Shelley Duvall and Me

Shelley Duvall and I crossed paths at the moment I needed her most.

It was late 2020. COVID lockdowns, George Floyd, media layoffs — everything sucked, and it wasn’t getting better. I adopted a French Bulldog puppy to help me cope and named him Otto. Otto would scream every night until I brought him into bed with me, then poop in my duvet.

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I tried to maintain a sense of normalcy at work. I wrote a piece for The Hollywood Reporter commemorating the 40th anniversary of Robert Altman’s Popeye. I had not seen the film since 1980. Seeing it again, I was utterly bewitched by Duvall. Her Olive Oyl, twirling around a wooden post singing “He Needs Me,” struck me as being one of the great movie musical moments.

That got me thinking about her. Where was Shelley? What was she up to? I recalled the Dr. Phil appearance — who could forget it? — and the idea of trying to track her down suddenly shrunk away. She seemed so mentally unwell on the show, and Dr. Phil portrayed it in such a sensational and insensitive light. Best leave her to her privacy.

But my mind kept returning to her — so funny, so charming, warbling that Harry Nilsson Popeye ditty, “He needs me, he needs me, he needs me…”

Around that time, I stumbled on an Instagram and Twitter account, SoShelleyDuvall. It posted photos of Shelley through all her eras — the Altman films, dating Paul Simon, The Shining, Faerie Tale Theatre. Here was someone who loved Shelley as much as I did. The captions offered vague updates about her whereabouts and said she was doing well.

I sent SoShelleyDuvall a DM at 6:06 p.m. on Dec. 25, 2020. (It was Christmas. I forgot that detail until now.)

“Hi there. I read your thread on Twitter and was very heartened to hear Shelley is doing well. I’m a huge fan of her work. I would love to profile her. It seems you might be in touch with her — if you could pass along the request I would be grateful. Merry Christmas!”

Four hours later, I got a response:

“Hello! I’m not in touch directly with Shelley, but you should contact Ryan Obermeyer, maybe he can help you. Ryan is directly in touch with her.”

Ryan was another fan living in Austin — not too far from Shelley’s home in Blanco, Texas — who befriended Shelley and would accompany her on local outings. I reached out to Ryan, we chatted, and he gave me Shelley’s phone number.

I think Shelley and I spoke three times before I felt confident in her fitness to be interviewed for the piece. She rattled off colorful details about her life in Hollywood. I remember one about how she inherited a limo driver from Peter Gabriel and thinking, “OK — we got a story here.”

My job often involves crossing through the looking glass. Nothing, however, will ever approach the day I spent with Shelley. What happened next is detailed in my story, Searching for Shelley Duvall.

I honestly had no idea how the story would be received. I’ve learned over the years you can never predict such things, and this had delicate elements to it.

But thankfully, readers found it, and they got it. There was a collective outpouring of love for Shelley. It was something happy, something to celebrate amid the steady misery of 2020. Everyone, it turns out, loves Shelley Duvall.

Shelley and I remained friends after that. People would send me offers for her — documentaries, mostly, and scripted projects. I’d forward them her way. She usually passed. One time, Gucci reached out wanting her to sign off on her likeness in a Stanley Kubrick-inspired ad campaign, which she did.

I’d call Shelley once in a while, on her birthday or just days when I felt like hearing her voice. She was usually up for a chat, a stroll down memory lane. I remember asking her about Madonna once, who was her partner Dan Gilroy’s ex-girlfriend. She liked her and compared her to Betty Boop. Then, she’d ask me what’s doing in Hollywood. She missed it here. I’d tell her about celebrities I’d spotted at trendy restaurants. She loved that.

Shelley wasn’t on anything like social media. So I always made a point to let her know how much people loved her, how much they remembered her, and how much they admired her talent.

She always reacted the same way. “That’s nice,” Shelley would say. “That’s nice to hear.”

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