Thursday, January 19, 2006

37. One Woman (in Particular)

At the end of George Bernard Shaw's Too True to Be Good--and how swell is that title?--the Sergeant, a practical man, takes up with Sweetie, an "impractical," to use a euphemism, woman, explaining, with one of my favorite lines in Shaw, "a man should have one woman to prevent him from thinking too much about women in general." Let's remember that Shaw's judgment can be dangerously faulty--in his preface to this 1933 play he gushes over Stalin (and never stopped; and his anti-semitism, while perhaps oblique--oh, the snaky maneuvering of the master ironist--sticks like cow-dung to his shoes); such faults are grave and ugly, but necessary to look upon, for although I love his mind I cannot forget the dark folly of his heart. Still, he gives the Sergeant a great line--although I have to admit over the years I've re-written it in my head, preferring the balance achieved by adding two words, thus: "a man should have one woman in particular to prevent him from thinking too much about women in general." I guess you can't have everything--unless you invent stuff to fill in the gaps.

Which brings me to Shelley Duvall. She made her mark in a number of Robert Altman movies in the 1970s, capping her career with him in Popeye and with Kubrick in The Shining, both 1980. Somewhere in the late '70s I developed a crush on her. So strange, considering Pauline Kael's comment that Duvall was "the closest thing ... to a female Buster Keaton," and Altman's famous line as he was casting Olive Oyl for Popeye, that he had the role she was born to play. But I couldn't help it. I don't know if it was the flower-child fragility mixed with jet-set quirky cool, the fact that she had eyes that actually were like limpid pools, or simply that overbite; all I can say is that I was smitten. This persisted and expanded with her last two movies of note, especially The Shining. I suppose this journal is an opportunity to figure out things like this, but I cannot be sure why she fascinates me. Oh, I guess I could: Altman loved her quirkiness and made it beautiful, like an imaginary landscape in a Maxfield Parrish painting. And Kubrick tore her to pieces, engendering in me a post-adolescent urge to protect her. But my affection--if I am allowed to call it that--for her goes beyond such easy explanations. I watched her movies at a time in my life when I felt cut loose from others, especially women, beneath their attention, despite the women with whom I was good friends--ouch! By 1980, I was feeling the pressure of "thinking too much about women in general"--and I should add that I saw Shaw's play in 1978, and the line moved around on the stage like a living thing, scolding and promising, despairing and final. Time passes slowly when you're young; I'm amazed that the length of time between seeing that play and meeting my future wife was only three years; looking backward, it seems like a decade at least.

Shelley Duvall stood on that road I traveled, like a phantom hitch-hiker, appearing with insistence, a warning and a sad reminder. In retrospect, I'm grateful she served this purpose in my life. The image she presented had nothing to do with what I really needed--and what, thank God, I was finally given in 1981--but as a feeling that was equal parts masochism, solace, and keepsake, I'm grateful for Shelley Duvall.

(A postscript: I wondered just how off-center was my assessment of Shelley Duvall, and googled her name. I found at least one discussion thread in which the words "Shelley Duvall" and "drool" appeared in the same sentence--and as approbation, not a sign of dementia. And in a new search of Shelley Duvall images, I found one of her, ahem, en deshabille--and then some. It might have been wishful thinking on my part, but I seemed suddenly to remember this photo, which has that we're-Playboy-and-we're-classier-than-Penthouse soft-focus insistence. It seems everyone in the '70s was eager to display. I'm curious whether Playboy still manages to coax starlets to Reveal All. Then again, you think maybe that's what the internet is for these days? Duh; not only am I still a nerd, I'm getting to be an old one.)

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