The Misunderstood Perfection of Shelley Duvall in Kubrick’s The Shining

The Shining -The Torrence Family - All togetherLet’s be clear from the start: Stephen King’s book The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining are two completely different animals. All further understanding and appreciation of either incarnation spawns from that fact. Yes, the source material for the film is the book, but it’s just that: source material that Kubrick used to mold into his own unique version of The Overlook Hotel and its occurrences.

The same can be said of The Torrance Family themselves.

Danny Torrance, the young son, can be left out of the deeper analysis based on child actor interpretations and Danny’s mainly reactive role. Thus is the burden of the child in book, film, and life: that of sponge, mirror and interpreter.

Jack and Wendy are the meat. The takes on their characters and relationship are treated completely differently in book and film. For King, this marriage is the lens through which all things in the book are filtered: The Torrance Family vs. The Overlook. For Kubrick, the marriage is background noise in the larger relationship of the film: that of Jack Torrance and his love affair with The Overlook, which is an expansion on Torrance’s love affair with himself.

In the book, Jack Torrance is a genuinely penitent lost soul. His guilt, shame, and commitment to starting over and being a better man is genuine. He is mopey and self-centered but sincere. In the film, Jack Torrance (do I have to say ‘played by Jack Nicholson’?) is, from the first frame, a half-unhinged narcissist saddled with a family that he is obligated to try to repair, and frankly not happy in his current sober state. The Jack from Kubrick and Nicholson is a misunderstood artist who has had enough of all this shit but is going through the motions. He fucked up. Everybody hates him. He’s playing nice and waiting for all of it to crash down, the sooner the better.

Enter Wendy Torrance. To King, Wendy is a tentatively hopeful, tentatively optimistic, grounded mother who wants to give this family a chance. Maybe it’s broken, maybe it’s salvageable, maybe she loves him, maybe he can pull it together and they really can have the life they wanted.

Kubrick’s Wendy is a fly buzzing in Jack’s peripheral vision. Set up to be the cliche nag, the last straw, the line, “Hey, honey!” lays in front of her a minimum of fifty times. In the story of Jack and The Overlook, Wendy is cast as the shrill magic-killer, the simpleminded woman who inadvertently points out every flaw and hen-pecks the brooding Jack ever closer to releasing his full insanity.

I have never met anyone who likes Shelley Duvall in The Shining. The complaints are always the same, and they’re valid: She’s annoying, her voice is high-pitched, she whines, she smiles a lot, paces a lot, interrupts a lot. For years, twenty-plus viewings at a low estimate, I agreed that Shelley Duvall sucked as Wendy.

Last winter while watching The Shining (winter is the only time appropriate to watch it), Wendy sat in her chair during one of the opening scenes, furtively smoking and explaining away her husband’s child abuse and alcoholism, and I saw what I had failed to see before: Shelley Duvall’s calculated take on Wendy Torrance.

The Shining - Shelly DuvallOne bony hand wrapped around the opposite bony elbow, blinking erratically and knocking ash off her cigarette too often, Shelley Duvall’s voice climbs higher and higher, almost to the point of cracking. Eyes round, smile strained, Wendy Torrance tells a stranger about her husband breaking their small son’s arm, saying, “I don’t believe he ever meant to hurt him.”

Wendy is lying.

It was like watching a different film. Instead of a story about furries, trikes and a man hanging onto his sanity before caving, I saw the nuances created by Shelley Duvall for Wendy Torrance. Hidden beneath scenes of hotel history and Jack’s private battle, is the tiny, private story of the woman who smiles because someone fucking has to.

Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance is a caged animal that is wound too tightly to sound normal but not so tightly she can’t pretend, because what the hell else is she going to do? This Wendy is trapped in a marriage to someone she knows is a monster–a monster that is still her husband, still the father of their son, and somehow only half culpable for his transgressions because of the disease that is alcoholism. Not only is she deprived the luxury of being angry and hating him, Wendy has to handle this man with careful and caring hands–he’s in recovery. He is delicate, and hanging on, and trying. Wendy doesn’t care about the kitchen. Wendy doesn’t want to go for a walk. Wendy doesn’t want to make breakfast, or make conversation. Wendy doesn’t want to spend all fucking winter cooped up with her son and an overly sensitive crazy man that scares her. This is all evident in Duvall anytime she is not being seen by the other characters but is onscreen. The smile fades and the blankness and desperation fall across her face, revealing the natural state of Wendy Torrance.

Playing a woman who is a supporting character in her own life as well as the buzzing fly in Kubrick’s vision, Shelley Duvall is perfect. In every high-pitched and hollow-sounding sentence uttered is the raw nerve that makes up Wendy. She waits patiently for her own breakdown, but alas, in the meantime someone has to play board games with the kid and take lunches to the Dull Boy who cannot be disturbed. Only when Jack finally breaks is Wendy allowed to break, and every scream is a scream that has been building for months.

In less capable hands, Mrs. Jack Torrance might have been a sympathetic, flat casualty. In Duvall’s, she quietly holds her world together while still allowing you to see her through Jack’s eyes, and sort of want to put an axe through her skull.

AMANDA GOWIN

 


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7 comments

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    • Chris on February 27, 2017 at 9:50 pm
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    I’ve always liked Wendy in Kubrick’s The Shining, for the same reason I like Sharon Stone in Casino, or even Don Draper in Mad Men; damaged, vulnerable people who seem capable of only making terrible decisions are fascinating characters. That she isn’t heroic in a kick-ass, Furiosa manner makes the films feel more realistic, more tragic. Hey, sometimes I like things to be a bummer, y’know.

    Confused about your description of Wendy’s big scene where she tries to minimize Jack’s drinking and abuse, which you describe as taking place “in the chair of the Overlook office”, when in fact it takes place in her own living room (even the screenshot you use in this article shows that).

    I do agree, that too many people bag on Wendy/Shelley Duvall, when she is clearly one of the best things in The Shining. I think her performance is equal to Jack’s.

      • Sean on June 16, 2017 at 7:19 am
      • Reply

      I’ve thought for a long time that Wendy is the main character of The Shining, not Jack. Shelly Duvall always reminds me of Kubrick because of her eyes.

      • Ana on September 20, 2017 at 11:58 pm
      • Reply

      I absolutely agree with you – for me Duvall’s performance was great and I have thought that since I saw The shining first time. She’s great!

    • J on March 8, 2017 at 10:04 pm
    • Reply

    Great article

    • Nico Estrella on June 9, 2018 at 10:21 am
    • Reply

    I just saw The Shining on Netflix and I was absolutely impressed by Duvall’s performance. The nuances of her character were acted so real. I felt her struggle and her determination to hold her family together. My favorite scene is when she was inside the bathroom and Jack was axing the door. I totally felt the fear, panic and her determination to survive while she was borderline losing her sanity as well. She deserved to be recognized in this film equally as Jack Nicholson. She is the real star of this film!

  1. I would love to see a larger article on this. As I just posted on Twitter, you seem to just be peaking through the door on a new look at the film. A viewpoint from a recovering alcoholic/abuser’s spouse and kinda a co-victim. Even the connections to recurring violence against Native Americans or generational abuse could match up with the reactions of both Danny and Duvall. How do we react to discovering the horrors of our nation and/or our family’s past? What do we do with those feelings? What actions are we moved to based on those feelings?

    Great article! Thank you so much for it!

  2. To me there has always been a contradiction with everyone saying Kubrick is a perfectionist and that Duvall sucked. Of course she didn’t. Of course he didn’t let it go until he got exactly what he wanted. Of course nobody sympathized with her. He asked the crew not to sympathize with Shelley, and also meant for the viewers not to sympathize with Wendy. That was the ultimate horrific point of the movie: we, the onlookers, are all potential Jacks inside just waiting for the right context to unleash, which the Overlook provides for Jack in this movie. We were meant to be horrified at ourselves as much as at the movie for not caring or even wishing for Wendy’s suffering, which is radically different from most horror features and from the novel and makes the experience even more troubling. There is even a fleeting moment at 1:20:20 when Jack looks into the camera as he walks out of the room after bullying Wendy… as if he knows we’re watching but won’t interfere, and that some part of many viewers wants to also commiserate with his “correction” of Wendy. A bit like Funny Games but on a much more subtle level.

    In any case, Duvall did brilliant work in creating this character, this antihero, and portraying her so well from the caged animal you describe in this excellent article, that woman who smiles because she has to, who sounds always a bit off, a bit robotic,because she can’t quite believe what she is saying herself and cowardly goes along with acting a certain proper way and rationalizing conjugal violence because she can’t conceive of taking responsibility of her life, a woman who doesn’t respect herself nor attracts our own respect, to what ultimately becomes a resourceful but reluctant savior for herself and her son. The arc of the viewer towards her starts from disdain to wanting to shake her off her apathy and commiserating with her husband, to one of near respect, to one of letting her escape. This is also the arc of the Overlook Hotel character towards her, which is a brilliant concept. In the end, we stay in the hotel with Jack, because after all, we were meant to sympathize with him, not her, and that’s what makes this movie so unique, dark and powerful. That is also why Duvall’s casting and performance, which was right on point on every frame, were so misunderstood.

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