Missing From the Movies: Shelley Duvall

By  · Published on July 8th, 2016

A complicated curiosity about a reclusive actress.

Two of the most intriguing characters in Robert Altman’s Nashville are Tricycle Man and L.A. Joan. When considered together, it’s a wonder Shelley Duvall didn’t wind up becoming the female equivalent of Jeff Goldblum. She should have had a long career playing eccentric but charismatic women, just as he has done (in male roles). But that kind of thing works out better for actors than actresses. So instead, he wound up starring in movies where he fought fictional aliens, and she wound up a recluse gossiped to be living in fear of aliens that are in her body.

It’s been a while since I thought a lot about Duvall, outside of regularly enjoying her in many of Altman’s films, including 3 Women and Popeye, plus Annie Hall, Roxanne, and of course The Shining. I hadn’t seen her in anything new in forever, but I assumed she just wasn’t getting notable roles. That tends to happen to women of a certain age in Hollywood. But the combination of honoring her on her birthday yesterday and thinking about this weekend’s 35th anniversary of Time Bandits had me wondering where exactly she’s been. What I discovered made me sad for a number of reasons.

Duvall made her last appearance on screen all the way back in 2002, playing a detective in the ensemble religious comedy Manna from Heaven. But she’d begun her departure from showbiz almost a decade earlier. When the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake destroyed her home, she moved back to Texas, the state of her birth and the place where she was discovered by Altman while he was in Houston making Brewster McCloud. Apparently another major blow was her losing all rights to the memorable Faerie Tale Theatre series she created and produced for Showtime in the 1980s.

Since her departure from the industry, Duvall has surprisingly been left alone by the media for the most part. She’s not obscure enough to be so easily forgotten, especially when movies like Popeye and The Shining, for which she received a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress, have become more revered as time goes by. And when kids who grew up on her fairy tales are now nostalgic adults turning them into memes. Only The National Enquirer, as far as I can find, has done an investigative feature on where she is now, and obviously that’s not the best source for reliable information.

Published in 2009, the article focuses on the actress’s alleged descent into mental illness. “Shelley Demented,” it’s called, and it mainly quotes locals in her town who treat her as the resident loon. There’s talk of her believing in aliens and dimensional portals in her backyard and how she wanders the streets “in a fog” muttering to herself. The author of the piece seems to have been able to interview her, enough to claim she actually appeared to be “completely lucid,” yet only has one quote from her about how she’d return to acting with the right role. There’s also mention of her being heavier now.

Blogs and other media picked up the story and of course spun forward reports that she’s “nutso” and other unfortunate words for what may in fact be a serious and tragic condition. I’ve been able to find discussions online from people who’ve seen and even spent time with her more recently, and it does seem she is in a disturbed state. Maybe she’s mentally ill, but such a professional diagnosis can’t be made from hearsay. Part of me wants a more reputable journalist to go down to her supposed shack and do a proper piece. But part of me also respects that she should just be left alone.

More appropriate are the occasional tributes to her work that pop up online. This year there has already been one from, and a recent piece at Movie Pilot spotlights her performance in The Shining and suggests Stanley Kubrick’s notorious treatment of her during production contributed to her alleged illness and maybe put her off acting (though she worked another 22 years). Last week, a fashion blog recognized her as a style icon. These online appreciations almost always reference the Enquirer article because that’s the closest thing to an official update we’ve got.

Of course, her past style and performances are what’s important now, especially if she isn’t fit to make the comeback she reportedly desires and that I definitely wish for. Not that she was doing enough interesting work in the later years, playing mostly moms and wives and aunts. With the exception of The Portrait of the Lady, you have to stick primarily with her career in the 1970s for her greatest films. And that time was predominantly filled with her collaborations with Altman, no role among them similar in any way. Her distinct face and some quirks are consistent, but that’s it.

People say she was born to play Olive Oyl in Popeye, but studio choice Gilda Radner might have been fine, too. The reason we think she was so right for the role is she perfectly embodied the comic strip character. For someone without training or experience before her chance meeting with Altman, she could be quite a dedicated and focused actress. And when you look at her performances in anything leading up to Popeye, especially The Shining (for which she beat out Jessica Lange), there’s nothing that would have you thinking her destiny was to play Olive other than she could be lanky.

In addition to my curiosity about Duvall’s current condition, I can’t help but wonder about what other roles she’d be perfect for now. Would Paul Thomas Anderson, who is heavily influenced by Altman and featured a song from Popeye sung by Duvall on the Punch Drunk Love soundtrack, be interested in casting her? Could she fill scene-stealing roles in any of the live-action fairy tales Hollywood produces these days? Or maybe something not so blatantly based on nostalgic homage? Who says she couldn’t play any of the parts that Goldblum gets? Women can play odd scientists, too.

If you’re in need of an introduction, a better appreciation, or a reminder of why Duvall is missed in movies and television, here are some essentials to pick up this week as presents for yourself in honor of her birthday:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.