‘The Shining’ Star Shelley Duvall Vanished From Hollywood. Now She’s Returned To Acting

By Saskia Solomon
New York Times
Actress Shelley Duvall in a scene from the psychological drama ‘3 Women’, 1977. Photo / Getty Images

After two decades, the actress Shelley Duvall, known for her roles in era-defining films like The Shining and Nashville, has returned to acting. But what happened to her?

On a winding back road of Texas Hill Country, Shelley Duvall pulled over and lit another cigarette.

“How did you like Egypt?”

She cracked a grin, revving the engine. “Next stop: Santa Fe!” she announced before vanishing down the road in a cloud of dust.

To follow Duvall, 74, on the road and in conversation, is to enter into powerfully imaginative realms. Stories that begin in a certain direction have a habit of taking the scenic route, and, occasionally, swerving excitingly off-piste. One minute she might be talking in depth about shooting the horror film The Shining or the high jinks from the cast on the Popeye set, and the next she’s recalling lyrics from songs — all while retrieving crumpled headshots and cast photographs from a Ziploc bag she keeps in the SUV’s glove compartment.

Because of health issues, including diabetes and an injured foot that has greatly impacted her mobility, Duvall often stays in her 4Runner, some days driving to local nature spots, catching up with people in town and visiting drive-thrus.

For more than two decades, Duvall’s career was at a standstill. Her last film role had come in 2002′s Manna From Heaven, after which she retired for reasons that have remained a mystery from a varied and, by most counts, successful career as both an actor and producer. Among the most common questions that show up when you search her name these days: What happened to Shelley Duvall? Why did Shelley Duvall disappear?

This enduring curiosity is unsurprising: The very act of fading into obscurity, be it voluntary or forced, is at the heart of the “Hollywood recluse” trope, which never ceases to intrigue.

It intrigues Shelley Duvall as well.

“I was a star; I had leading roles,” she said, solemnly shaking her head. She had parked in the town square for a takeout lunch — chicken salad, quiche and sweetened iced coffee, finished off with a drag of a cigarette. She lowered her voice. “People think it’s just ageing, but it’s not. It’s violence.”

Prompted to explain “violence,” Duvall responded with a question: “How would you feel if people were really nice, and then, suddenly, on a dime” — she snapped her fingers — “they turn on you? You would never believe it unless it happens to you. That’s why you get hurt, because you can’t really believe it’s true.”

“Everyone’s always interested in downfall stories,” said Gilroy, 76, her partner of more than 30 years, who helps her get in and out of her car and sometimes has to plead with her to come back into the house. His voice bore a tone of weariness in discussing the speculation and gossip that still surrounds Duvall.

“It’s all over the internet: ‘Look at her now’ and ‘You won’t believe what she looks like now.’ Every celebrity gets that treatment,” Gilroy said.

He has reason to feel weary, of course: In 2016, Duvall was a guest on the daytime talk show Dr. Phil, with the rare television appearance proving to be personally disastrous. Still controversial, the episode showed Duvall in a state of distress.

“I’m very sick. I need help,” Duvall told Dr. Phil in one clip. He responded: “Well, that’s why I’m here.”

The episode was titled A Hollywood Star’s Descent Into Mental Illness: Saving ‘The Shining’’s Shelley Duvall. Wide-eyed, Duvall went on to utter a slew of bizarre statements, such as claiming to be receiving messages from Robin Williams, who had died two years before, and talking about malevolent forces who were out to do her harm. Although the show’s stated aim was one of empowerment and destigmatising mental illness, many, including Stanley Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, publicly criticised the show for being exploitative and sensationalist.

Although the episode never aired in full, the damage was done. It led to questions regarding her mental state, and she withdrew further into herself.

“It did nothing for her,” Gilroy said of the show. “It just put her on the map as an oddity.”

Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in the film ‘The Shining’, 1980. Photo / Getty Images
Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in the film ‘The Shining’, 1980. Photo / Getty Images

Duvall, born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1949 to Robert and Bobbie Duvall, who worked in law and real estate, had a performative streak. Growing up the oldest and only daughter of four children, Duvall had always been headstrong.

Although she lacked formal training, or certain qualities you might expect of a traditional leading lady, her rawness worked to her advantage. For one thing, she didn’t look or carry herself like a classic Hollywood starlet. She brought an energy to her roles that jarred with the studied naturalism that was the acting style at the time, her voice had a beguiling singsong quality to it, and she had a talent for improvisation.

Although these days it is rare for actresses to show their age on or off screen, Duvall has aged naturally. With her fine grey hair, the Duvall of today cuts a strikingly different figure to the waif who bewitched filmgoers throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.

But her smile is still expressive and kind, her wispy eyebrows often arching to emphasise certain points, to make the listener laugh and win them over. She has an almost cartoonish physicality, with doleful eyes and a goofy humour. This was the woman who once dated Paul Simon and Ringo Starr and worked with some of the era’s most famous directors: Robert Altman, Terry Gilliam and Kubrick among them.

Her disappearance wasn’t, as it had been rumoured, born of a protracted breakdown caused years before by her treatment on the set of The Shining. In fact, she continues to have only good things to say about that intense year-long shoot in London and her admiration for Kubrick. Instead, the pause may be more accurately, though not definitively, attributed to the emotional impact of two events: the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which damaged her Los Angeles home, and the stressful toll of one of her brothers falling ill, which prompted her return to her native Texas three decades ago.

It could also equally be attributed to the curse of fame: It isn’t enough to be famous; one must continuously stoke the fire. Leave it for too long, especially if you begin to “age out” as a woman in the industry, and a career will wane.

In 1982, two years after The Shining made her a household name, Duvall started her own production company, Platypus, creating television shows for children, most notably Faerie Tale Theatre.

Never intending to become an actor, Duvall said she owed her career to Altman, an acclaimed director who cast her in her first role in his 1970 dark comedy, Brewster McCloud, after she met two of his producers at a party when she was 20.

“He was real fatherly,” she said of Altman. “Sometimes too much so. He was like the old lady who lived in the shoe, who had too many children she didn’t know what to do, you know?”

The pair became close friends and would go on to collaborate on seven movies, including Nashville, Thieves Like Us, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Popeye and 3 Women, for which Duvall won the 1977 best-actress award at Cannes.

“I thought: Boy, if it’s this easy, why doesn’t everybody act?” she said.

Shelley Duvall signing autographs, circa 1970, in New York. Photo / Getty Images
Shelley Duvall signing autographs, circa 1970, in New York. Photo / Getty Images

After more than two decades, Duvall is set to make a return to movies this spring in The Forest Hills.

Duvall plays Mama, the mother of Rico (Chiko Mendez), a man who, according to the film’s logline, is “tormented by nightmarish visions after enduring head trauma.” The film also features Edward Furlong (Terminator 2), another actor who has spent a long time away from the spotlight.

Asked how she came to be involved in the project, Duvall shrugged: “I wanted to act again. And then this guy kept calling, and so I wound up doing it.”

Despite her decades-long disappearance, Duvall’s filmography has thrived. Instagram users regularly source new Shelley material from an apparently bottomless archival trove.

“Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall,” a line Duvall would utter as she presented each episode of Faerie Tale Theatre, is sampled ad nauseam in posts. Yet there are no books, no documentaries, no star on the Walk of Fame. Seemingly dismissed and forgotten by the film-making establishment, she has become a cult figure for the quirky, the alternative and the misunderstood — and they seem to want to protect her, and her legacy, making their own podcasts and films.

“I think she’s pretty relatable, like, she kind of came from nothing,” said Sarah Lukowski, 23, an Austin-based copywriter who runs a popular Instagram account devoted to all things Shelley Duvall. “She was such an enigmatic force.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Saskia Solomon


More culture

In-depth profiles and fascinating features.

Rachel McAdams is not afraid of the dark. The Mean Girls and The Notebook star views her acting choices as expanding her orbit.

Nicholas Galitzine wants to prove he’s more than just a pretty face. The British actor is known for playing princes and their modern equivalents.

The cast of ‘Miles From Nowhere’ is redefining authentic Kiwi-Muslim representation on screen. One of the most significant TV releases this year is breaking new ground.

Kim Gordon on her album ‘The Collective’, capitalism and her coolest act yet. At 70, the onetime Sonic Youth musician is making art that continues to surprise.

Suzanne Paul: An infomercial queen on life after luminous spheres. From rags to riches to rags to reinvention. What next for the Natural Glow founder?

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: