Elisabeth Moss Shines As Writer Shirley Jackson In This Smart, Surprising Film

Jun 5, 2020
Originally published on June 8, 2020 9:48 am

I first saw Shirley months ago, back in January. It's strange to be revisiting it now. Like a lot of very good movies, it doesn't speak to this extraordinarily fraught moment, and it doesn't offer a mindless escape from it, either. What it does offer is a smart, fascinating glimpse into an artist's mind, and I hope you'll seek it out now or in the future.

The timing of the movie's release (it begins streaming on virtual cinema platforms June 5) chimes with a welcome resurgence of interest in Shirley Jackson decades after her death in 1965. You might have seen Netflix's popular adaptation of Jackson's horror classic, The Haunting of Hill House, and 2019 brought us a movie, based on her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, that deserved more attention than it received.

Now comes Shirley, a new film directed by Josephine Decker, which stars an unsurprisingly superb Elisabeth Moss as Jackson herself. But this isn't a biopic in any straightforward sense; it's more of a biographical-literary fantasia that freely mixes fact and fiction.

Sarah Gubbins' script, loosely based on a 2010 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, means to suggest the origins of Jackson's gothic sensibility, as well as her special insight into the minds of lost young women who feel isolated from mainstream society. Jackson felt some of that isolation herself, due to her unhappy childhood, difficult marriage and frequent bouts of anxiety and depression.

We first meet Shirley in the early '50s, living in a small Vermont town with her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. He's played with great bon vivant gusto by Michael Stuhlbarg.

Stanley, a professor at Bennington College, has invited his new teaching assistant, Fred, and his wife, Rose, to stay with them until they can find a place of their own. But Fred and Rose, played by Logan Lerman and Odessa Young, soon become long-term houseguests, as Stanley pushes Rose into the role of Shirley's caretaker and companion, so that he can pursue his work and his extramarital affairs in peace. Looking after Shirley is no easy task: She hasn't left the house in ages, and her writing has ground to a halt. As Stanley knows all too well, even getting her out of bed for a meal is a chore.

The academic setting and the couple-on-couple dynamic are meant to remind you of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and for a while the movie plays like a furiously entertaining comedy of marital discord. But as vicious as Shirley and Stanley can get — and despite Stanley's infidelity — their marriage is weirdly functional at its core: Stanley genuinely respects his wife's intellect and wants her to thrive.

And Shirley's writing does eventually get back on track. We see her writing her second novel, Hangsaman, which is inspired by the 1946 disappearance of a Bennington student, Paula Jean Welden. This detail is rooted in real life, but the movie adds its own wrinkle: Shirley comes to see Rose as a kind of muse, a stand-in for that missing student.

If all these layers of reality and artifice sound a little confusing, that's very much by design. Decker previously directed Madeline's Madeline, a dizzyingly meta experiment about an aspiring young actress and her opportunistic theater director. Shirley looks far more conventional by comparison, but Decker's jagged aesthetics are still in evidence: intense closeups, a swerving handheld camera and a score that pulses with menace. And she is grappling with a lot of the same themes and conundrums she did in Madeline's Madeline, from the blurring of art and life to the troubling idea that mental illness can be a source of creative energy.

Moss, who has been made to look uncannily similar to Jackson, has always excelled at playing characters with their nerve endings exposed. After the tense dramatic exertions of her recent movies, Her Smell and The Invisible Man, she gets to relax a little as Shirley, teasing out the odd flashes of warmth and tenderness beneath the author's prickly front. She also has a strong screen partner in Young as Rose, who is awed by Shirley's brilliance and inspired to pursue her own life of the mind.

Although the movie suggests an erotic dimension to the relationship between these two women, what binds Shirley and Rose more than anything is a shared sense of injustice. They both have flagrantly unfaithful husbands — it doesn't take long for Fred to start cheating on Rose — and they both chafe against the supportive housewife role that so many women were expected to play during that era.

Despite Jackson's enormous popularity as a writer, the horror elements in her work meant that she had to endure a lot of genre snobbery as well as gender snobbery. It wasn't until well after her death that more critics came to appreciate her body of work. Like a lot of great genre writers, Jackson consistently used thriller conventions to illuminate the phantasms of the mind and turn her own demons into art. Shirley is a worthy testament to her legacy.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Shirley," which begins streaming on virtual cinema platforms this Friday, stars Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson, the American author known for her classic works of fiction including "The Lottery" and "The Haunting Of Hill House." Film critic Justin Chang says the movie is both a blisteringly funny marital comedy and a fascinating story of artistic creation.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I first saw "Shirley" months ago, back in January. It's strange to be revisiting it now. Like a lot of very good movies, it doesn't speak to this extraordinarily fraught moment. And it doesn't offer a mindless escape from it either. What it does offer is a smart, fascinating glimpse into an artist's mind. And I hope you'll seek it out now or in the future. The timing of the movie's release does chime with a welcome resurgence of interest in Shirley Jackson decades after her death in 1965.

You might have seen Netflix's popular adaptation of Jackson's horror classic, "The Haunting Of Hill House." And last year brought us a movie based on her novel "We Have Always Lived In The Castle" that deserved more attention than it received. Now comes "Shirley," a new film directed by Josephine Decker, which stars an unsurprisingly superb Elisabeth Moss as Jackson herself. But this isn't a biopic in any straightforward sense. It's more of a biographical-literary fantasia that freely mixes fact and fiction.

Sarah Gubbins' script, loosely based on a 2010 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, means to suggest the origins of Jackson's gothic sensibility, as well as her special insight into the minds of lost young women who feel isolated from mainstream society. Jackson felt some of that isolation herself, due to her unhappy childhood, difficult marriage and frequent bouts of anxiety and depression. We first meet Shirley in the early '50s, living in a small Vermont town with her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. He's played with great bon vivant gusto by Michael Stuhlbarg. Stanley, a professor at Bennington College, has invited his new teaching assistant, Fred, and his wife, Rose, to stay with them until they can find a place of their own.

But Fred and Rose - played by Logan Lerman and Odessa Young - soon become long-term houseguests, as Stanley pushes Rose into the role of Shirley's caretaker and companion, so that he can pursue his work and his extramarital affairs in peace. Looking after Shirley is no easy task. She hasn't left the house in ages. And her writing has ground to a halt. As Stanley knows all too well, even getting her out of bed for a meal is a chore.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHIRLEY")

MICHAEL STUHLBARG: (As Stanley Hyman) You are putting on clean clothes and sitting at the table for a proper meal.

ELISABETH MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson) I can't.

STUHLBARG: (As Stanley Hyman) You will. Besides, it's cocktail hour.

MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson, laughter).

STUHLBARG: (As Stanley Hyman) Up, up, up, up, up, up, up.

MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson) It's going to be so dull.

STUHLBARG: (As Stanley Hyman) Well, I didn't ask you to behave at the table.

CHANG: And behave she doesn't. Shirley, who has extraordinary powers of perception and a mean misanthropic streak, quickly figures about that Rose is pregnant and starts asking unwelcome questions at dinner with her and Fred.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHIRLEY")

MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson) So when's the baby due?

LOGAN LERMAN: (As Fred) The baby?

MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson) Oops. Was it supposed to be a surprise? You should have told me that, dear. Well, I hope it's yours.

ODESSA YOUNG: (As Rose) Of course, it's his.

LERMAN: (As Fred) February, right, darling?

YOUNG: (As Rose) I would really rather discuss something else, if you don't mind.

MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson) February - did you tell him you were knocked up before the wedding?

CHANG: The academic setting and the couple-on-couple dynamic are meant to remind you of "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" And for a while, the movie plays like a furiously entertaining comedy of marital discord. But as vicious as Shirley and Stanley can get and despite Stanley's infidelity, their marriage is weirdly functional at its core. Stanley genuinely respects his wife's intellect and wants her to thrive. And Shirley's writing does eventually get back on track. We see her writing her second novel, "Hangsaman," which is inspired by the 1946 disappearance of a Bennington student, Paula Jean Welden. This detail is rooted in real life, but the movie adds its own wrinkle.

Shirley comes to see Rose as a kind of muse, a stand-in for that missing student. If all these layers of reality and artifice sound a little confusing, that's very much by design. Josephine Decker previously directed "Madeline's Madeline," a dizzyingly meta experiment about an aspiring young actress and her opportunistic theater director. "Shirley" looks far more conventional by comparison, but Decker's jagged aesthetics are still in evidence - intense close-ups, a swerving handheld camera and a score that pulses with menace. And she's grappling with a lot of the same themes and conundrums she did in "Madeline's Madeline," from the blurring of art and life to the troubling idea that mental illness can be a source of creative energy.

Moss, who has been made to look uncannily similar to Jackson, has always excelled at playing characters with their nerve endings exposed. After the tense dramatic exertions of her recent movies, "Her Smell" and "The Invisible Man," she gets to relax a little as Shirley, teasing out the odd flashes of warmth and tenderness beneath the author's prickly front. She also has strong screen partner in Odessa Young as Rose, who is awed by Shirley's brilliance and inspired to pursue her own life of the mind.

Although the movie suggests an erotic dimension to the relationship between these two women, what binds Shirley and Rose more than anything is a shared sense of injustice. They both have flagrantly unfaithful husbands. It doesn't take long for Fred to start cheating on Rose. And they both chafe against the supportive housewife role that so many women were expected to play during that era.

Despite Jackson's enormous popularity as a writer, the horror elements in her work meant that she had to endure a lot of genre snobbery as well as gender snobbery. It wasn't until well after her death that more critics came to appreciate her body of work. Like a lot of great genre writers, Jackson consistently used thriller conventions to illuminate the phantasms of the mind and turn her own demons into art. "Shirley" is a worthy testament to her legacy.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic at the LA Times. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering support from Mike Villers and Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK FRIEDLANDER'S "OSCALYPSO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.