Shelley Duvall on Why She Disappeared from Hollywood for 20 Years — and Why She's Making a Return
Shelley Duvall was a film icon in the '70s and '80s, starring with Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, with Robin Williams in Popeye and in a string of acclaimed movies by director Robert Altman, including 3 Women and Nashville. Then she disappeared from Hollywood. What happened to her? In an interview with PEOPLE's Elaine Aradillas, the long-retired actress shares how she's been hiding in plain sight and why she's willing to enter the spotlight again in a new horror movie, The Forest Hills.
In a small, one-stoplight town in the Texas Hill Country, a waitress is quickly jotting down a to-go order: blackened tilapia, crab cake with wedge fries, a side salad, hard-boiled eggs, a sweetened iced tea, and a Dr. Pepper with an extra cup of ice. The waitress looks up. "Is this for Shelley Duvall?"
For the past two decades, Duvall, 73, has been quietly living in the area, where she's a regular at most establishments. While many locals know her, some may be surprised to learn that the gray-haired woman who often breaks into song while speaking is an iconic actress from the '70s and '80s who showed off her impressive range and quirky style in classic films including Woody Allen's Annie Hall, Robert Altman's Popeye and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. After acting in more than 20 movies and producing several TV shows, Duvall decided to step away from Hollywood in 2002 and retire in Central Texas.
That is, until now. Duvall is returning to acting in an indie horror film, The Forest Hills, which will premiere on March 11 at Smodcastle Cinemas in Atlantic Highlands, N.J. (a theater owned by filmmaker Kevin Smith). Director-writer-producer Scott Goldberg, who's seeking further distribution for the movie, says he called Duvall last year and asked her to play a supporting role: "Shelley's a Hollywood icon. I'm happy that she has the opportunity to show that she still has the talent." Says Duvall: "Acting again—it's so much fun. It enriches your life."
ERIC RYAN ANDERSON
Duvall's long disappearance from Hollywood sparked speculation about her mental health over the years. But in person she's sharp, earthy, a bit eccentric and sometimes emotional as she looks back on her unique career. (She asks to do the interview from her SUV, since an injured foot makes it difficult to walk.) Born in Fort Worth in 1949, Duvall grew up in Houston, where her father was a lawyer and her mother worked in real estate. Despite three younger brothers, she says, the house wasn't a boisterous one: "I liked to read and had a lot of homework."
But everything changed for her at age 18, when a group of men in suits attended her then--boyfriend's art opening. "Somebody said, 'Oh, it's the movie people,' " she recalls. They noticed Duvall and asked her to audition. What followed felt like a whirlwind. She soon found herself costarring in Altman's 1970 comedy Brewster McCloud. It took two more films before she decided to make acting her career. "After Thieves Like Us, Robert [Altman] looked at me and said, 'I knew you were good, but I didn't know you were great,' " she says with tears in her eyes. "It's the reason I stuck with it and became an actress."Duvall became Hollywood's unconventional It girl. Her lilting voice was as recognizable as her doe eyes and lithe frame. "I didn't feel beautiful," she says. "I had big eyes, big ears." She starred in seven Altman films, including 3 Women and Popeye, in which she played Olive Oyl opposite Robin Williams. "All it took was to put on the costume, and I knew exactly how to play Olive," she says.
Despite working with Hollywood giants, she didn't always find the acting life easy or profitable. "You didn't get paid much—just scale plus 10 percent," she says. "They thought women would just marry and the husband's going to support them. But that doesn't happen for everybody." Duvall has been in a decades-long relationship but declines to discuss her current or past loves, who have included Paul Simon and Ringo Starr. During the interview she is reminded of a song—-Supertramp's "Even in the Quietest Moments"—and asks to play it. As the music swells, tears stream down her face. She wipes them away and smiles. "It's the first time I've heard the song since a certain boyfriend," she explains.
For the most part Duvall is happy to walk down memory lane. And whenever she stumbles across her films on TV, she'll stop and watch. "On one channel there is Popeye and another one The Shining. Boy, those are two different films," she says. "But in a way it's like, 'Gosh, I was great.' "
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In the '90s her movie offers began to dwindle. When her brother was diagnosed with spinal cancer, she packed up and moved back to Texas. "It's the longest sabbatical I ever took," she says, "but it was for really important reasons—to get in touch with my family again."
Duvall says she enjoyed getting back in front of the camera and hopes to continue acting. "[Jessica Tandy] won an Oscar when she was 80. I can still win," she says with a wink and a laugh. But first she's off to place another order. "Let's go to Dairy Queen and get ourselves some decadent desserts." *