Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

1980s Movies, Classic Movies, Editorials, Horror

Why Shelley Duvall was Perfectly Cast in The Shining (1980)

In terms of movie controversies, none frustrates me more than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Keep in mind that I understand the complaints about the movie by both the book’s fans and Stephen King himself. An artist has the right to be upset if someone doesn’t adapt his work the way he had envisioned it. Regardless of what King feels, however, The Shining is an astounding movie and deserves its classic status. Yes, it may not have been very faithful to the source material, but it’s a horror film masterpiece in its own right, and it always gets my goat when I hear people lambaste it as being garbage because it wasn’t like the book.

Another controversy about The Shining that gets me is the casting of Shelley Duvall. I’ve never understood the hatred against her because I always thought she couldn’t have been more perfectly cast, or her portrayal of Wendy more perfectly acted. Yes, King and his fans are right to complain that she didn’t look or act like Wendy from the book. However, if it hadn’t been for her unique look and acting, Kubrick’s movie wouldn’t have been anywhere as terrifying as it was.

Obviously, I can’t just say that, so let me explain why I feel the way I do. Whenever I explain myself, I always feel that I have to talk about another King movie, Cujo. In that film, Dee Wallace gave just as amazing a performance as Duvall in The Shining. However, for whatever reason, her horror scenes–though good–lacked the punch of the ones from The Shining. And no, it’s not because of the most obvious reason (that The Shining was directed by a legendary director and Cujo was not). A large part of why the scenes in The Shining were more effective had to do with Shelley Duvall’s inspired casting. So let’s do a compare and contrast between both actresses and the characters they were playing.

The first thing startling difference between Duvall and Wallace is appearance. Wallace’s movie star looks may have been downplayed in Cujo, but still, she was very much the pretty blonde starlet, even though she spent the last half of the film all grungy and sweaty.

Shelley Duvall, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more different from Dee Wallace or any other female starlet at the time. With her heavily lidded eyes, buck teeth, mousy jet black hair and rail thin frame, she was unattractive by Hollywood standards. It seemed as if Kubrick also went out of his way to frump her up as much as possible. On top of wearing very little makeup, she had a wardrobe that gave her all the sex appeal of a spinster librarian.

Then there are the characters each women played. Even before the you know what hits the fan, you can sense that Donna Trenton from Cujo was resourceful, worldly, courageous and intelligent enough to defeat any situation that came her way.


Wendy Torrance from The Shining, on the other hand, was a wimpy space cadet and the epitome of the shrinking violet. You got the sense that this was a woman who was afraid of her own shadow and lived a somewhat sheltered life. I mean, c’mon…look at this film still and compare it to the one of Donna above. Does this woman look resourceful, worldly or brave? No. If anything, she looks like a helpless little girl who needs her mommy.


If you want a shining example of the vast difference between these two women in terms of personality, below are shots of the precise moment when Donna and Wendy confront their attackers with a baseball bat. When Donna grabs the bat, she grabs the bat like she means business and wields it with confidence. Yes, she’s crapping her pants the entire time but she’s crapping her pants the way a warrior does right before going into major battle.


Wendy, on the other hand, is practically hugging the bat in the famous “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene. She has no intention of using the bat; it’s nothing more than a pathetic security blanket. She has no frigging idea how to use it, either. In fact, she is so clumsy and awkward the way she swings it at Jack, he takes two seconds away from his murderous tirade to tell her to stop swinging it because of how annoying she’s being with it.


Okay, so what does this all have to do with anything? So what if Donna was intelligent and resourceful and Wendy wasn’t? So what if one actress was a beautiful, sexy blonde and the other actress was a mousy, nerdy brunette? So what if one character could hold a bat properly and the other one couldn’t?

Well, the thing about Dee Wallace is that because she fit the classic Hollywood mold of the pretty blonde starlet, there was never really any anxiety about Donna Trenton making it out alive . That’s not to say that you don’t feel scared to death when she’s fighting for her life. Of course you do. But somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “I know it looks bad, but she’s gonna make it.” Why? Because the cute blonde starlet always makes it. Okay, sure, there have been a few exceptions to the rule (including Psycho and The Howling, ironically). But more often than not, someone who looks like her character usually makes it in the end. So there isn’t the level of anxiety and tension in her scenes facing off against Cujo as there could’ve been.

The horror scenes in Cujo are further blunted by Donna’s personality. She may be helpless in the last half of the movie and screaming her head off but it’s also very clear from her attitude that she’s no wimp or dummy. She’s a bad ass and has resolve. She’s gonna get out of that damned car and save her kid no matter what, and she will know how to do it, no question. Even if she does die, she’ll give it the good college try and may even fatally injure Cujo in the process. So, because of Donna’s warrior personality, you’re not as anxious as you could be in those scenes when she’s cornered and fighting for her life.

With Wendy, it’s a whole different story. You’re not just in suspense about her situation because the scenes are shot in such a scary way; you’re also filled with anxiety because there’s a huge amount of uncertainty about her fate. She doesn’t look the part of a pretty starlet who usually survives her ordeal, nor does she act the part of a typical gutsy heroine. As a result, when Jack goes on his murderous tear, you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time because of how vulnerable she looks and how cast against type she is. You just don’t know if she’ll make it or not.


There’s another reason why Wendy being so wimpy gives The Shining the extra edge over Cujo. Because she is so frail and helpless, the fear you experience is similar to what you feel watching a predator scene in a nature program. Notice which types of those scenes really set you on edge. It’s not the ones in which, say, a pride of lions chase down a herd of buffalo. It’s the ones in which they chase down a gazelle or some other type of frail animal. Why? Buffalo, being so big and strong, are a decent match for lions. There’s always a chance that they’ll get away, so you may be nervous for them but you feel a confidence that they’ll survive. But gazelles are such delicate creatures that it’s a foregone conclusion that they’ll get captured. It’s not a question of if but when, so you tend to be more anxiety-riddled when one of them gets chased.

It’s this dynamic at play that makes The Shining so much scarier than Cujo and every other run of the mill horror film. Wendy has been set up to be such easy prey for Jack that all you’re doing is anticipating the moment she finally goes down. Because of this, you experience a heightened sense of anxiety watching the film that wouldn’t otherwise be there had she been yet another gutsy heroine who you know somehow is going to find the courage and resourcefulness to confront and defeat Jack head on.

From what I’ve said so far, it’s very easy to take all the positives and turn it into a negative. You could argue that Wendy’s personality and the casting of Duvall was little more than a superficial device to prop up Jack Torrance and make his rampage even more terrifying. After all, films do this kind of lame stuff all the time. If they want their heroes to be super smart, they’ll make the villains really dumb. Or if they want their heroes to be the epitome of masculinity, they’ll make the villains super effeminate.

It’s a fair point but I never really felt that was the case with The Shining. For one, Wendy is definitely a personality type. I had a classmate who was bullied throughout high school who was exactly like her. She was mousy, sheltered, flaky and had that same little girl quality that Wendy had in the movie. So, Duvall’s portrayal of Wendy never felt like a cynical storytelling device to me; she felt rooted in a real life archetype.

Secondly, I always thought that Wendy’s personality accurately portrayed that of someone who’s either been bullied for a long time or just has those traits that are naturally attractive to bullies. It’s never really made clear why Wendy is so mousy in the movie but it would seem to me that either Jack chose her as the perfect victim to act his aggression out on or that she became so beaten down emotionally by his drinking and domineering personality over the years that she became this overly meek person constantly walking on egg shells.

Third, I think that Wendy’s personality worked very well in underscoring the price Jack paid for allowing himself to be taken over by the demons of the Overlook Hotel. In the beginning, when the demons successfully possess him and convince him to go after Wendy and Danny, he has the clear advantage over them. He’s not only backed up by these very powerful forces who are goading and helping him at every turn, he is physically stronger and has enough pent up rage to kill them.

The thing, though, is that the same demons who are giving him the advantage in the beginning are the same ones eroding his sanity and clouding his judgment. So, the more of an advantage they give him, the less clear thinking he gets and the more disadvantaged to the point where both Wendy and Danny are able to get the goods on him. This is how badly the demons handicap Jack’s mind. They cripple his mind to such an extent that by the time they’ve completely taken it over, he can’t even defeat his frail wife and equally frail son.

Lastly, Wendy’s frailty puts an interesting “tortoise and hare” spin on Jack’s pursuit of both her and Danny. When Jack goes on a rampage, it’s his game to lose. But between the demons clouding his judgment and his over confidence that he’ll win eventually, he makes a number of mistakes that wind up giving her and Danny the advantage. Because of this tortoise and hare dynamic in The Shining, there’s that extra element of surprise tacked on top of the feeling of relief at the end of the film when Wendy and Danny finally escape, as in, “Well, I’ll be damned! They actually made it!”

Stanley Kubrick Made the Right Decision

There are movie controversies that I am flexible on, but the casting of Shelley Duvall in The Shining is not one of them. I know people to this day are either annoyed by her or puzzled by Kubrick’s decision, but I think there was a method to his madness and that his logic behind casting her is a large part of the reason why The Shining still stands as one of the best and most iconic horror movies of all time.


  1. Dan Mason

    Very good analysis! I agree wholeheartedly about Duvall being well-cast. This made me think of Kubrick being unsure about Nicholson, because he comes off a bit odd even before things go bad. I seem to recall Kubrick wanted Jon Voigt or someone kind of milquetoast to make the breakdown seem more terrible. Of course, Nicholson does a fine job, but I see the point. Any thoughts on that?

    • Comment by post author

      Wow, I hadn’t heard about Jon Voight being a potential choice. That’s very interesting. I think that had he been cast, this would’ve been more in keeping with King’s vision of the character, and he would’ve been way happier with the adaptation.

      But I’m wondering if Voight wouldn’t have also been complained about by critics, except for the opposite reason that people complained about Nicholson. That is to say, everyone says that while Nicholson was great playing crazy at the end of the movie, he was too intense in the beginning. With Voight, people would’ve probably felt that he was great in the beginning but not as terrifying or believable in the end when Jack goes crazy. I can’t see that “all work and no play” scene being as terrifying with Voight.

  2. GB

    Totally agree. Shelley was playing an average or even somewhat below average housewife. It made it far more realistic.
    I cannot envision an alternate actress as Wendy. For some men, she did have sex appeal due to her mousy, clumsy, vulnerability. It made her seem approachable, a damsel in distress. She was flawless in the role.

  3. Bobbi

    The character was weak and that’s fine the prob with Duvall is she couldn’t deliver a line

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