Newport This Week

Unconventional Women


Elisabeth Moss stars in “Shirley,” about gothic horror writer Shirley Jackson.

Elisabeth Moss stars in “Shirley,” about gothic horror writer Shirley Jackson.

Writer Shirley Jackson is known for gothic horror classics, including her celebrated, terrifying short story “The Lottery” and her 1959 often-filmed novel “The Haunting of Hill House.”

The new film “Shirley,” now streaming through the Jane Pickens Theater, is not a typical biopic, which is one of its many strengths. It focuses narrowly on a small piece of Jackson’s life during the early 1950s. Although she’s been lauded after “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker, Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) is living like an eccentric recluse in rural Vermont, while her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), teaches at Bennington College and engages in barely concealed affairs with students and colleagues.

The action starts when a young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young), arrive at Stanley and Shirley’s house. Fred has been hired as Stanley’s teaching assistant and Rose, though she studies Shakespeare and Chaucer, has given up a career to be a housewife. There’s an instant “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” dynamic as Fred and Rose, younger versions of Shirley and Stanley, are quickly baptized into the older couple’s biting and bitter world. One may not be sure at first whether these bickering folks are worth spending time with, but the film gradually and masterfully draws us into the mounting tension.

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications.

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications.

Shirley has “bouts” of severe depression and agoraphobia, even calling herself a witch. Stanley berates her to get up and write, motivated by his need to bask in her fame and her income. With a mix of condescension and seduction that’s both engaging and repellent, Stanley cajoles Rose into taking care of Shirley while the men are on campus and busy with off-campus activities.

What ensues is an intoxicating blurring of reality and fantasy as Shirley at first bristles at Rose’s involvement but eventually grows to trust her. Their lives, on and off the page, begin to blur as Shirley writes feverishly about a missing college girl that eventually becomes her 1951 horror novel “Hangsaman.”

Director Josephine Decker, working with a smart script by Sarah Gubbins, who adapted Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel, creates an ominous, off-kilter mood from the start and then plunges us into a psychodrama laced with supernatural imagery and black humor.

“Shirley” is scabrous portrait of 1950s academia and female suffocation that matches Jackson’s singular stories of menace. It’s one of the rare movies that without being pretentious pulls us into the troubled but brilliant mind of a writer.

Moss may be best known for the Hulu series, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but she’s proving a major big screen talent with each successive film. She plays the prickly Jackson, stripped down physically and emotionally, with such skill and nuance that it would be an Oscar contender in any ordinary year. This performance comes on the heels of Moss’s terrific work in the horror thriller “The Invisible Man” from earlier this year. She also received critical raves for “Her Smell” (2018) in which Moss ferociously plays a self-destructive rock-and-roller.

The film conveys Jackson’s inner world through Moss’s powerful performance and Decker’s gothic imagery and unpredictable but compelling story. “Shirley” is a challenging, unsettling film but one that is ultimately stirring and satisfying.

One response to “Unconventional Women”

  1. Dee says:

    Shirley is just the latest of about a bazillion book-to-film adaptations lately that de-Jew the lead characters. Stanley is an old beardo, so he’s still said to be Jewish, of course, but since the Nemsers are young and hot, they no longer are (even though Fred Nemser’s actor is Jewish).

    Actors with two Jewish parents: Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Logan Lerman, Paul Rudd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bar Refaeli, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Adam Brody, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Erin Heatherton, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Gregg Sulkin, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Esti Ginzburg, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Margarita Levieva, James Wolk, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Michael Vartan, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Julian Morris, Asher Angel, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Dan Hedaya, Emory Cohen, Corey Haim, Scott Mechlowicz, Harvey Keitel, Odeya Rush, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

    Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of his parents are).

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Timothée Chalamet, Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Ryan Potter, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Judah Lewis, Brandon Flynn, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, and Harrison Ford (whose maternal grandparents were both Jewish, despite those Hanukkah Song lyrics).

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jewish and/or identify as Jewish: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zac Efron, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Andrew Garfield, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman, David Corenswet.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr., Sean Penn, and Ed Skrein were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer, Chris Pine, Emily Ratajkowski, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Finn Wolfhard are part Jewish.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

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