In this article:
- The Shining is one of the films to watch for self-described horror cinema fans and one that’s known for its steady build-up of psychological dread.
- Audiences waited in fear of Jack Torrance, The Shining‘s lead character and villain, finally losing his mind but the real terrors came from the portrayal and reactions of Shelly Duval to the events at the Overview Hotel.
- Shelley would complain about being unwell and Stanley would isolate her or push her further to her limit. And while Jack Nicholson was receiving praise from the director, Shelley didn’t get any.
Every self-described horror cinema fan—or cinema fan, period—has seen Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s celebrated novel, though once described by critics as “too banal to sustain interest” and an “elaborately ineffective scare movie”, is a timeless classic and a feat of filmmaking.
In case you haven’t seen it, don’t expect too many jumpscares in The Shining—though it did give birth to iconic ones, such as the improvised Here’s Johnny! scene. Shock value aside, what made it such an effective horror movie is the psychological dread it built. Audiences waited in fear of Jack Torrance, The Shining‘s lead character and villain, finally losing his mind.
Jack Nicholson, who played the madman, seemed like the right choice for the Kubrick opus. He built a reputation as a Hollywood actor who preferred eccentric roles, and Jack Torrance certainly fit the bill. Nicholson’s ear-to-ear grin and crazy eyes never once let viewers of The Shining forget that the character was slipping into insanity scene after scene.
To me, what was more unforgettable was Shelley Duvall’s portrayal of Wendy Torrance. She was Jack’s long-suffering wife and mother to their gifted child, Danny. Kubrick wrote the character as a scream queen of sorts, and her ear-piercing shrieks added to the psychological terror of The Shining.
Wendy Torrance is an unforgettable character for a mix of reasons. Critics found how she was written as misogynistic. It’s no secret that Stephen King, one of the movie’s biggest critics, wasn’t a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. He especially hated Wendy’s characterization as meek and submissive as opposed to the strong woman he penned in his novel. As for the general audience, we either empathized with Wendy and feared for her and Danny’s future, or were annoyed with how seemingly helpless she was as a character.
For Shelley Duvall, playing Wendy was an unforgettable experience, too — one she also described as “almost unbearable”.
The Making of The Shining
In the #MeToo era, we need to reevaluate our admiration for certain artists and their work. It’s only right to question if a piece of art, such as a film we watched growing up, was made by people in positions of power who enabled abuse or carried out the abuse themselves. Because how can we continue to applaud and enjoy a piece of work knowing what went on behind the scenes, or what laid the foundation for its success?
Naturally, it made me look into how popular movies were made. As far as sexual abuse allegations go, none were made about Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining.
That doesn’t mean the auteur was easy to work with. In fact, he’s known in the industry for being a perfectionist. He was so much of a perfectionist that two scenes in The Shining were recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for having the highest number of takes in any movie.
One of those scenes is a climactic confrontation between Jack and Wendy. Having lived in the Overlook Hotel for several weeks, Jack has reached the height of his cabin fever. Wendy is concerned over Danny’s health and wants to take him to the doctor, a perfectly good request that Jack takes as disrespectful to his responsibility to the hotel. He taunts Wendy, who protects herself with a baseball bat.
This is the moment in The Shining where we realize how unhinged Jack has become. Much of our terror is mirroring that of Wendy’s. Shelley Duvall did such a fantastic job at making audiences fear the villain of the movie because of how convincing she was at portraying fear.
What fans didn’t know at the time was the real anxiety and exhaustion that fueled the cut that made the movie. The cast and crew of The Shining filmed this particular scene 127 times until Stanley Kubrick was satisfied with the outcome. By the end of it, Shelley Duvall had wounded hands from holding the bat, a hoarse throat, and dehydration. “I was really in and out of ill health because the stress of the role was so great,” Duvall later revealed in a book dedicated to the late director.
A behind-the-scenes documentary of The Shining also showed Duvall lying on the floor out of exhaustion from filming, as well as complaining about clumps of her hair falling out due to stress and exhaustion. “Don’t sympathize with Shelley,” Stanley Kubrick was captured instructing the person behind the camera, his daughter Vivian Kubrick, who was shooting the footage for the documentary.
This was a common theme in the making of The Shining. Shelley would complain about being unwell and Stanley would isolate her or push her further to her limit. And while Jack Nicholson was receiving praise from the director, Shelley didn’t get any.
“We had the same end in mind. It was just that sometimes we differed in our means,” Shelley described her experience with working with the director. The long takes, carrying Danny, crying or screaming throughout really most of the movie, and being isolated from her family, as well as the cast and crew on set took a toll on her overall well-being.
How to Get Away With Abuse? Be a “Genius”
Working with auteurs, a filmmaker who is recognized for a definitive style and voice is considered an honor. It would have been inconceivable for Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall to not jump at the chance to work with Stanley Kubrick in The Shining.
That said, there’s something sickening about cinema’s worship of so-called auteurs. Too often, behind the genius of an auteur lies an obsessive and tyrannical approach to filmmaking. Shelley Duvall experienced this firsthand while working with Kubrick. Granted, it did result in the masterpiece that is The Shining, which is arguably the best horror movie of all time. But when it comes to film, why do always allow the end to justify the means?
By most measures, Stanley Kubrick’s methodical approach to directing The Shining isn’t even within the ballpark of cancellable behavior for filmmakers. But it’s certainly gross behavior to stop your crew from sympathizing with an actress who is in ill health if that means a director can use raw emotion for the film. It was almost as if he forced Shelley Duvall into method acting when that wasn’t part of her method.
Many filmmakers who are also considered ahead of their time have been exposed to be abusers on set, especially towards women. In an interview, Amy Adams revealed that American Hustle director David O. Russell was hard on her on set and made her cry most days. He screamed at the actress as well as other people, to the point that co-star Christian Bale intervened when the tension got too high. Stanley Kubrick may not have been so explosive on the set of The Shining, but he tormented Shelley Duvall all the same.
Many other directors, most of whom are male, are notorious for taking an almost dictatorial position in their films. One of the most enduring Hollywood stories is of Faye Dunaway taking a piss in a cup and throwing it at Roman Polanski’s face, after the award-winning Polish director refused to let her use the bathroom during a particularly long take. Of course, Polanski turned out to be more than an autocrat but a convicted criminal for sexually abusing a minor and allegedly a few other actresses.
And when directors can’t get into the pants of their muses? They make their careers a living hell. Case in point: Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock. Another filmmaker that has gained the coveted auteur status, Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense at a time when CGI was a farfetched technology. One of his most triumphant films is The Birds starring an unknown actress, Tippi Hedren. Many years later, Tippi Hedren claimed that Alfred Hitchcock ruined her Hollywood career because she refused to sleep with him.
And he made it difficult for Tippi Hedren to work on set, too. Aside from the psychological abuse, and later blacklisting her from movies, Hitchcock infamously released real live birds on the actress in The Birds. The reason Tippi was so convincing in conveying fear in the movie—like Shelley Duvall was in The Shining—was that she was actually being pecked by live birds instead of mechanical ones. The scratches, blood, and fear were all real. And yet, Hitchcock’s The Birds still ranks highly in a list of horror movies by the filmmaker despite knowing how he terrorized his leading lady.
Then, there’s Bernardo Bertolucci. The Italian filmmaker became known for his politically-charged and, at times, erotic movies. One of his most controversial works is the 1972 drama Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Scheider, which contains a rape scene. What made it so controversial was that the actress was not aware they were shooting a rape scene involving a stick of butter until filming had already commenced. Marlon Brando came up with the idea and Bertolucci used it.
“I was so angry. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and Bertolucci,” she recounted her experience decades later. “I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that.” Bertolucci’s explanation? “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.”
Stanley Kubrick, Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, David O. Russell, and Bernardo Bertolucci. Those are just some of the names of directors who have received critical acclaim for their work despite the history of abuse they’ve enabled and carried out themselves. We’ve overlooked these behaviors to make way for the genius of filmmakers. And too often, we justify the abuse as part of the fabric of their genius. After all, Bertolucci was honored with a Palme D’Or in 2011 for his “commitment to cinema”.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining may not have the same legacy as, say, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. But abuse of any sort shouldn’t be tolerated and celebrated in filmmaking. Abuse isn’t an essential ingredient in genius, and it’s high time we make a distinction. Maybe it’s time to pick a new favorite director or horror movie that isn’t The Shining.