Reading the stories about the murder of actress Adrienne Shelly in New York City this week, I kept thinking of a Frank O’Hara poem that begins, “Lana Turner has collapsed!” After that he spends about half of the poem’s 17 lines talking about the weather (snow, rain, possibly hail, “but hailing hits you hard on the head/ hard so it was really snowing and/ raining and I was in such a hurry …”) and the New York City traffic. Then, “suddenly I see a headline/ LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!” And then, in one of the most amazing verbal downshifts I’ve ever seen, O’Hara slows his poem down from a pell-mell rush to a super-slo-mo crawl, writing “there is no snow in Hollywood/ there is no rain in California/ I have been to lots of parties/ and acted perfectly disgraceful/ but I never actually collapsed/ oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”
O’Hara’s poem is maybe the best try I’ve ever seen to capture the difference between life as we all know it and life in the tabloids, where celebrities seem to do all kinds of things, like collapsing, that most of us just never get the chance to try. Not that you’d want to—all those exclamation points following your every deed.
Adrienne Shelly, 40, of course, suffered a terrible fate in no way commensurate with an actress’s collapse. Shelly was murdered by a 19-year-old construction worker with whom she argued about building noise in the apartment under her office in New York City. But I couldn’t help but immediately thinking of the O’Hara poem when I saw her face splashed across the front pages of two New York papers. SUICIDE ACTRESS—IT WAS MURDER read the Post headline, referring to the fact that the police revised their earlier verdict of suicide when the facts didn’t add up. The more people I talked to, the more I realized that most people didn’t have a clue as to who she was, much less how good she was. In a city where it seems like every other person is an “actor” or an “actress,” this actress’s death was written off by most people as just another cheesy tabloid tale. And the more I ran into this attitude, the more I thought about O’Hara. Adrienne Shelly’s death did not make news because she was talented or especially good at what she did. She got there because she was a show-business person with just enough glamour to make page one for a day.
And that’s a tragedy, too, because she was so good at what she did. In two of her earliest films—the two I’m most familiar with—she lights up the screen like a bottle rocket. She was mighty pretty, in an unconventional way, and that didn’t hurt, of course, but there was something about her that just made you want to watch her any time she was on screen. Both the movies I’m thinking of were made by Hal Hartley, whose indie films are as idiosyncratically recognizable as a set of fingerprints. “The Unbelievable Truth” (1989) and “Trust” (1990) are both set on Long Island—the unposh part—and both are characterized by Hartley’s trademark staccato dialogue where characters speak in complete sentences and always say exactly what they mean and still get misunderstood. In “The Unbelievable Truth,” Shelly played Audry, a high-school senior who stands up to her bully of a father, her dope of a boyfriend and then falls for an ex-con who only she can see is a truly good man. It’s a part, with scripted lines—the character of Audry is Hartley’s invention. And yet, the minute Shelly appears on screen, you forget you’re watching an actress. She inhabits the part so completely that all you know is, this is the ultimate high-school girlfriend, and someone you couldn’t live up to in a hundred years.
Then she turned around and did “Trust” for Hartley and there she really shows you what she was capable of. Still a high-school girl on Long Island, still rebellious. But where Audry was brainy and quirky, Maria is—at least at the outset—just another big-haired, pregnant teenager with a fast mouth and a lot of attitude. So much attitude that when she gets in a shouting match with her dad and winds it up by slapping his face, he drops dead of a heart attack. It’s no small tribute to Shelly to point out that you totally believe she’s capable of this while you’re watching the movie.
I went back while I was writing this and watched some of “Trust” again. In an interview, Hartley once explained that he made the movie on the spur of the moment because he wanted to work with Shelly again immediately after making “The Unbelievable Truth,” so he had very little money and very little time. The movie was shot in 11 days. The reason he could do that, he said, was because so much of the direction was implied in the dialogue. The dialogue pretty much told the actors what to do. That’s true. It’s a talky movie, like all Hartley movies. But what’s interesting about Shelly’s performance are the moments where she’s not talking, where she’s just listening to another character, or thinking by herself. Emotion travels over her face like clouds blown across a windy sky. The whole movie seems like it takes place on her face. The miracle is that while you’re watching this happen, you never once stop to think, what an actress. It’s just a girl in trouble on Long Island. When she was acting, Adrienne Shelly could make you forget all about Adrienne Shelly.
She made lots of other movies, and at the time of her death she had her sixth directorial effort (“Waitress”) almost ready for theaters. She was a person of substance, in other words, an actress for whom quotations around that word were wholly unnecessary. But for me, she was who she was because of two movies, “Trust” and “The Unbelievable Truth.” And there she will live forever.