Monday, July 15, 2024

Happy 75th birthday Shelley Duvall: her best films – ranked!

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20. Suburban Commando (1991)

Duvall has a few nice moments as a California housewife, but it’s Christopher Lloyd as her husband who gets all the character development when they rent out their shed to Hulk Hogan as a burnt-out intergalactic superhero.

19. Home Fries (1998)

With a screenplay by Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) directing, and Catherine O’Hara playing a vengeful widow, you’d be forgiven for expecting more from this black comedy. Alas, it misses all its marks, though Duvall is never less than sweet and supportive as Drew Barrymore’s mom.

Duvall as the first lady in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

18. Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976)

Robert Altman deconstructs American mythology in sprawling satirical style, but forgets to include an engaging story. Duvall provides one of the few bright spots as the first lady (“I’m always trying to spread culture”), who visits Paul Newman’s Wild West Show with her husband, President Grover Cleveland.

17. Tale of the Mummy (1998)

Duvall and Christopher Lee are the most illustrious names in the otherwise second-tier Anglo-American cast of Russell Mulcahy’s straight-to-video cheapie. Duvall plays a spiritual healer who tries to stop Londoners from being murdered by flying bandages from ancient Egypt.

With Juliette Lewis in The 4th Floor. Photograph: Columbia/Allstar

16. The 4th Floor (1999)

Juliette Lewis inherits a Manhattan apartment, where she is driven to paranoid extremes by her new neighbours, including Duvall striking a perfect balance between eccentric and sinister. But this half-baked rehash of The Tenant fails to capitalise on her compelling presence, and founders on a last-minute twist too absurd even for me.

15. Frankenweenie (1984)

This is the second of the short films Tim Burton made as a Disney apprentice; in 2012 he expanded it into a full-length animation, but that remake lacks the quirky appeal of this live-action original. It also lacks Duvall, delightful as the sweetly understanding mom whose son brings his dog back from the dead.

With Jeff Bridges in Rapunzel. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

14. Rapunzel (1983)

Apologies for sneaking a TV episode into this list, but Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre series, which she created and presented, is one of the reasons she is still beloved by audiences who grew up with these witty, star-studded retellings. She and Jeff Bridges play dual roles, Gena Rowlands camps it up as the witch, Gustav Klimt provides visual inspiration.

13. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997)

Duvall fits right into the wacky world of bonkers Canadian director Guy Maddin. A man gets out of jail and returns to his family’s ostrich farm; Shelley plays his sister, who ends up hammering a nail through the head of Frank Gorshin (the Riddler in TV’s Batman). Glorious arty-farty tosh filmed in sumptuous soft focus.

‘Heartless chick in hot pants’ … Duvall in Nashville. Photograph: Everett/Shutterstock

12. Nashville (1975)

All the female characters (apart from Lily Tomlin’s) are annoying, but Duvall’s takes the biscuit. Kudos to her for embracing obnoxiousness as Martha AKA LA Joan, a heartless chick in hot pants, platform heels and legs for days. Ostensibly in town to visit her dying aunt, she’s more interested in hooking up with every man she meets.

11. Brewster McCloud (1970)

Altman was on location in Texas when he first met Duvall, and he wasted no time in casting her in this whimsical fable starring Bud Cort as a bird-fixated recluse who lives in Houston’s Astrodome. Duvall plays the kooky, long-lashed tour guide who takes his virginity. She’s a natural!

10. Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976)

Lovely little TV adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 short story, written and directed by Joan Micklin Silver. As always, Duvall looks perfectly at home in period clothes as she morphs from mousey wallflower to popular flirt so successfully that her sophisticated cousin (Veronica Cartwright) plays a mean trick on her.

9. Time Bandits (1981)

Duvall flexes her funny bone in Terry Gilliam’s black comedy, an enchanting patchwork of historical and mythological persiflage. She and Michael Palin play eternal lovers Pansy and Vincent, whose flowery declarations of mutual devotion in the middle ages and on board RMS Titanic are rudely disrupted by time-travelling dwarves.

With Michael Palin in Time Bandits. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

8. Roxanne (1987)

“Tell Roxanne that you love her!” Duvall rocks a substantial supporting role in this charming update of Cyrano de Bergerac. She plays Dixie, friend and confidante to the local fire chief (Steve Martin), who is over-endowed in the nasal department. One does sometimes wonder why he pines for vapid astronomer Darryl Hannah when Shelley is right there, radiating empathy.

7. McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)

In her second Altman film, Duvall slips effortlessly into the ensemble supporting cast of the film-maker’s gut-wrenching revisionist western. Conveying her character’s plight with a few eloquent glances, she nails the small but poignant role of mail-order bride Ida Coyle, forced into sex work in Mrs Miller’s brothel after her new husband is beaten to death.

Woody Allen and Shelley Duvall in Annie Hall. Photograph: United Artists/Allstar

6. Annie Hall (1977)

Some of Duvall’s work was lost in the edit when Woody Allen’s romcom was cut down to 93 minutes, but she still makes an indelible impression as Pam the Rolling Stone reporter, and serves up several of the screenplay’s zingers with impeccable deadpan aplomb. “Sex with you is really a Kafka-esque experience … I mean that as a compliment.”

5. The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

First-class deployment of Duvall’s talents in Jane Campion’s adaptation of the Henry James novel. At first glance, Countess Gemini seems frivolous and silly, dismissed as comical by her brother (John Malkovich), the abusive slimeball who will go on to make Nicole Kidman’s life miserable. But behind the frippery and fancy earrings, the countess is sharp as a tack, and sees right through his schemes.

4. The Shining (1980)

Duvall had a miserable time on set, and having Jack Nicholson swipe at you with a baseball bat for 127 takes can be few people’s idea of fun, though her own CV contradicts the canard that the experience put her off acting. Stanley Kubrick does her and the character of Wendy few favours, but Duvall’s horrified reactions as her husband reveals himself to be a mortal threat provide the film with many of its iconic moments.

With Robin Williams in Popeye. Photograph: Paramount/Allstar

3. Popeye (1980)

Seventh and last of Duvall’s collaborations with Altman was this musical folly co-starring Robin Williams in his first starring role. After all these years, it still looks downright weird, but Duvall is, as Pam from Rolling Stone might say, utterly transplendent as Olive Oyl, and gets to sing the show-stopping earworm He Needs Me, later co-opted by Paul Thomas Anderson for Punch-Drunk Love.

With Keith Carradine in Thieves Like Us. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

2. Thieves Like Us (1974)

Duvall’s third Altman gig was an adaptation of Edward Anderson’s novel, previously filmed in 1948 by Nicholas Ray as They Live By Night. She plays Keechie, a garageman’s daughter who falls for small-time bank robber Keith Carradine in the Depression-era south. They’re no glamorous Bonnie and Clyde, but hapless losers dreaming of a better life. After her heartbreaking performance in this, her director told her, “I knew you were good, but I didn’t know you were great.”

Duvall in 3 Women. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

1. 3 Women (1977)

The apogee of Duvall’s collaborations with Altman is her semi-improvised tragicomic turn as Millie, attendant at a California desert spa for elderly people, who invites a waiflike co-worker (Sissy Spacek) to share her apartment, leading to a dreamlike blurring of identities. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry at Millie’s incessant mindless prattle, magazine-fuelled delusions and habit of shutting her skirt in the car door, but it’s peak Duvall, won her a best actress award at Cannes, and is quite simply one of the greatest performances of the 1970s.

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