"Shirley" Is 2020's Most Surprisingly Timely Movie
Shirley Jackson's life is adapted to a movie that's as complicated and interesting as the author's writing
Last year, when she was in the process of making her newest film Shirley, Josephine Decker couldn’t have known that the story of a woman cooped up in her home for months on end as she struggles to summon the mental fortitude for work would soon be the story of the American people.
The drama inserts itself into the life of suspense fiction’s godmother Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, expectedly superb) as she struggles to complete her novel Hangsaman in the wake of her crossover success for the seminal short story “The Lottery.” No easy task, as it would happen; the combination of self-imposed writerly pressure, constant philandering from her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), her moderate agoraphobia and the disruptive influence of newly arrived boarders Fred and Rose (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) throws a wrench in her delicate creative process. Soon, her mansion in the woods of Vermont starts to resemble a handsomely appointed prison.
“It’s funny,” Decker confides in InsideHook during a Zoom call from her home quarantine, “I was like, ‘I hope people still want to see a movie about a woman who spends all her time in a house.’ But everyone, hear me: this is a beautiful, expansive movie! It’s not all in rooms! Still, yes, it does have a resonance to this moment. Shirley herself went through a troubled time when she was not going out at all, and [screenwriter] Sarah [Gubbins] saw that as the time in which to set her story because it will always be powerful to be liberated from your home, whether that’s you determining that for yourself or getting the official okay to stop wearing masks. Hopefully, it’ll just come off as more ‘relevant,’ which is generally a good thing.”
It’s not quite as simple as branding this The Ultimate Quarantine Film and moving along, however. Decker and Gubbins’ treatment of Jackson interrogates the isolation in a more pointed, intimate way — not just the loneliness and tedium, but the intersection between womanhood and the experience of being cloistered. At home, the personal agency already tamped down by the culture of her era is lessened even further.
“I think it’s really complicated,” Decker says. “Women were forced into homes and disappeared, separated from each other, totally occupied with caring for children. They didn’t have access to one another, which forms another strange rhyme with right now. We don’t know what it’s going to be like when the quarantine ends. There will be many households with kids or wives that have relied on outside contact, and now they don’t have access to that emotional support. I’m a little afraid to hear stories of what’s gone on behind closed doors in this world, under quarantine. Shutting women up has been a constant through time, as a method of diminishing power.”
Much of Shirley’s personality revolves around her dedicated, Fiona Apple-level refusal to be shut up. She’s introduced mid-dinner party, casually cracking acrid half-jokes about her antagonistic marriage and financial setup. (Though her writing brought in more income than Stanley’s professorial gig at Bennington, he always controlled the purse strings.) The next day, after perceiving young Rose’s early pregnancy through possibly occult intuition, she offhandedly asks the girl if she’d like a spell to abort. A dinner party eventually coaxes Shirley from the house, and she revels in making a discomfiting scene. The film takes her jagged disposition as the key element in an unstable reaction with her lech of a spouse and the happy couple falling prey to their hosts’ erudite brand of dysfunction.
The film’s perspective on femininity reconfigures itself as Shirley and Rose grow closer, their dynamic a complex mindgame mixing resentment and desire. Shirley sees Rose, blushing and beautiful, as another one of the contemptible “sluts” that keep catching the eye of her husband. But beneath that initial animosity burns something stronger and stranger and without a name. “When Rose first arrives, Shirley wants to write her off, calling her Debbie-Betty-Kathy,” Decker explains. “The way we look at women’s bodies, and have for a long time, is through a male gaze. Eventually, women began to internalize that and look at themselves, and each other, through their version of a male gaze. Their sight gets filtered through a lens that isn’t always their own, and that can allow for a fetishization of a certain kind of woman. That’s true for everyone. I remember some quote, I think it was about Cindy Crawford, that ‘men wanted to fuck her and women wanted to be her.’ I wanted to find what’s between those two.”
As the two characters start to see each other more clearly, they forge a bond somewhere between lovers and artist/muse. Shirley has a breakthrough with her novel, a mystery about a college coed who goes missing, by mentally conflating Rose and the protagonist. As Shirley opens up creatively, she opens up physically as well. “It’s not about being attracted at first sight,” Decker says. “They’re repulsed at first, and it’s only once they begin to care for each other in an almost nurturing, motherly way that they become entwined sexually.”
Decker’s passages of eroticism exude a true, smoldering passion largely absent from the glut of American cinema. The film opens with Rose and her man Fred having a gasping quickie on a train after she gets turned on by Shirley’s prose; later, she reasserts herself with her husband and we can see what brought them together. Both passages excel due to a combination of maturity and sensitivity behind the camera to temper the lust onscreen. “Sarah had a vision in her scriptwriting, which was that this wasn’t a normal biopic and you’d know right away because it would be sexy,” Decker says with a laugh. “It was exciting to mirror the transformation Rose is undergoing with Shirley in terms of her creative liberation back through her sexual dynamic with her husband. That felt like a successful way to communicate that Rose is expanding outward in all directions, and playing that out sexually was fun, too… Steamy scenes, and we were shooting all of this in the dead of summer, so it was often steamy in both ways!”
Everything that makes this film click neatly into Decker’s body of work — the experimental bent of her style, the expressionistic representation of the creative process, the spiky and unpredictable woman at its center defying easy understanding — marks it as an unusual specimen of the biopic. Decker says otherwise: “I don’t think of it as a biopic at all. Somebody pointed out to me this morning that I should make sure more people know that. It’s a work of fiction. It’s titled after the main character’s name, but it’s more of an exploration of her body of work than her person, though it’s modeled after elements of her real life. We always thought of her as a character. It was more important to be allegiant to our idea of Shirley than to capture the actual reality of the person.”
With the factual timeline of her life having been slightly rejiggered (her children have been erased, for example), Shirley becomes more of a vessel for contradiction than the usual equation for a biopic to solve. Her days at home make her feel safe yet stifled. Her unresolved wanting inspires and torments her. Her bitterness belies tenderness, neither overpowering the other. Shirley gradually reveals itself to be less of a film about a woman, and more of a film about the demands of being a woman and an artist at the same time. While historically portrayed as competing paths, Decker blends them together to suggest one as inseparable from the other. Whether it’s a new novel or a baby, Shirley and Rose are twinned by the pure generative ambitions that nonetheless nudge them both toward a madness reinforced by their male-dominated society. “I hope it’s a boy,” Shirley says to her young companion, as she feels a kick in her womb. “This world is too cruel to girls.” From behind the camera, Decker honors the two of them as survivors, only as angry or lewd or unruly as we’ve made them.