'Waitress': Filmmaker's Sad Goodbye

Adrienne Shelly wrote, directed, co-set-designed, co-costume-designed and costars in the new film "Waitress." She also composed a song for the soundtrack and gave her 3-year-old daughter, Sophie, a cameo in the final scene. The movie is a serene comedy about an unhappily married—and even more unhappily pregnant—woman named Jenna (Keri Russell of "Felicity") who finds refuge from her stifling life by baking exquisite pies with names like "Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie." (It's made with lumpy oatmeal and fruitcake, then flambéed.) More simply, though, "Waitress" is about a gifted woman finding her place in the world, and in that regard it is a metaphor for Shelly's own life. In the 1990s, Shelly was a pixie-faced ingénue who starred in a pair of films by the auteurist director Hal Hartley. But she resisted the lure of Hollywood and stayed put in New York, writing her own scripts and immersing herself in the city's close-knit indie-film world. She made two films that got little attention. But "Waitress" changed everything. It was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and Fox Searchlight bought it for $4 million. Shelly never knew about any of that. On Nov. 1, 2006, she was found hanging from a shower rod in a Manhattan apartment she used as an office, murdered by a construction worker who tried to make the crime look like a suicide.

"Waitress" arrives in theaters this month, and so far the critical reception has been glowing. But the tragedy surrounding the film makes it hard to gauge the candor of the response to it. Is the film as good as advertised? Or is its power inextricably linked to Shelly's cruel death? The answer is both. "Waitress" is wise, humble and effortlessly funny. It's an easy film to love. Still, certain lines will make you wince at their unintended irony. A leitmotif of violence against women was subtle before; it's unavoidable now. "Waitress" has become a fairy tale with a lump in its throat, beautifully bittersweet, like one of Jenna's signature pies. "The moment that sticks with me," says Hartley, "is when Keri asks her boss, 'Are you happy?' And he says very calmly, 'I'm happy enough.' It's this quiet, folksy wisdom, which I really felt Adrienne was accumulating in her own life." When she died at 40, Shelly was five years into a good marriage and blissed out on being a mom. She was happy enough.

Everyone knew it, too, which is why her loved ones were so confounded when police initially ruled her death a suicide. "I felt cheated," says Russell, "because the memorial service was such a different experience than it would've been if we'd known the truth. I sat there thinking, 'God, maybe she was in so much pain, and I totally misread her'." A week later, after a stray footprint in her apartment set police on the right track, the truth came to light. "Waitress" producer Michael Roiff says it was "the oddest sense of relief—to know that we were correct, that Adrienne was the Adrienne we all knew and loved."

Otherwise, relief has been scarce. "I don't sleep anymore," says Shelly's husband, Andy Ostroy. "I can't sleep. Maybe someday I'll be able to sleep more than I have been." During an interview with NEWSWEEK, Ostroy speaks briefly about those first few days after Nov. 1, but then he reconsiders and asks for his comments to remain private. He prefers talking about her life. "There was no one like her," he says in his office, surrounded by family snapshots. "She was this little thing"—Shelly was barely five feet tall—"who had so much ... stuff. If you met her for five minutes, you'd never forget her." Just two weeks after he lost her, Ostroy launched a foundation for women filmmakers, a cause that he knew was dear to his wife. "People kept asking me where they could donate money. And I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other," he says. "So I said, 'Bear with me, let me think about this'." Gifts to the Adrienne Shelly Foundation (adrienneshellyfoundation.org) have already topped six figures.

Shelly's final film was always meant to be a love letter to Sophie. Instead, it's a kind of time capsule. On screen, Jenna sees her baby as a shackle to an unwanted life, but the child emerges as the source of her liberation. Shelly wrote the film when she was eight months pregnant, but her anxiety was over how the demands of motherhood might stifle her creativity. It turned out to be just the opposite. "One of the things Adrienne was most proud of is that she was able to do this as a mom," says Roiff. "I remember discussing it with her in the editing room. She said, 'See, it can be done'." And she was just getting started.