That wonderful, singular actress Shelley Duvall celebrates her 70th year today. Some performers remain in our consciousness for the overwhelming character they project, others inhabit their roles with such power they are just legends for a kind of inimitable genius. While Duvall belongs to the latter category she possesses a kind of eccentric consistency that means she is out on her own, beyond conventional representation. She was not only the muse of Robert Altman so for me she is always the mysterious Millie of 3 Women; she also became the most important actress in the world of Stanley Kubrick when he terrorised her on our behalf in The Shining. I will always love her in Joan Micklin Silver’s F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, Bernice Bobs Her Hair. More than an actress, singer and even set decorator, she became a highly successful TV producer with Faerie Tale Theater. We are not worthy. Many happy returns.
In the bigger scheme of things I have no idea what this film is about and I don’t know anyone who does. It started as an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel but it evolved into something he disliked intensely. It boasts a key performance in Jack Nicholson’s career – in which those eyebrows are utilised to express something truly demonic and he launched a million caricatures not least when he hymned Johnny Carson. The bones of King’s novel are here – wannabe writer Jack Torrance decamps with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and little son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains to act as caretaker in the off season, hoping to overcome writer’s block. His son has psychic premonitions, possessed by the building itself, which however do not manage to overwhelm him and he shares their secrets with chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) with whom he communicates telepathically. Then Jack senses the hotel’s secrets – it’s built on a Native American burial ground – and he starts to lose his mind as we begin to connect the dots with a party that took place in 1921 and a photograph … What happens here is not as important as how it looks. Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson remove all the tropes that characterise the haunted house novel and we are left with overlit flatness and unsaturated colours that repeat and repeat and create their own rhythm. There are images that sear themselves on your brain: the elevator pouring blood into those endless corridors that get longer and longer as Danny cycles up and down the hotel; the twin Grady girls; the bar that suddenly opens up; the nubile young woman who turns into an old crone; Wendy finding out what Jack’s been typing for months and months on those sheaves of paper; Danny’s voice, growling red rum, red rum; and Jack hacking through the bathroom door with an ax as Wendy cowers; Jack killing Dick, whose return to the hotel is because he senses that Danny needs him; the maze filling with snow as Danny tries to escape his lunatic father. Kubrick’s authorial vision produces something very odd and compelling and against the notion of the traditional horror film, perhaps minus all those strange theories promulgated by the documentary Room 237 which has a major preoccupation with presumed spatial discrepancies in the building’s layout. This is notable for Garret Brown’s use of the Steadicam, another instance of Kubrick’s obsession with using all the then-new technology to create powerful visuals. This production may have arisen from the master’s deep need to make a commercial hit after the failure of the beautiful Barry Lyndon, but one thing’s for sure about this ghost story like no other – once seen, never forgotten. Here’s Johnny!
This was hardly what a mainstream audience expected of a western released in the year of the Bicentennial, but then Robert Altman’s certain tendency towards revisionism was an altogether acknowledged thread throughout his work and this film co-written with Alan Rudolph (adapted from a play by Arthur Kopit) was no exception. Essentially a deconstruction of the myth of the making of the west, it declares itself in the title sequence, with Paul Newman credited as ‘The Star’ and Burt Lancaster as ‘Legend Maker.’ There are nice supporting performances from Altman regulars like Shelley Duvall and Geraldine Chaplin (who would star in Rudolph’s own Remember My Name) as well as Kevin McCarthy and Harvey Keitel but sometimes you yearn for the clear(er) lines of Shane because this is, sometimes, fatally dull.