Describing Sofia Behrs Tolstaya, a diarist and photographer who remains better known as the wife of Leo Tolstoy, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote: “With her mangled intelligence, her operatic, intolerable frenzies of distress, she comes forth still with an almost menacing aliveness, saying it all like a bell always on alert.” One might describe the writer Shirley Jackson — or at least the depiction of Jackson in Josephine Decker’s Shirley — in a similar manner. Though the film, a work of fiction adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, seems to exist in a hermetic, sometimes fantastical world, it assumes that viewers have a familiarity with the writer — her work, yes, but also her private life, her public persona, and the complicated relationship between the two. Jackson knew little joy in her life, enduring the indignity of an unempathetic mother who bemoaned her lonely, awkward daughter’s feminine inadequacies; for the rest of her life, Jackson suffered from agonizing bouts of anxiety and depression that kept her confined to her house for months on end. Her mental health was further eroded by a mercurial marriage to the critic and professor Stanley Hyman, and Jackson, increasingly embittered by the stifling expectations of traditional gender roles, resented Hyman’s Bennington peers considering her a “faculty wife.” Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” which concerns an insular town whose denizens kill a woman by stoning her in the town square, made the writer immediately infamous when it ran in The New Yorker in 1948. It was the most controversial story in the magazine’s history, earning praise and ire, and it established Jackson as an important voice in American literature. Her writing provided the household’s primary source of income, which inspired resentment in Hyman, who proved disappointing as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Addictions to amphetamines (prescribed to ameliorate her lifelong struggle with heavy weight) and barbiturates (for her anxiety) worsened Jackson’s ailments, and left her irascible, barely functioning. While Jackson wrote over 200 stories (often for women’s magazines) and many acclaimed novels, she had little interest in self-promotion, and her abrasive demeanor lent her the public persona of a crazy woman, a reputation that bothered her.
In Shirley, Elisabeth Moss indulges in the worst tics associated with serious acting. It’s a knavish recital, all practiced cadences and actorly affectations; she speaks and moves with a banal intensity that feels desperate for laudation.
It’s Shirley Jackson the spooky lunatic, or the myth of her, that appears in Decker’s film. Elisabeth Moss portrays Jackson as a shambling, virulent recluse, skulking around her dingy house with a cigarette smoldering in her fingers. Things get weird when her philandering, egotistical husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) offers lodging to an ambitious young professor (Logan Lerman) and his luminous pregnant wife (Odessa Young). Hyman abhors the young man for his purported mediocrity, while Jackson, initially hostile to the young woman (herself an aspiring writer), is eventually stricken with insoluble lust. Starting in the 1980s, critics and academics have taken an interest in the lesbian undercurrents of Jackson’s work, especially The Haunting of Hill House. Decker’s film presents the psychosexual obsession as inextricable from Jackson’s fascination with a missing college girl (which inspired her novel Hangsaman), but the salacity feels perfunctory rather than passionate, and its cryptic idea of folie a deux isn’t so different from Bergman’s in Persona, or Altman’s in 3 Women, or Lynch’s in Mulholland Drive, etc. A lingering sense of familiarity, the lack of a personal identity, suffuses the film. Decker directs Shirley with the same Delphic dreaminess and eerie intimacy as Madeline’s Madeline, but that film only works because of the achingly earnest and vulnerable performance from the unknown Helena Howard. In Shirley, Elisabeth Moss indulges in the worst tics associated with serious acting. It’s a knavish recital, all practiced cadences and actorly affectations; she speaks and moves with a banal intensity that feels desperate for laudation. Moss tries to convey the tempests and neuroses that imbue Jackson’s works — what the writer called “the demon of the mind” — but her puffery betrays the unfussy nuances of Jackson’s prose, as well as the subtle, perverse humor. The way Moss snarls and asseverates insults from across the dining room table recalls Bette Davis’s malfeasance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but without the delirious sense of fun that keeps melodrama from lapsing into self-seriousness.
You can currently stream Josephine Decker’s Shirley on Hulu.