If you watched the widely circulated 30-second preview for Friday’s episode of Dr. Phil, you know everything you need to know about where 67-year-old iconic actor Shelley Duvall is today. Of course, you don’t need to know any of it, but you may have been interested, and I don’t think that should be held against you. The image of a disheveled, clearly ill Duvall babbling nonsense was so shocking that it made people remember that they cared about an artist who was rather rudely described as “a woman forgotten by the world” by Dr. Phil McGraw on his show. (Note: The enduring legacy of The Shining alone is enough to ensure that Duvall will never be forgotten, and don’t even get me started on her work that is less synonymous with her name but no less brilliant, like her stunning turn in Robert Altman’s 1977 movie 3 Women.) As exploitative as Dr. Phil’s interview promised to be, there was a degree of reporting involved in showing Duvall in this state. We simply hadn’t seen her in a while, and while the pitfalls of fame provide a tale as old as Hollywood itself, the power of that story isn’t diminished regardless of how many times it is told.
That said, those who dismissed the episode outright after seeing that 30-second clip were right to do so. The show was a predatory display of mental illness, presented with very little insight or explanation. Here’s Shelley Duvall, and here is a laundry list of things coming out of her mouth that you’ve never heard before, it said. How much agency she was exercising by showing up, and what she even thought about putting herself on display in this state went predictably unexamined. It was pure voyeurism.
McGraw devoted about 40 minutes of the program to an interview with Duvall that maintained a coherent through line for rarely longer than 20 seconds at a time. He spoke to her in a patronizing tone, and asked questions meant to prey on Duvall’s paranoid delusions (“Do you have an audio recorder inside of you?” “Is the president trying to get to you?”). Duvall asked for help, cried, turned belligerent, talked about scars on her body, and sometimes got swept away in nostalgia. “I was a pretty girl,” she said at one point. The show was exploitative beyond prediction, but it was also sadder.
The last 20 minutes or so described Duvall’s journey from Texas to California, where she was to undergo treatment that the show had set up. Before departing, she tearfully told the camera that she wanted to get back on her feet again, see some of the people she admires “and film and television just for old time’s sake.” After three days at the treatment center, where Duvall reportedly refused to take meds, she returned home to her boyfriend and family in Texas, where she’s being treated with alternative medicine on the show’s dime, since she still refuses to take meds. The only thing that could have made this entire disaster worth it was progress for Duvall, and that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case.
But look on the bright side: More of her suffering means more opportunity to show it on TV.
“We will keep you updated on her progress and hope, hope hope hope, that there is a happy ending to this story,” Dr. Phil farted out at the end of the episode. Yeah right, you fucking ghoul.
Update: Vivian Kubrick, daughter of the late Shining director Stanley Kubrick, has set up a GoFundMe for Duvall and is reportedly attempting to secure Duvall health insurance through SAG. “I just think she deserves a great deal more respect,” Kubrick told The Hollywood Reporter.
However, Given Kubrick’s reported ties to the Church of Scientology, Scientology’s anti-psychiatry stance, and the GoFundMe’s stated location of Clearwater, Florida (the “worldwide spiritual headquarters” of Scientology), some are warning to think carefully before donating.