The Haunting of Shirley Jackson

‘Shirley’ gets at the unusual mind of an American literary master

I saw the Shirley movie, now streaming on Hulu. It begins with an idealistic young 1950s couple having hot sex in a train bathroom after reading Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” in The New Yorker. That’s something people did a lot back then. From there, that young couple ends up living with Shirley Jackson and her smarmy professor husband in the vicinity of Bennington College, in Vermont. This thrusts them into a Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf-like situation, except with lesbian erotic overtones and it lasts a year.


SHIRLEY ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Josephine Decker
Written by: Sarah Gubbins
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
Running time: 107 min


Elisabeth Moss plays Shirley, and it’s yet another show-stopping exhibition of her acting talents. In The Invisible Man, she was a put-upon action heroine and victim of terrifying domestic abuse. The hideous rock melodrama Her Smell featured her as a junkie Courtney Love-style grunge diva. In this film, she’s an agoraphobic literary genius with a philandering husband. In Moss’s masterful hands, Shirley Jackson is alternately a hideous, filthy witch-hag and an enormously appealing, brilliant object of desire. No other actor alive could pull off this performance, and few would even try.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays her husband Stanley, a weaselly professor who plays Leadbelly for his students and has food in his beard. He’s appropriately smarmy, but this is pretty similar to his character in Call Me By Your Name, except not gay. The Australian actress Odessa Young is much more interesting as Rose, the young intellectual and everyone’s love interest who ends up “washing Stanley’s underwear” for a year in subservience to her husband’s mediocre academic ambitions. Her role isn’t quite as flashy as Moss’s, but she shows a lot of range. As that young husband, Logan Lerman is cute but pretty much the same generic pasty guy that he was in the Percy Jackson movies.

Shirley has a lot to say about women’s roles in intellectual circles in the early 1950s. They were expected to show up at parties, look pretty, and have sex with their professors. Interestingly, though Stanley is a pretentious cheat like all the other professors, he doesn’t try to pigeonhole Shirley into any role. He recognizes her as a singular literary genius and does whatever he can to protect her and foster her talent. The ambiguity of his motivations, and of hers, makes Shirley deeper and more interesting than just another peek back into 1950s sexism.

Director Josephine Decker comes from an avant-garde film background, and sometimes that shows through, to Shirley’s detriment. The experimental angles and blurry ambiguity work OK when she’s peering into Shirley Jackson’s creative process, but not as well when she’s trying to peer into Rose’s mind. It brings artsy-fartsy confusion into a morally complicated but ultimately straightforward storyline. Also, the droning modern soundtrack burdens many scenes with an unnecessary gravitas and ends up more like a distraction.

Shirley is a rare film that’s actually more effective and compelling in the second half, when Decker tones down the trickery and lets the characters’ true motivations unfold. A late scene at a faculty cocktail party is particularly effective, and darkly comic. For the first 40 minutes, I thought to myself, “what the hell is this?” But after the movie ended, I immediately went to my computer and purchased the Library Of America edition of Shirley Jackson’s work. So it clearly stuck in my head.

This concludes my review of the Shirley movie.

Shirley

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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