The Sparkling Sunshine of Shelley Duvall

Photo Credit: Tim Mossholder (Unsplash)

To round out 2019, my Movie Man and I watched 25 Robert Altman movies. Yes we did. Here’s how that happened.

During the Country Music binge someone talked about the movie Nashville, which we promptly and dutifully watched as soon as Country Music was over. And then we watched A Prairie Home Companion. And then California Split; Cookie’s Fortune; Fool for Love; Gosford Park; Images; M.A.S.H.; The Last Resort; The Long Goodbye; The Player; Thieves Like Us; 3 Women; Brewster McCloud; Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Dr. T and the Women; Popeye; Ready to Wear; Tanner ’88 (Series); Vincent and Theo (in 4 parts); McCabe and Mrs. Miller; The Wedding; Streamers; Secret Honor; and Kansas City.

You can read about Robert Altman movies till the day is long, about the characters all talking at once, the endings that explode with reality, the identity crises, and the layers of stories all stacking up and sliding around. But all I want to talk about is Shelley Duvall.

Shelley Duvall stars, or appears, in eight or so of the movies we watched. For me, she stars whenever she appears. With her larger than life eyes and smaller than life frame, she perplexes my notion of beauty. At times she appears almost skeletal. The maternal me squirms. But then she opens her mouth and speaks, or better, sings, and I’m transfixed. So much charisma.

I adore her in Popeye. She mumbles her lines eloquently. She bumbles her body gracefully. She’s a divine paradox and a perfect Olive Oyl. As Keechie in Thieves Like Us, her confidently conflicted line, “I oughta know cuz he’s my second cousin” just turns me inside out. She’s every young awkward ears-sticking-out girl. Well… not every girl.

But oh my stars, her role as Millie in 3 Women.

When I was 9 or so, I used to dress my Barbie dolls in pale pinks and yellows. The more flowery the better; bell-shaped chiffon sleeves were just right. And so comes Shelley Duvall’s character Millie in 3 Women, my very own Barbie doll stepped right out of my childhood onto the screen. Millie is sunshine and lemon yellow. Her flowery and flouncy outfits show off her skinny yet elegant body. When she’s not radiating in yellow, she wears pale pink hot-pants and a flowered top that ties just above her belly button. She is my Barbie doll, and not only that, she’s what I thought I’d be, someday.

“Joe, that’s exactly how I thought I would dress and look when I grew up!” I interrupted the movie more than once. Never mind that 3 Women is a haunting dreamscape of cinematic psychoanalysis. I could barely get over my wonderment of Shelley Duvall. At least during parts of the movie. This movie is more than a nine-year old’s Barbie fantasy. Well, parts. Oh hell, just see the movie.

The “official trailer” for 3 Women claims that this movie “will make you examine everyone you ever wanted to be.” I’m chilled. How did they know?

Turns out I do not dress anything like Millie in my adulthood. I’m fashion free, and my sense of style is dull as dirt. I do cling to one tiny ray of sunshine from that 9-year-old inner child though: Jean Nate After Bath Splash. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a bottle, you know the one with the giant black screw-on knob, in my bathroom. I’ve been known to throw my Jean Nate in my bag when headed out to social events that may be on the warm side.

Jean Nate. It’s more than a scent. For a few minutes after a good dousing, I find my brain tickled back to my childhood, back to the days when I thought I’d drive around in a bright orange convertible Mustang wearing my own breezy yellow scarf and matching halter top. It’s a hopeful feeling, my world has not unfolded, anything is possible. The scent, and the tiny brain buzz, fade easily. This is not perfume. But that’s okay, there’s always more Jean Nate in the bottle.

After the Robert Altman binge, Joe and I set out to learn more about Shelley Duvall. I will leave it up to you to do your own reading about how she was treated on the set of The Shining, and how Dr. Phil goaded and teased her, preying on her mental illness, in his infamous interview of her in 2016. Suffice it to say that I feel less than forgiving toward Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Phil. Shelley Duvall, age 70 as I write this, is scarcely recognizable as the embodiment of my childhood dream.

Last week I noticed I was down to my last inch of Jean Nate, so I bought a large bottle at Walgreens. I opened it on my way out the door and tossed the glossy, non-recyclable box in the trash. I splashed it on my arms right there in my car, looking forward to the clean yellow tingle and familiar trip back in time. But no. It smelled like old shoes. Must be my dogs, I thought, and brought it home anyway. The next day it still smelled like old shoes. The bottle is sitting on my table right now, smelling like old shoes. To be honest, it’s not exactly like old shoes, but it does smell like someone mixed old shoes in with my lemon sunshine clean and lovely Jean Nate.

Turns out Revlon has changed the formula. I’m not sure what to do with the giant bottle sitting on my table, smelling like old shoes. Maybe I’ll just pour it down the drain. I’ll savor those last few ounces of my real Jean Nate; it’s all I have left.

Originally published at on January 13, 2020.

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