Film & Television

‘Shirley’: Disappointing Biopic
Despite Its Stellar Cast

We read “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s stunning short story, when I was in seventh grade. It left a huge impression on me, a fact that certainly doesn’t distinguish me from any other readers in the least. 

When it was first published in The New Yorker in 1948 (some 24 years before my class read it), the magazine received hundreds of letters. These were forwarded to the author, who later remembered them this way:

Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer—three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse. In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even — in one completely mystifying transformation — made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed. I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch. 

The oddity at the end of that quote may or may not be true. It’s exactly the sort of wry humor that infuses Jackson’s character in the new biopic Shirley.

Having seen the trailer for Shirley months ago (when movie theaters were still open), I was thrilled to find it available to stream this month on Hulu. And, I desperately wanted to like it. It checks so many of the boxes that I keep in mind when choosing subjects for Women’s Voices for Change. Shirley is directed by a woman, written by a woman, based on a novel by a woman, about a famous and notorious woman, who is played by one of the most celebrated women in Hollywood. It also passes the Bechdel Test, which most films fail miserably.

As you’ve probably guessed from that preamble, I was deeply disappointed.

Shirley begins with a newlywed couple traveling to a women’s college in New England, where the husband, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), has been offered a job as a professor’s assistant. The wife, Rose (Odessa Young), is pregnant and we learn later that she has left college herself, but Fred “will let her go back” after the baby arrives. They are welcomed into the home of Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his notorious wife, author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss).

Although the living arrangement is meant to be temporary, Stanley proposes that the Nemsers stay on, with Rose assuming the duties of housekeeper. Shirley isn’t well (she suffers from depression and agoraphobia and likely alcoholism) and she needs to focus on her work. This, however, doesn’t keep her from abusing Rose.

 

 

Scenes between the two couples take on the flavor of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Stanley and Shirley bicker, smoke, and drink, play charming host and hostess one minute, and shock and insult their guests the next. Stanley is a manipulative womanizer, grabbing Rose whenever he can. Shirley turns a blind eye to his rampant adultery except when his mistress (“your slut”) calls during dinner. Meanwhile, Fred is a bit too eager to earn a permanent place on the faculty, and soon starts emulating his mentor in more ways than one.

The household is made even more dysfunctional (if that’s possible) as Shirley becomes obsessed with a missing student, and makes her the center of a new novel, Hangsaman. She persuades Rose to assist her, going so far as to steal the missing girl’s medical files from the school infirmary. A strange friendship develops between the two women, including some awkward lesbian foreplay and a shared feast of possibly poison mushrooms. 

As if real life in the Hyman-Jackson-Nemser household isn’t surreal enough, there’s a constant flow of haunting sequences which are either pulled from the book Shirley’s writing or from Rose’s dreams or from fantasies of one or the other woman. There’s not much in the way of a linear storyline. And while individual images are curious and sometimes mesmerizing, the film as a whole is more confusing than coherent. And that’s a shame, because the cast is uniformly excellent.

Moss, who has won two Golden Globes — for The Handmaid’s Tale and Top of the Lake — tackles the mentally ill and rather despicable Shirley fearlessly. Whether she’s throwing things, slyly charming a fawning crowd, or slowly pouring red wine on the dean’s wife’s couch, there’s no question that she’s the smartest person in any room. Moss approaches the role with no ego, allowing us to see all the fear and doubt and ugliness inside the controversial author. 

She’s well matched by Stuhlbarg, and in some ways, his role is even more challenging. Shirley says exactly what’s on her mind; Stanley hides his viciousness behind a facade of choreographed intellectual joie de vivre. He compliments Fred’s work one minute, then feigns “looking for just the right word” before telling him that the work is “derivative.” He sneaks up on Rose while she’s washing dishes and nuzzles her neck, then laughs when she recoils, realizing it’s he and not her husband.

Young is memorable as the innocent Rose, Shirley’s only sympathetic character. Just 21, the Australian actress holds her own in every scene with Moss’s larger than life Jackson. She’s given a very heavy-handed speech toward the end of the movie, but makes even that work. Lerman gets less to work with than the other three, but he’s convincingly idealistic before succumbing to the temptations inherent to being a handsome instructor at a school with hundreds of horny young women.

Without exception, director Josephine Decker, who earned critical acclaim for 2018’s imaginative Madeline’s Madeline, has coaxed excellent performances from her cast. She’s an actress herself, as well as a director. Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins (Better Things; I Love Dick) adapted the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. It’s difficult to pin the blame on any one of the contributors, but the movie seems like an ambitious passion project that never quite succeeds. I do wonder if it would be more effective on a big screen. Or perhaps it would feel even stranger and more disjointed.

As I mentioned earlier, aside from appreciating the fine acting of Moss, Stuhlbarg, and Young, I found Shirley to be a great disappointment. 

That said, it did inspire me to reread “The Lottery,” which is something I can wholeheartedly recommend.

 

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.