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{Movie Review} Shirley: A Thrilling Take on the Famed Writer and Female Ambition

Over the last few years, interest in Shirley Jackson has spiked. The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle were recently adapted for the screen. Now, we’re treated to a stellar performance by Elisabeth Moss as the Gothic author in Shirley, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. Directed by Josephine Decker, Shirley says much about the domestic space, reaction to Jackson’s work, and female ambition.

The film and novel loosely contain elements about the author’s life, juxtaposed with a story about a young couple. The movie succeeds in portraying the difficulties that women faced in the 1950s, on the cusp of feminism’s second wave.

Two main threads exist in the film. One deals with Shirley’s struggle to finish her second novel, Hangsaman, about a missing college girl. Several scenes feature Shirley refusing to rise from bed, let alone deal with negative perceptions. People say she’s a witch. They also clam that she’s sick in the head. Even her husband, Bennington professor and literary critic, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), proclaims that the genre is beneath her. When Jackson tells him the plot of her new book, he calls it trashy.

Moss leans into these perceptions, sometimes cackling, sometimes playing coy, sometimes challenging her husband and perceptions of her work. She shines in the role, from the accent she adopts to the way she holds a cigarette or glass of wine.

Photo Courtesy of LAMF and Killer Films

These negative comments underscore two important points that the film addresses. Even a female writer as successful as Jackson struggled to be heard. Furthermore, even today, critics like Hyman malign the horror genre. To add, the author wants to be known for more than “The Lottery.”

Yet, this famous story triggers the other main plot point. Jackson befriends a young housewife, Rose (Odessa Young). Rose’s husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), an ambitious young academic, assists Stanley. Thus, he and Rose stay with the famed writer and her hubby. It’s Rose who first interacts with Shirley. She tells her, “I read your story.” Shirley responds, “There have been many.” Rose adds that “The Lottery” made her feel “thrilling horrible.”

This scene stands out for a few reasons. For one, Shirley’s cool response to Rose underscores the fact that she wrote many other stories than “The Lottery.” She wants others to acknowledge that. Yet, even today, that’s the one everyone reads. It’s in every American literature anthology in favor of her dozens of other stories. Rose’s comments draw no verbal response from Shirley. It’s clear, though, that Rose understands and relates to the writer’s work.

As the film progresses, the relationship between the two deepens in a way that resembles the bonds between females in some of Jackson’s most famous work. For instance, Eleanor and Theo in The Haunting of Hill House come to mind. However, the hinted repressed lesbian encounter in Hangsaman between Natalie and Tony may be a better example.

Both Stanley and Fred realize something’s occurring between the women. They view it as a threat. Fred demands that Rose stop hanging around Shirley so much, but it doesn’t stop the sexual innuendos.

Here, Moss again revels in the role and sexual deviance, especially during a dinner scene. She slides her foot up Rose’s leg, under the table, as she’s seated across from her husband. She does this with a wry grin.

Throughout the film, Moss plays the famed author with striking confidence and brilliance. Fresh off her roles in Us and The Invisible Man, it’s clear that Moss is becoming a genre icon.

Young’s performance as Rose is notable, too. She’s a housewife, yes, but one who flaunts norms from the outset. She has sex with her hubby on the train in the opening scene, right after she reads “The Lottery” in The New Yorker. Her progression, under Shirley’s wing, is fascinating to watch. It’s capped with her refusal to remain “little wifie,” “little Rosie.” That, she tells Fred, would be madness.

Photo Courtesy of LAMF and Killer Films

This bold statement by Rose again highlights a main point in the film and throughout Jackson’s work. The domestic space can be suffocating. To add, important scenes between Rose and Shirley happen in the kitchen. When they can’t sleep, they connect with each other during the twilight hours. Yet, it’s not to cook or clean. The men aren’t around. They speak of Shirley’s new novel, but also Rose’s desires.

Shirley asks her during their first late night encounter if she regrets dropping out of school. She did so to feed Fred’s success. The kitchen, typically associated with feminine gender roles, is reclaimed and repurposed. It’s used as a space where the women can fuel each other’s ambitions and talk openly.

Overall, Shirley does touch upon aspects of the author’s life. It shows her disdain for the academic community. It more than hints at Stanley’s sexual relationships with students, and it confronts negative perceptions about her work from academic circles. That said, its most important facets deal with female ambition in the 1950s. The story about Fred and Rose serves the film’s wider ambitions.

Thanks to Moss’ star power and stellar performance, Shirley Jackson will continue to draw new readers. Yet, the entire cast plays off each other well. Shirley is a clever film. It reminds us of the struggles women still face to be heard, be it in literature or film.

For a deeper understanding of Shirley Jackson’s life, check out Ruth Franklin’s recent biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.