The Exploitation of a Mentally-Ill Woman

When I was about six or so years old, I watched Popeye on Showtime and was immediately awe-struck by the skinny, raven-haired actress who played Olive Oyl.  It was Shelley Duvall, and it was the first time I ever saw her onscreen.  She was a lanky beanpole of a woman; certainly no conventional beauty.  But she came across as a brilliant misfit and carried away with perfection a role she may have been born to play.  I’ve always been drawn to nonconventional types who embrace what they are and don’t seem to give a damn what other people say or think about them.  Those types have always been a bit drawn to me as well.  Hmmm, I wonder why?

Sometime after Popeye, Duvall created a show called “Faerie Tale Theatre”.  It was an anthology of classic children’s stories, with Hollywood A-listers showing up in guest roles. Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton were among the directors of some of the episodes.  It aired on Showtime.  It was the only premium movie channel we had when I was a child, so it is there where most of my early movie and cable-show memories come.  Mick Jagger, another celebrity who fits the not-so-normal mold but has a bevy of legend surrounding his name, had a guest role on one episode.  At such a young age I had never heard of the Rolling Stones and had no idea who Mick Jagger was, and this was my first exposure to him.

Then there was Shelley Duvall, playing Rapunzel in an episode, when most productions she wasn’t at the helm of would have instead hired some curvy blonde beauty.  She wanted to entertain children, and that was she did with “Faerie Tale Theatre”.  Most kids who watched were likely enthralled with the story and didn’t care what an actress playing Rapunzel or some princess or whatever other parts she played looked like—and it worked.

I saw an old interview on YouTube where Duvall said she had to practically beg her Hollywood friends to come on for nearly no money and help her provide clean, quality entertainment for kids.

Duvall spent much of the decade leading up to the early 1980s in a series of quirky parts in Robert Altman movies.  Her big break away from Altman came in 1980, when she played what is probably her most famous character:  browbeaten, terrorized Wendy Torrance in director Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s novel The Shining.  Another role she seemed destined for, though King’s version of Wendy called for a more traditional-looking Hollywood big-name, had Kubrick followed the book more faithfully.  Of course, he didn’t, much to the chagrin of Stephen King and a few critics, but that’s a whole other blog post.

Duvall kept up her cable shows of entertaining kids, and I got older and outgrew them.  Then I discovered The Shining, Roxanne, and her work from the 1970s.  Altman’s Nashville and 3 Women are now classics.  They almost never play on TV, I don’t think 3 Women does at all, so you have to wait patiently on Netflix or Hulu, or order the DVDs off Amazon if you want to watch either of those.  Or many of Altman’s films, for that matter.  Nashville is one of my all-time favorites, and I’ll still watch it from time to time and discover things I never noticed before with each new viewing.  If I had to make a list of my top ten favorite actors and actresses, Shelley Duvall probably wouldn’t be on it, but I’ve always liked her and know I’m in for a treat if I stumble upon a movie of hers.

Duvall fell off the map and was rarely seen in the 1990s.  Her last small movie role was in 2002, a film called Manna From Heaven which I’ve never seen.  She moved away from the bright lights of Hollywood to the small town of Blanco, Texas, where stories surfaced of bizarre behavior and claims by her of aliens living in her backyard and stuff like that.  Most of this came from places like The National Enquirer, so any time I read these things online I took them with a grain of salt.

Then, today, an interview with her aired on the TV show of a certain doctor, which backed up all the stories about her mental health.  And more.  Of course, I watched, but I felt dirty and disgusting doing so, since it clearly exploited a woman who’s reclusive and far gone from the person she used to be.  I saw a woman who can’t coherently put clear sentences together, who looks nothing like her old self.  Sure, everyone ages and changes in appearance, but this was a completely different person on my TV screen.

She looked dirty and disheveled, with thinning, gray hair adorned with a strange, multi-colored bandanna.  She’s gained a tremendous amount of weight, which isn’t always unusual as people get older.  But the camera zeroed in on splotchy, unhealthy skin, and every other imperfection it could find.  Her once-girlish, sing-song voice has dropped a bit from age and cigarettes, and most of the words from her mouth were gibberish and nonsensical.  The segment was done under a guise of helping her, but it was disheartening to see it was basically a well-orchestrated ratings-grab and only made her look bad.  In the end, the mental and medical help the show offered her was rejected.  She was carried away from Texas to a mental healthcare facility in California but left after three days, when it was reported she would never relent to the medication she desperately needs.  She returned home to Texas, where it’s said “alternative methods” are being used to try and treat her.  Which to me sounds like she’s back where she started before the certain TV doctor’s episode.

The only bright spot to all of this is some of the people coming to Duvall’s defense and criticizing this interview.  The daughter of Stanley Kubrick publicly condemned it and even set up a GoFundMe account to raise money to try and help the fallen actress get back on her feet.  I’m not sure if you can help a person who refuses it, but I guess we can hold out hope something good may come out of it.

It was disturbing and sad to see a once-promising talent as she is today.  Whatever has become of her, I hope she will instead be remembered for the good she did for so many children who grew up in the 1980s—and not what became of her later in life.

Sometimes it’s better to just remember people the way they were.


Click the photo to go to Vivian Kubrick’s GoFundMe Page for Shelley Duvall


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