‘Shirley’ Uses the Trials of Author Shirley Jackson to Critique Conformity in 1950s America 

Shirley” seeks to understand the fragile and human truth behind a great artist. Shirley Jackson, the author of such classic works as “The Haunting of Hill House,” could have easily inspired one of those throwaway biopics that feel like a life equivalent of a greatest hits album. But director Josephine Decker uses Jackson as a conduit to frame themes, some harsh and brutal, about gender roles and oppressive relationships.

Set in the early ‘50s in Vermont, the movie introduces Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) as the unhappy half of a marriage with literary critic and professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). While Jackson obsesses over the local case of a missing woman, which appears to be fueling a gestating novel, Hyman entrances his students with playful charisma at Bennington College. Everyone is aware he is also a ladies’ man who would rather find new conquests than deal with Jackson’s descent into depression (although Hyman does recognize her talent). Hyman invites his new teaching assistant, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Fred’s wife Rose (Odessa Young), to move in until they find their own place. What follows is a strange, nearly perverse dance as Fred tries to be the perfect acolyte to Hyman, begging him to read his dissertation so he can pursue a tenure track, while Rose becomes essentially Jackson’s caretaker, becoming witness to the author’s intense creative process. Both women also find a unique bond and near solidarity as their talents seem to play second fiddle to their husbands’ habits and impulses. 

Featuring an astounding performance by Elisabeth Moss, her best since her work on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” this unique drama, based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merell of the same name, is not a rundown of Shirley Jackson’s life but a portrait of an era. With jagged cinematography Decker creates the claustrophobic sense of a great talent pulling through despite a dysfunctional (yet lasting) marriage in a misogynist time. Rose, played with naïve charm by Odessa Young, through Jackson begins to reflect on her own condition as Fred expects more of a dutiful wife than an equal partner. What matters for him is getting tenure, he does not even care to notice when Hyman blatantly flirts with Rose. It is all sharply defined by Sarah Gubbins’ screenplay who along with Young spoke with Entertainment Voice about the making of “Shirley.”

“I’d been an admirer of her work since I first read ‘The Lottery’ in high school. So I know her writings very well. I didn’t know much about her life,” said Gubbins. “I’d met with one of our producers and we were trying to figure out a project. We were reading some books and then the novel ‘Shirley’ came, and I thought wow, this is a really interesting way to explore a writer’s process. It was like having someone live with Shirley Jackson means walking in with a set of expectations about who she is and in essence also having a fantasized idea of living with an author who writes like her…the novel allowed us to subvert that in a way. That’s definitely how it sprung forth.” 

“I’d known about the script for a while before it was sent by my agent. It was floating around and people were talking about it because it was such a unique character study,” said Young, “the plague of certain biopics is that they try to cover so much in the amount of time that is a movie. What was so fascinating to me and what worked really well is that it was able to use the kind of liberties of fiction to just be able to tell the kind of story that was right for Shirley Jackson and to let the volatility and creative genius of her character shine through without being bogged down by historical facts. Rose offered so much opportunity to slide myself into it as a spectator who gradually starts to participate a little more.”

In introducing us to Jackson, “Shirley” also offers an almost gothic view into upper class American life. Michael Stuhlbarg, who was so memorable as a progressive academic in “Call Me by Your Name,” here is a proud, ego-driven intellectual who scoffs at “mediocrity,” including Fred’s. A running joke is that he keeps promising his assistant that he will read his dissertation, but the idea obviously bores him. Jackson’s moodiness and lashing out, including cheerfully pouring wine over expensive furniture at a fancy dinner party, is her own form of reaction against this suffocating ambiance. “Rose starts off romanticizing the ideals of being a housewife and homemaker and starts to realize there are such joys to life that are messy and dark and self-destructive, she opens her mind to the possibilities of being someone with more agency,” said Young.

“I went pretty deep,” said Gubbins, “I read everything that she wrote. That’s a good way to get to know a writer, to be in their dramatic imagination. You start to see themes or motifs, but mostly worldviews. You get to understand their sense of humor, their sense of empathy and the absurd in Shirley’s case. The other thing that was really helpful, because you’re going to write lines of dialogue for an author that you admire, was her correspondence. It’s in the Library of Congress and it’s first person and very intimate. These letters are mostly addressed to Stanley in various points at the beginning of their courtship and then marriage. I also just nosed around and found what other people said about her. Even then there are certain things she doesn’t say, but you can read between the lines.”

“The limitations of the time period factor very heavily into the story,” said Young, “specifically the limitations on gender. It was important to understand the differences between what men and women were expected to be and how they were expected to act.” 

This is also a fascinating film about the creative process itself. Pouring over newspaper clippings, going to the police station to ask about the missing woman, Jackson becomes lost in the recesses of her imagination as she attempts to craft this obsession into a story. For the outsider it may seem like a descent into madness, but Moss intensely captures the hard work of formulating an idea into a written work. “I think that Shirley was never satisfied, like most writers plagued with a very strong sense of self-doubt, while also possessing seeing something that is possible and it is the act of writing that is disheartening, because you can see, you can feel, you want to get there and those damn words get in the way. Shirley definitely had a sense of drive, while being haunted and seeming insane at moments, and she was very close to her characters, she in very surprising ways has to put herself in their shoes and look through their eyes. That can be very painful, but also very exciting and delightful,” said Gubbins. 

Pulled into Jackson’s orbit, Rose begins her own kind of emotional rebellion. Pregnancy will bring its own challenges and even then, by building a bond with the author the young wife is more conscious of her own condition. It works so well because Young and Moss have a palpable chemistry on screen. “It was such a joy to work with Lizzy [Elisabeth Moss] but also incredibly easy, because she just makes your job so easy. She does what she does so brilliantly and you just kind of follow along and take her lead. I think we were in a unique position because the characters mimicked the real life situation we were in where I had obviously heard of Elisabeth Moss and watched her work and revered her. She is this figure of great importance in the film industry, so I didn’t have to work hard at conjuring that feeling of being awestruck when first meeting her. Shirley and Rose, the relationship progresses in a way where Shirley can see a lot of herself in Rose.” 

“I wish I could only ever work with her,” said Gubbins about Moss, “I loved working with her. She is tireless and funny, very funny. She’s a professional and deeply, deeply invested. She has such a strong point of view and doesn’t have to talk a lot. She really gets it. She’s also completely unafraid to stop and say, ‘I have an idea, I want to try this, I want to go further here.’ We spent a lot of time on set together, but a lot of times we would look at each other after a take and make a face like, ‘uhm, let’s do it again.’ So we had a very deeply trusting relationship. I felt like once the script went into her hands it was held so tightly. I couldn’t believe the performance she delivered. To see her transform physically, vocally, emotionally to such an extent, I never in my wildest dreams would have been able to anticipate it.”

Shirley” is available June 5 on VOD.