×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Shelley Duvall's Tragic True Life Story

In the annals of film history, "The Shining" will probably always be mired in some sort of controversial air. One could attribute the urban legends it spawned to the various bizarre things that happened on the set, though it's much more likely to do with the longstanding belief that the filmmaking process drove star Shelley Duvall out of Hollywood.

It's the sort of story that writes itself, even before you add in the horror movie undertones. "Everyone's always interested in downfall stories," said her longtime partner, musician Dan Gilroy, in a 2024 interview with The New York Times. "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's account is certainly true for Duvall, as the idea that she was injured physically and mentally by a genius filmmaker working on one of the greatest horror movies of all time appears to have captivated the greater public consciousness almost completely. Even those innocently wondering where Duvall has been since shooting the 1980 film have to sort through all manner of rumors and gossip to find the truth.

Fortunately, in concert with her welcome return to acting in the 2020s and her death in 2024, there appears to be a concerted effort among journalists and admirers online alike to correct the record about Duvall's true life story. And while she certainly had to persevere through hardship, much of it came not from one story she helped tell, but the stories people chose to tell about her. This is the full, tragic, and true life story of Shelley Duvall.

Shelley Duvall got divorced as she started her acting career

From 1970 to 1974, Shelley Duvall was married to Bernard Sampson, who at the time was the struggling artist of the pair. Before they were married, he painted and would showcase his art at parties with a little help from Duvall's charismatic personality. It was ironically at one of these parties — where she was enthusiastically pitching Sampson's work to a crowd of intrigued guests — that someone first had the idea to whisk her away into the world of film and television.

Little did Duvall know that watching her pitch were crew members from the then-in-production film "Brewster McCloud," the 1970 Robert Altman black comedy in which she would ultimately make her on-screen debut. As the Los Angeles Times reported back in 1991, the crew members were so arrested by both her personality and her unique appearance that they staged a meeting between Duvall, Altman, and producer Lou Adler under the pretense that the two men were actually potential buyers for Sampson's work. To rub salt in the wound, Adler told the Times that Duvall's pitch far outshone whatever paintings he had brought.

Altman offered Duvall a role on the spot, and (after some debate) she reluctantly agreed to leave Texas for the first time in her life to join him on set. He subsequently cast her in another project, 1971's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," after which she returned home to resume supporting Sampson's art career. Sadly, their relationship quickly evaporated, and Duvall left Texas once again to pursue acting.

She endured a difficult shoot for The Shining

Less than a decade after her debut in "Brewster McCloud," 31-year-old Shelley Duvall was cast as Wendy Torrance — the wife of Jack Nicholson's mad writer Jack Torrance — in Stanley Kubrick's seminal adaptation of "The Shining." For better and for worse, it would ultimately be the role that defined her career in Hollywood forever.

Her relationship with Kubrick began auspiciously, being cast by the critically acclaimed director without so much as an audition or meeting. Of course, Duvall herself was something of a hot commodity, having recently won the award for best actress at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival for her role in "3 Women." It was from this role, however, that Kubrick apparently learned all that he needed to learn about her as an actor — that she was great at crying.

And cry she did on the set of "The Shining." She later recalled dreading receiving filming schedules every night, as she knew they would often portend countless hours of required crying, screaming, and general intensive emotional work for the infamously exacting director. In the decades since, many observers both from the outside and from within Duvall's personal and professional orbit have questioned whether Kubrick's treatment of her on set amounts to abuse. When asked directly whether Kubrick was cruel and abusive to her in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she offered, "He's got that streak in him. ... But I think mostly because people have been that way to him at some time in the past." She later insisted that Kubrick had been "very warm and friendly" to her otherwise.

Her role in the film was criticized by Stephen King and others

Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" had some detractors, notably including Stephen King himself. But to be fair, it's worth noting that King had arguably been primed to hate "The Shining" before it was even released.

Despite choosing to adapt King's story based on the fact that it was both pulpy enough to revive his box office numbers after the underperforming "Barry Lyndon" and artistically rich enough to be engaging and challenging for the director, Kubrick seemed to have little respect for King throughout the process. He famously rejected King's screenplay sight-unseen and made several deviations from what King considered to be his most personal work. As such, it's fairly unsurprising that the author had nothing kind to say about "The Shining" when it was released in 1980 — though it was slightly jarring when he revived his frustrations over 20 years later (while promoting the publication of his sequel, "Doctor Sleep") by disparaging Shelley Duvall's Wendy to the BBC. "[Wendy's] basically just there to scream and be stupid," he told the outlet, aligning himself with other prominent voices who have expressed that Duvall's emotionally taxing performance could not save an otherwise underwritten and misogynistic character.

Even at the time, Duvall's work was controversially targeted by the inaugural Golden Raspberry Awards, which nominated her for worst actress. The organization has since expressed regret for this decision after learning of Duvall's on-set treatment, but stood by nominating Kubrick for worst director — incidentally because of his many deviations from King's source material.

The Shining overshadowed her other work

Due to a combination of its cultural prevalence and critical standing as well as Shelley Duvall's performance and the almost urban legend-like stories surrounding it, "The Shining" is likely the project most moviegoers automatically associate with Duvall's career. Regardless of whether you see it as a revelatory addition to the horror canon or an outdated, misogynistic mess built on questionable working conditions, it would be an unquestionable shame to boil her career down to one performance.

Despite the common assumption that "The Shining" somehow drove Duvall out of Hollywood (which we'll address later), the actor actually embarked on another act of her career in some ways far more impressive than what came before. In 1981, she created, executive produced, and starred in the critically acclaimed Showtime children's anthology series "Faerie Tale Theatre," in which she would narrate classic fairy tales featuring herself and other famous actors. The series' cast list essentially reads as a who's-who of A-list '80s talent (including Carrie Fisher, Liza Minelli, Robin Williams, and Mick Jagger, with Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola among the list of directors). She also founded her own production company called Think Entertainment, which developed similar anthology projects for television throughout the '80s.

An earthquake destroyed her home

In the early hours of January 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake shook much of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, California. It only lasted for a dozen or so seconds; the damage it left, however, lasted much longer.

In addition to causing north of $20 billion in property damage alone ($42 billion in today's dollars) and resulting in over double that in terms of total economic losses, the quake claimed the lives of 72 people (including those who died of heart attacks), injured over 7,000 more, and left 20,000 people without shelter. Among those affected was Shelley Duvall, whose house was severely damaged to the point that it played a major role in her ultimate decision to leave LA for good. Shelley Duvall Archive on X, an account on X run by a personal friend of Duvall's and dedicated to extensively documenting and archiving photos, articles, and events from throughout her life, shared a quote from Duvall attributed to a 1994 issue of the Houston Chronicle: "I can deal with hurricanes," he said. "But it's extremely frightening to have the earth move so much. Being a Texan, you kind of know when to get the heck out of Dodge."

She spoke about the earthquake's effect on her life in a 2021 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, in which she elaborated that it wasn't just the disaster itself that wore her out. "Afterwards, it's like FEMA, then the next guys, and the next guys," she said. "Engineers one day, insurance people the next. Sometimes at the same time."

She retired from Hollywood in 2002

Around the same time as the sudden destruction of her home, Shelley Duvall also began facing increasing challenges in her personal and professional life. Paramount among her struggles was the diagnosis of her brother with spinal cancer. When her acting career by chance revealed an opportunity for her to return to their home state of Texas (to shoot Steven Soderbergh's 1995 crime drama "The Underneath"), she capitalized on this momentum and moved home full time to reconnect with her family during this period of vulnerability.

But neither her brother's illness nor the earthquake were solely responsible for her departure from the entertainment industry. It also appears to have had little if anything at all to do with the nightmarish production stories that emerged from the set of "The Shining." Rather, Duvall said, she fell victim to a sort of social "violence" that made the interpersonal climate of the filmmaking industry intolerable, especially as she felt and saw herself aging out of the sorts of roles she had originally built her career on. "How would you feel if people were really nice, and then, suddenly, on a dime, they turn on you," she asked rhetorically in an interview with The New York Times. "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." After performing in the 2002 film "Manna from Heaven," she took an indefinite "sabbatical" from acting that ultimately lasted over 20 years.

Rumors spread about her relationship with Stanley Kubrick

As her longtime partner Dan Gilroy told The New York Times, everyone was interested in speculating about Shelley Duvall's wellbeing in a grossly voyeuristic fashion, seemingly relying solely on rumors and candid photos — from which people interpreted Duvall's natural aging process as some indication of a tragic physical decline. And arguably from the same depths of morbid gossip that brought forth her harmful interview with Phil McGraw aka "Dr. Phil," there also emerged speculation that her role in "The Shining" was in fact not career-defining, but career-ending.

In the decades since playing Wendy Torrance, Duvall was incredibly open about the intensity of shooting the film. But while her career flourished afterwards both in front of and behind the camera, these on-set stories gave way to secondhand allegations of abuse and mistreatment. From the circumstances that led to Duvall almost quitting the film (and perhaps with some influence from popular gossip about her mental and physical decline), it seems fans ran with the idea that filming "The Shining" was in fact so traumatizing for Duvall that she fled Hollywood forever.

There are even voices online that might claim themselves defenders of Duvall yet have adopted the assumption that Stanley Kubrick's alleged abuse makes him personally responsible for whatever her present circumstances may be. The truth is that neither "The Shining" nor Kubrick appeared to have played a major or direct role in her 20-year hiatus from acting.

An unflattering Dr. Phil interview laid her mental illness bare

In 2016, Shelley Duvall had been out of the spotlight for well over a decade and was by all accounts enjoying a quiet life in Fort Worth, Texas, spending time with family and healing from a tumultuous career in Hollywood. That didn't stop at least one interested party from getting into contact with her, and — from some perspectives — exploiting her struggles for television content.

Phil McGraw — the controversial talk show host and former doctor known simply as "Dr. Phil" — invited Duvall on his show for a special episode titled "A Hollywood Star's Descent Into Mental Illness: Saving The Shining's Shelley Duvall." The supposed aim of the interview as explicitly stated by McGraw was to address her psychological issues and connect her with psychiatric professionals that could help her achieve long-term wellness. As you might have guessed, being generally aware of how successful McGraw's brand of Jerry Springer-esque talk-therapy goes for most, Duvall's interview did little more than create viral moments for McGraw's show.

When Duvall (who was "very sick" and in need of help by her own admission) appeared behaving strangely in promotional clips, many online — including Stanley Kubrick's daughter, Vivian — expressed anger toward McGraw for "exploiting" her mental health. For his part, McGraw doesn't regret the interview and claims he spent a year after the show trying to get Duvall into care, though others to say he was merely trying to get her back on the show.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

There were also rumors about her financial situation

Another persistent Shelley Duvall rumor that had to be ferociously contested by her supporters online was that the actor was homeless. We were unable to track down the source of this claim, though it may well have spun out of her interview with Phil McGraw. Around the same time as their televised interview, Duvall gave a separate interview to the tabloid celebrity gossip website RadarOnline.

In return for her giving them her time and candidly answering questions about her life, the website characterized her as mentally unwell (they write that she "chain-smoked and rambled on about aliens" and was "refusing treatment for mental health problems" — presumably the treatment arranged by McGraw) and on the brink of financial ruin. According to their interview, Duvall's acting fortune had entirely dried up, leaving her with only $1,660 monthly social security to get by. She also seemed to accuse CBS and Fox Video of failing to cut her into a multimillion-dollar distribution deal for some unnamed project.

Though it's hard to discern how much of this interview reflects reality, it is true that Duvall faced financial hardship. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in 2021, she made allusions to what sounds like a bad investment. "It's not just owning something that makes money," she said cryptically. "You have to also control it. You have to make sure it's a good deal." One of Duvall's friends also told the outlet that he believes failure to pay storage fees led to much of her film memorabilia being sold at auction.

She lives with chronic illness

In a similar vein to her financial struggles, there was some truth underneath the sensationalism when it came to Shelley Duvall's health. Sarah Lukowski, a writer and friend of Duvall's who runs the Shelley Duvall Archive on X, confirmed in a lengthy thread dispelling various rumors about the actor that she did indeed deal with some mental health issues.

"Her mental illness ... seems to have emerged in the mid-2000s," she wrote in one post on X from June 2024. "Her mind is still vivid and full of engrossing stories, but there are brief moments when she experiences paranoid fantasies." Lukowski specifically contested the rumor that this illness was somehow caused by her experiences on "The Shining," and she remarked that it was both "unfair" to ignore her career afterward and unproductive to reduce an obviously complicated medical condition to the pop culture side effect of a horror movie.

A profile about her published in The New York Times shortly before her death also revealed that the actor lived with diabetes and a severe foot injury and that she often interacted with the public from the driver's seat of her truck. Lukowski echoed this account, adding that a pain in both of Duvall's legs has also led her to start using a wheelchair in the few months before her death.

She enjoyed life in Texas and returned to acting

Despite her ailments, Shelley Duvall by all accounts was living a full, happy life on her Texas ranch, where she spent time with Dan Gilroy, their many pets, and a growing circle of friends. Similarly to Sarah Lukowski, an artist and then-resident of Austin named Ryan Obermeyer found himself in Duvall's circle after stopping by to drop off one of his paintings along with a letter of support. He subsequently helped her to recover some of her lost personal effects (including letters, which he was able to purchase off of eBay), reconnected her with old friends (including the late actor Paul Reubens, who also appeared on "Faerie Tale Theatre"), and arranged a large celebration for her 70th birthday at one of her favorite restaurants.

She even returned to horror in 2023, starring in the low-budget independent horror film "The Forest Hills." "I wanted to act again," she told The New York Times of her unexpected involvement in the film. "And then this guy kept calling, and so I wound up doing it." Director Scott Goldberg spoke highly of her work on the film, gushing that watching her perform again "was as if time never passed." The role wound up being her last, a swan song of sorts for an iconic scream queen.

She died in her sleep at age 75

Tragically, Shelley Duvall died on July 11, 2024. She was 75. Her life partner, Dan Gilroy, told The Hollywood Reporter that she died in her sleep, from diabetes-related complications, in her Blanco, Texas, home. "My dear, sweet, wonderful life partner and friend left us," Gilroy told the outlet in a statement. "Too much suffering lately, now she's free. Fly away, beautiful Shelley." Critics, fans, and actors poured out their thoughts and tributes on social media in the wake of her death.

"I'm so unfathomably heartbroken, but please know that over that past few weeks Shelley was immensely loved and I visited with her often — most recently this past Sunday on her 75th birthday," wrote Shelley Duvall Archive poster Sarah Lukowski in a post on Instagram. Among the tributes by her fans was one from actor Michael McKean, who collaborated with Duvall on several episodes of her series "Tall Tales & Legends." The "Better Call Saul" star wrote on X, "I've always loved Shelley Duval. This will continue, always."