film / March 2016: Revolutionary Women

Revolutionary Women: Adrienne Shelly

I was addicted to saying things and having them matter to someone.”
- Jenna in Waitress



If I had to come up with a summary of Adrienne Shelly’s career, it would be that line. She wrote it for a waitress in a small southern town who had finally met a man worth talking to. She wrote it for a character who was formerly sad, pushed down, overlooked, and trapped. She wrote it for women who are fed up with a culture of everyday sexism, emotional, and physical abuse. And I have to imagine she wrote it for herself; an indie filmmaker on the verge of making it big, of having something to say, and having it matter to someone.
Her life was cut short in 2006. A senseless act of violence removed this artist from the world. It prevented her from seeing the success of Waitress, now a Broadway musical with a record percentage of women in the cast and crew. It took her away from a new daughter, a husband, and a revolutionary take on women in film. But I cannot call Shelly a “victim” – because she made a career out of taking apart the meaning of that word.


It was Serious Moonlight that made me the giddiest. With a “past-her-prime” Meg Ryan playing Donna, the fierce lead in a romantic comedy gone twisted and vengeful, the casting was near perfect. It was a mean little movie that made me the happiest when I watched it. As a piece of writing, it was sharp, witty, and sadistic. It took aim at the status quo by being it – then subverting it, beautifully.


Shelly’s sheer force as a storyteller – the slopping of pie filling, the duct taping to the toilet bowl, a maniacally smiling face – made her work so real it was beastly. Her style so full of whimsy, so feminine and bright it could hurt. As a director, writer, actress, sometimes production designer, she never seemed to bother with realism. But her work is a hyper-reality; a dreamy, sweet, brutally honest place with neon colored pies, assault, and on-the-street murders. An ever-growing list of oxymorons and conflicting adjectives.


Her world is for women. No matter the darkness inherent in Waitress’s abusive husband, the grisly mystery of twin murders outside an apartment in Sudden Manhattan, Shelly’s settings are bright, shiny, girly, and funny. Surrounded by the dark, the grit, a deep seated anger, the women are never, ever downed by it – in fact, they often laugh in its face. Yell at it. Force us, the audience, to recognize it, but not without clapping back at it.


The characters and settings in Shelly’s vision are never forced to succumb to the kitchen sink realism the brutality of the real world would have liked them to; their femininity saves them from it. When Dawn asks Jenna to do a “full makeup” for her in Waitress, the gift lets her see herself for who she really is: Beautiful. Gorgeous. Powerful. Sincere.


Shelly’s women were never desperate. Often in desperate situations, with desperate decisions to make, but never desperate themselves. They act how they want to act, make choices when they are ready to make them. They are downtrodden women, belittled women, conflicted women, but never victimized women. To be a victim, one must be accepting. Bernice, Louise, Jenna, and Donna would never  – Adrienne Shelly made sure of that.
– Alex Landers
Blogger at OneCriticalBitch, M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing, B.A. in Film Studies, Playwright, and wannabe horror movie survivor. Enjoys puppies and painting.




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