Adrienne Shelly was an American actress, screenwriter and film director. Sadly, I can only write about her in the past tense, because she was murdered at the age of 40. Unfortunately, her vibrant career was cut short. But her take on womanhood stays with us in indie film classics and the hit Broadway musical: The Waitress.
Adrienne Shelly was born in New York City. She became known for Hal Hartley’s indie hits such as The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990) that take place on Long Island. Her tragic death also occurred in New York while she was working on her third feature film as a director: The Waitress (2007). Adrienne Shelley is connected to the city in many ways, but her accomplishments should be known beyond New York City limits too.
Going Down the Indie Road
Shelly grew up on Long Island. She began performing when she was around 10. After high school Shelly enrolled at Boston University, majoring in film production. However, she dropped out after her junior year and moved to Manhattan. Adrienne Shelly became known for playing quirky heroines in independent films. Her first film role was in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth. The 1989 comedy-drama tells the story of Audry (Adrienne Shelly) who gives up the place she has won at Harvard, goes off to New York and becomes a successful fashion model. She rebels against her parents and falls in love with a mysterious man called Josh (Robert Burke) who was released after conviction for manslaughter. Hartley’s films have a strange but intellectual quality to them, and Shelly is the ultimate heroine in these unusual stories about misfits.
Shelly went on to work on Hartley’s second feature film too. Trust (1990) is a dark romantic comedy about the unusual romance between two young outsiders wandering the same Long Island town. Maria (Adrienne Shelly) is a high school dropout who accidentally gets pregnant. When she announces her unplanned pregnancy to her family, her father dies of a heart attack. Her mother immediately kicks her out of the house, and her boyfriend breaks up with her. With nowhere to go, Maria walks around town aimlessly when she meets Matthew (Martin Donovan), a bookish electronics repairman. The two begin an odd romance built on their sense of mutual admiration, respect and trust.
Moving On to Directing
After her acting success in the indie scene, Adrienne Shelly moved on to write and direct independent features on her own. She starred in all the films directed by her which added an extra layer of authenticity and quaintness to her projects. Adrienne Shelly debuted as a writer-director with Sudden Manhattan (1966), a low-budget comedy filmed in New York about Donna (played by Shelly herself) and her Manhattanites friends. Donna is a depressed, unemployed woman in her twenties who begins to question her mental state after witnessing several identical murders on the same street. Things heat up when Donna and her eccentric friends set off to solve the murder mystery themselves.
The second feature by Adrienne Shelly I’ll Take You There (1999) also tells the story of a bunch of offbeat characters. Depicting a blind date going terribly wrong, we get to know Bill (Reg Rogers) and Bernice (Ally Sheedy). Bill is still deeply unhappy after his girlfriend dumped him months ago. Bernice is also nursing wounds from a breakup, but her sister (Adrienne Shelly) forces her to go on a blind date with Bill. The two scarred individuals end up in an absurd journey together that soon turns into a nightmare involving a gun, several boutique robberies and upstate New York.
In her third movie Waitress (2007) Shelly makes her final film appearance before her death. It also marks her last writing and directorial effort since she died during the post-production of the feature. Waitress is about a young professional woman Jenna (Keri Russell) who is trapped in a small town, a loveless marriage and a dead-end waitressing job she would rather escape. Jenna is sharp and ambitious with a gift for making unusual pies whose recipes are inspired by her life.
Jenna: I Hate My Husband Pie… You take bittersweet chocolate and don’t sweeten it. You make it into a pudding and drown it in caramel.
Jenna squirrels away money to leave her controlling and overbearing husband. She hopes to win a pie-baking contest and make a move with the cash prize. However, an unwanted pregnancy changes her plans.
Jenna: Pregnant Miserable Self Pitying Loser Pie… Lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in. Flambé of course.
Jenna’s life gets even more complicated when she starts an extramarital relationship with the new doctor in town (Nathan Fillion).
Jenna: Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having An Affair Pie… You smash blackberries and raspberries into a chocolate crust
Jenna: I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong And I Don’t Want Earl To Kill Me Pie… Vanilla custard with banana. Hold the banana.
Waitress was accepted into the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and Adrienne Shelly received a posthumous Best Screenplay nomination at the 23rd Independent Spirit Awards. Her bittersweet feature also made it to my very own list of 30 Best Chick Flicks of All Time.
On November 1, 2006, Adrienne Shelly was found dead in her Greenwich Village studio apartment while working on the film Waitress. The initial examination of the scene did not reveal any suspicious circumstances. Police believed it to be a suicide. Her husband, Andy Ostroy insisted on the re-examination of the apartment that finally disclosed a suspect footprint. Police arrested a construction worker who eventually confessed to killing Shelly and making it look as if she had committed suicide. The particulars of her murder are re-imagined and dramatised in an episode of Law & Order titled Melting Pot (S17E15, aired 16th February 2007).
The Legacy Of Adrienne Shelly
To honour the memory of his wife, Andy Ostroy decided to create The Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a nonprofit to support women filmmakers. The foundation awards scholarships, production grants, finishing funds, and living stipends to artists.
In her honour, the Women Film Critics Circle gives an annual Adrienne Shelly Award to the film that it finds “most passionately opposes violence against women.”
One of the scripts by Adrienne Shelly was made into a feature film titled Serious Moonlight (2009). It’s a dark comedy starring Meg Ryan and Tim Hutton, directed by Cheryl Hines.
Based on the film Waitress a stage musical has also been written. The musical opened in 2015 in the American Repertory Theater for a limited run. Then it hit Broadway in 2016 debuting in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre where it is still on. Waitress made history on Broadway with the four top creative spots in a show being filled by women (Sara Bareilles, Jessie Nelson, Lorin Latarro, and Diane Paulus). With book, music, lyrics, choreography and direction all provided by an all-female team. Also, the costume designer and musical director were also women. The U.S. national tour of the show began in 2017, and it is still running. The production will debut in London’s West End in February 2019 at the Adelphi Theatre. Furthermore, Waitress will open in early 2020 at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney.
As Andy Ostroy phrased it in his message at the website of The Adrienne Shelly Foundation:
“Adrienne was fiercely dedicated to the art of filmmaking and, at 5’1”, stood tall in an industry where women face major challenges. But she did it, and on her own terms. She was able to successfully transition from actor to filmmaker, writing and directing three features.”
Source of Featured Image: Adrienne Shelly in The Unbelievable Truth (1989)