Mental Illness and the Arts The case of Shelley Duvall

     Mental health is a very common yet complicated issue. Sylvia Plath wrote her only novel about it, a Roman à clef titled “The Bell Jar.” When we see celebrities who deal with mental health issues, they tend to be glamorized and mocked in the media. The arts as a profession is certainly guilty of sensationalizing mental illness, such as in the case of Frances Farmer or the film “Girl, Interrupted.” Celebrities such as Gary Busey and Amanda Bynes have had their illnesses made visible in the media. “Star Wars” actress Carrie Fisher ended up turning her battle with bipolar disorder into a book-turned-Meryl Streep-film “Postcards From the Edge,” and later a best-selling memoir and stage show titled “Wishful Drinking.” However, in most cases cries for help go ignored, and many celebrities are forgotten about or harvested into juicy fodder for the tabloids.

     On Nov. 18, actress Shelley Duvall appeared disoriented and ill on the television show “Dr. Phil.” In it, Phil “Not an Actual Doctor” McGraw interviewed a very disheveled and haggard-looking Duvall, who has not been seen on camera since 2002, on her life and experiences with mental illness. Duvall is best known for her roles in films like “Popeye” and “The Shining” and the television series “Faerie Tale Theatre” and has also been mocked and parodied on television sitcoms like “Family Guy.” Duvall has gained notoriety for her reclusive nature, with tabloids claiming as far back as 2006 that she is quite possibly insane, going so far as to enter a hardware store to request materials to board up a hole in her backyard to “prevent the aliens from coming out.” The 67 year old actress expressed delusions and spoke in nonsensical dialogue, stringing similar words and phrases together (for example, “I’m the only Shelley Duvall, Shelley Hack, Shelley Long, who’s the fat woman in that movie about the upside-down boat-P-P…Poseidon Adventure, that one. Winters, Shelley Winters.”) Duvall claims that the late Robin Williams is still alive, that she is being threatened by the Sheriff of Nottingham and that she has a “worrying disc” in her leg. During the interview she admitted, “I am very sick. I need help.” She was sent to a treatment center in California shortly after the taping of the interview, where she refused to take medication. She checked out after five days and is currently back in Texas. Several people, including actress Mia Farrow, actor Patton Oswalt and Vivian Kubrick, the daughter of “The Shining” director Stanley Kubrick, have called out Dr. Phil on this interview for exploiting and taking advantage of the mentally ill. Stanley Kubrick, in fact, is notorious for having feuded with Duvall on the set of “The Shining.” Kubrick not only told the cast and crew to ignore Duvall but infamously called for her to rehearse a scene where Jack Nicholson breaks down a door with an axe as she screams hysterically on the other side wielding a baseball bat more than 120 times, and it was so straining that clumps of Duvall’s hair fell out. Vivian Kubrick, perhaps feeling guilty about the way her father treated Duvall, has volunteered to raise money to get Duvall proper treatment; however, this is not without controversy, as Vivian Kubrick is a noted Scientologist. The Actors Fund has also volunteered to help obtain funds for Duvall’s treatment. Only time will tell what the future holds for the troubled actress, but now we finally know exactly what has happened to Shelley Duvall.

     In closing, I would like to note that mental illness is not something to be mocked or joked about, because in the end, one does not know what another person is feeling and going through. Several members of my family suffer from mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder. I grew up watching “Faerie Tale Theatre,” and I admire Shelley Duvall for her fascinating career. It pains me to see her exploited in the media like this. Her case is just one of thousands that occur every day under our noses, so I can only hope we do what we can to help those who are struggling with mental illness. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, please tell someone, or contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness at or by calling 800-950-NAMI.

     Sources: Rolling Stone, Us Weekly, YouTube

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