely forgotten movies, and assorted TV work. There are some exceptions. Duvall thrills with the few Italian interjections—Mangia! Simpaticissimo!—she utters as Countess Gemini in Jane Campion’s adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady (1996). And she beguiles as Amelia Glahn, a spinster ostrich farmer hopelessly in love with a sadistic mesmerist, in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), a pastel-hued fantasia by cult Canadian auteur Guy Maddin. These late-period Duvall performances, just as much as 3 Women, return us to Altman’s command: Pay attention to her.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4columns, where she is also a regular contributor.