While the movie was poorly received upon its 1980 release, The Shining has since enjoyed a cult status for its disturbing, slow-paced and hypnotic quality. The role of Jack Torrance was a career-defining moment for Jack Nicholson. Director Stanley Kubrick received critical acclaim for his interpretation of Stephen King's 1977 novel by the same name.
Not everyone got to enjoy the spoils of their innovative performance. One person had a particularly difficult experience in the Overlook Hotel, and that was Shelley Duvall, portraying Jack's mousy and increasingly terrified wife, Wendy Torrance. Her emotional range throughout the film goes from timid mother to traumatized, weeping mess, which is partially reflective of how filming The Shining affected her on a psychological level.
When asked how well Kubrick adapted her character from the original source material, King laid into the director for how he handled Wendy's character. He said, “[The movie] is so misogynistic. I mean, Wendy Torrance is just presented as this sort of screaming dish rag.” The character of Wendy was afforded much more agency and interiority in the novel, a source of frustration and sadness for King and Duvall both.
Despite the alleged mishandling of her character, it cannot be denied that Duvall did anything but an exceptional job at encapsulating the genuine unhinged horror that her character was feeling. Her acting was strongly informed by the psychic landscape of the film's set, which remains a potent case study for the benefits and drawbacks of method acting.
Kubrick, an exacting and precise director, was adamant about method-acting techniques. He encouraged Nicholson’s unpredictable and angry behavior to keep him sharp for his scenes, which meant that Nicholson had to be kept vulnerable and on edge around the clock.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Duvall remarks:
In my character I had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week. I was there a year and a month, and there must be something to Primal Scream therapy, because after the day was over and I'd cried for my 12 hours, I went home very contented. It had a very calming effect. During the day I would have been absolutely miserable.
While she tried to keep a good face in the public eye, Duvall admitted that she found the entire experience "unbearable." While she objectively understood that Kubrick’s unconventional directorial decisions was the method behind the madness of his artistry, it took a great psychological toll on her.
Her career did not flourish after the film, and she ultimately retired from acting in 2002. She experienced a prolonged bout of mental health issues in the years that followed, culminating in an appearance on Dr. Phil in 2016.
The ordeal that was the baseball bat scene is one record-breaking example of Kubrick’s brutal standards. At 127 attempts, it holds the Guinness World Record for most takes with spoken dialogue.
The gratuitous number was possibly intentional. As she swung the bat over and over, dozens of times, Duvall grew more exhausted and terrified as she had to relive the most climactic moment of the scene time and time again. Nicholson was menacing her in each take, which made her cry between many of the shots. By the time Kubrick got the perfect shot, her shakiness and desperate tears were completely genuine.
When all was said and done, Duvall gave Kubrick clumps of her own hair, to demonstrate to the director how unwell she was.
While the subject matter was disturbing in itself, Kubrick’s directing style reportedly caused even deeper fear and insecurity for Duvall.
Kubrick’s daughter Vivian remarks in her documentary The Making of The Shining how her father purposefully bullied Duvall to make her insecurity seem more genuine. He even went so far as to tell other crew members and actors not to sympathize with her when she was having a breakdown. In direct conversation with Duvall, Kubrick would tell her that she was wasting everyone’s time with her ideas and suggestions.