Cinema is Truth: Double Feature - The First & Last of Adrienne Shelly
FILM(S) OF THE PAST: A SPECIAL DOUBLE FEATURE: THE FIRST AND LAST OF ADRIENNE SHELLY.
#1: THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH (1989)
Written and Directed by Hal Hartley
Reviewed by Brittany Alyse
Imagine this: it’s 1989. You think the world is about to end via nuclear warfare at the same time you end up falling in love with a man who might or might not be a psychopath. In Hal Hartley’s world you might just call it a typical Monday.
THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH is a play on film, riddled with oddities, stunning dramatics and hilariously sweet moments. The opening comes at you with big, bold letters against a black background and a weird, melodramatic 80s synth theme, followed by the introductions of the two lead characters in the film. Once you get a glimpse into their worlds, you want to know more.
First we start with Josh, played by the dashing Robert John Burke. He looks like a mere hitchhiker, dressed in all black and carrying a black overnight bag, attempting to get a ride amongst corn fields and endless highways to nothing. He’s a wanderer who has no luck and constantly gets asked if he’s a priest. “I’m a mechanic,” he replies. He has to repeat this often.
Despite a few bumps in the road, Josh finally makes his way back to civilization. Once there, he stares up at a statue of George Washington. A clock is ticking. Jump cut to:
A illustration of George Washington, hanging inside a pale pink bedroom.
Audry, a teenage girl, lays in her bed, a book entitled THE END OF THE WORLD by NED RIFLE tucked at her side. She stares hopelessly out the window. The ticking continues. She’s wide awake well before her alarm clock.
When her alarm clock finally does go off she rises, a slow and languid movement, her eyes still on the window. She yawns, her arms raised and stretched above her head, she brings her arms down as she mimes the way a nuclear bomb would explode. She moves slowly, wistfully, as if she can sense what doom is coming.
But it’s not doom that’s coming. It’s love. (or something like it)
Audry is an angelic spitfire, a young woman who is bursting with feelings and knowledge and has no idea where to channel it all. She’s a high school student who’s just newly been accepted to Harvard. Her mom is thrilled. Her father, Vic? Not so much. It’s all about the money. When Audry suggests that “history is about to end,” she instructs Vic to donate the money to the nuclear fund instead of her college fund. Suffice to say, her parents are not so happy about that option. They just don’t get her. When her parents speak, the sounds of their voices are distant and overlapping. Audry’s voice is clear as day. She’s sure of herself. She also never lets go of her THE END OF THE WORLD book.
It seems as though no one really knows or listens to what Audry really wants. In a scene where she has one-sided conversation with her “boyfriend” Emmet (In quotations because she breaks up with him immediately after this exchange) they have a back and forth where he yaps about what good he’s destined as she desperately tries to express how lousy she feels, neither of them actually listening to each other. Emmet tells her he knows she’s been a little mixed up lately. She seethes: “I’m not mixed up! I’m depressed.” Then she shushes him, eyes toward the sky, searching.
“Bombs.” She says, like she’s almost hopeful for it.
Back to Josh: he arrives back in his hometown, where he crosses paths with a woman in a waitress uniform named Pearl. They know each other. She promptly faints when she turns back to look at him. After that, the town is ablaze with this news of a newcomer. It doesn’t take us long to discover that Josh is newly released from prison. Having done time for a little thing called murder.
Our two leads then collide. Audry and Josh meet in an antique store.
Audry, looking something like a French cinema siren, smokes a cigarette and reads a book. Her eyes fixed on Josh like he’s a piece of dangling meat. She can’t keep her gaze off of him, not even when he crouches down mere inches from her to search for a book. Audry takes the reigns and speaks to him first. Josh can barely keep up with her. We find out then that Josh isn’t a ladies man. He looks the part, but he is far from it.
They talk. She gets him a job at her father’s mechanic shop. She steals his wrench (out of affection). He is timid and she is all drive and force. It’s an unusual combination, but they can’t help that they’re drawn to each other. Even Vic notices. When Audry is staring dreamily at Josh, Vic asks, “What are you so dreamy about? The world’s gonna end tomorrow, remember?” Audry replies, “Right now it’s today, it’s not tomorrow.” Josh has made Audry forget about the end of the world. Even if just for a little bit.
Josh settles into his job, even when rumors of his crimes surface. Audry is torn between going to college and taking up modeling as a new hobby, one that pays her. A lot.
The secret about Josh finally reaches Audry via her mother. The fact that Josh has been responsible for the death of two people should shock Audry, but it doesn’t. In fact, after this discovery, she goes to see him immediately. Upon her arrival, Josh asks Audry to take a walk with him. She asks him why. “There’s something I want to tell you about me.” He says. “I already know.” She replies. And then she kisses him. You’d think that a blossoming courtship happens shortly thereafter, but that would be too easy. In fact, after this kiss occurs, the drama between them begins. A circus happens before the two can finally and freely be together.
There are so many weird and wonderful scenes that occur, so many storyline gems that I don’t want to give away, but it’s all such a joyous and interesting ride that you have to experience for yourself. Hal Harley created a juggling act of humanity and peculiar circumstances. Reading about it would take the magic of it away. So, instead of continuing to go over the film bit by bit, I want to talk about what drew me to the film in the first place.
What charmed me most about Hal Harley’s debut was that it was also Adrienne Shelly’s debut. Adrienne, in her first film role, plays Audry like a pro, delivering her lines with a kind of certainty and charm like a classic screwball starlet would back in films of days past - in a sense reminding me of performances given by Lily Tomlin and Carole Lombard.
After I finished this film, I immediately ran to Google to find out what else she had been in since then. I had to know. My bubbling curiosity was met with something terrible instead. I was horrified to discover that, in 2006, Adrienne was senselessly murdered in her New York City apartment. A tragic and nonsensical act that took away the life of an artist, mother, wife and filmmaker.
This discovery left me heartbroken, as if it had just happened, or as if it happened to someone I actually knew. Never before have I been so sad over the loss of someone I didn’t know. After consuming as many articles about her as I could find, I made it my mission to track down her films and watch what I could get my hands on. So far, I’ve seen: THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, SUDDEN MANHATTAN, OPERA NO. 1 and WAITRESS.
#2 WAITRESS (2007)
Written and Directed by Adrienne Shelly
Reviewed by Brittany Alyse
WAITRESS is a sparkle in the cinema world.
The film opens on a light and airy melody as a waitress, Jenna, prepares pies. All kinds of cinematically delicious looking pies. She bakes with purpose, inside her own personal fairytale of sorts as she prepares these delectable treats until she’s pulled out of her state of bliss. Jenna’s two best friends and co-workers, Dawn(played by Adrienne Shelly) and Becky (Cheryl Hines) burst into the kitchen. They tell her it’s time for “you know what.”
The “what” in question happens to be a pregnancy test. All three women huddle in the ladies room and pray for a negative result, with no such luck. Jenna is pregnant, and she’s so not happy about it.
Jenna, played by Keri Russell, is a woman in an abusive marriage. Her husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is a foul-mouthed low-life who thinks he has ownership over Jenna’s free will, her body and her money. To become pregnant by this man is unwanted for Jenna. She doesn’t want to be congratulated. She doesn’t want to be happy about this baby because this baby puts a stop to her master plan: to get away from Earl.
When Jenna gets off work, Earl demands that she hand over the money she has made from serving. Unbeknownst to Earl, Jenna does not hand him everything. She saves what she can of her earnings and stores the cash in various hiding places around the house, assuming Earl would know if she opened a bank account. She does this so she will have enough money to vanish from his world. All she dreams about is running away.
When she’s not dreaming about running away, Jenna fantasizes about all kinds of pie recipes. She works in a tiny diner off a remote highway that specializes in pies called Joe’s Pie Shop. There is nothing else on earth that makes Jenna feel more alive. These pie-daydreams serve as interludes to Jenna’s quick changing life and thought process, and the pies are named based off of whatever’s running through her mind at the time: I Don't Want Earl's Baby pie, Baby Screaming Its Head Off and Ruining My Life pie, Earl Murders Me Because I'm Having an Affair pie. Bad names, sure, but delicious visuals. (No, seriously. You’ll not want to watch this film while you’re hungry!)
Even though it seems as though Jenna’s life is in shambles, Dawn and Becky are her anchors. They are the first ones to discover that she is pregnant. They seek her guidance and help during (comedically) stressful and trying times. You can tell that Jenna loves these women, even when she deadpans her way through most of their conversations. The owner of the diner she works at is another prominent person in her life - Old Man Joe, they call him. He’s a pain, but he’s also somewhat of a strange friend to Jenna. Joe recognizes the unhappiness in Jenna’s life and wants nothing more than for her to start fresh. He sees her for what she truly is, and vice versa.
Two loyal female friends and an old man confidante can only do so much to patch up the fear and dread that plagues Jenna. That is, until she meets the unexpected Dr. Pomatter, who replaces Jenna’s long-time, trusted doctor. A truly disastrous first meeting turns into something of an unexpected affection for one another during their second meeting. They fall into easy conversation, and despite Jenna’s guarded personality and Dr. Pomatter’s befuddling awkwardness, there’s a spark there.
It’s innocent enough, until Dr. Pomatter opens his office two hours early for Jenna’s appointment. They are both thrown into each other’s orbit in a way neither of them expected. It starts with a kiss, one that was not intended. The second kiss, very much intended, is the kind of epic movie kiss we all dream of. All bets are off then.
A series of ups-and-downs pull Jenna in many different directions. Dawn and Becky do their best, trying to lift Jenna’s spirits by buying her a baby book. Jenna is less than thrilled. Dawn and Becky are discouraged by Jenna’s reaction to the gift, and you can tell that Jenna feels bad about it. Dawn hangs behind and in one last effort to appeal to Jenna, she shows Jenna all the cool things within the book, showing a spotlight on the pages where Jenna can write a letter to her baby.
And so, with that, Jenna starts to write her baby letters throughout the film. Unapologetically real and truthful, Jenna uses the baby book notepad as her personal therapy, sharing her every thought to her future child. In one letter, she writes: “Dear Baby, I hope someday somebody wants to hold you for 20 minutes straight and that's all they do. They don't pull away. They don't look at your face. They don't try to kiss you. All they do is wrap you up in their arms and hold on tight, without an ounce of selfishness to it.”
The script is a flurry of real life circumstance and poetry. Quirky and unexpected happenings color the story in ways that make it feel like Adrienne caught lightning in a bottle. (She did.) The characters are heightened by their manner of speaking in the most charming ways, even in the most dire situations. The look of the film is like a hazy dream at times, even the dark and serious moments are colored in the loveliest ways.
There are moments so sweet between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter that feel so delicate. In one scene, Dr. Pomatter tends to Jenna’s melancholy by declaring “I could find the whole meaning of life in those sad eyes.” And with that, Jenna is consumed by him. It’s without question that we know Jenna to be a person who has been hardened by life’s cruelty, but her special bond with Dr. Pomatter makes her soft. We feel her loneliness and her ache. For the first time in a long time, she expresses herself and shares stories with him, and finds that they matter to him. Jenna says so herself, she’s addicted to mattering to someone. This alone makes you root for them, but as the film progresses, you realize this is just temporary. When does this happen?
When Jenna’s water breaks.
When Jenna is handed her daughter for the first time, the camera does something so magical that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a film before: the whole world around them blurs. Everything else that “mattered” to Jenna before: her husband, her lover, all of her surroundings, all is gone except for the two of them, mother and daughter. And it’s then that Jenna comes to terms with the fact that no one else will ever measure up. In a triumphant and beautiful turn of events, Jenna finally throws Earl to the curb. And shortly thereafter, she ends it with Dr. Pomatter. It’s bittersweet, but it’s so right. Her daughter, Lulu, is the true love of her life, as she should be.
Jenna and Lulu take Old Man Joe’s advice and gifts, and start fresh. Jenna rebuilds her life for their lives together. Joe’s Pie shop becomes Lulu’s Pies. It’s a fairytale ending for the ages.
I found myself sobbing by the end of the film as Keri Russell carries Adrienne’s actual daughter, Sophie, in the last shot of the film as a touching lullaby written by Adrienne plays over the scene and into black. I can only imagine how much Adrienne loved her daughter. This film is a testament to that. There’s a video in which Adrienne talks about her inspiration for the film, saying that it is a love letter to her baby. My heart aches when I think about it. What a gift.
WAITRESS is a movie about women, for women. Adrienne wrote a movie that gives women courage and shows them that they can truly do anything. You can do that thing you’ve been dreaming of, you have the strength to leave that bad situation, your best is enough and your heart is good enough. These are the things woven into this story. This is what matters.
WAITRESS is Adrienne’s legacy.
I loved it so much it made my heart burst and ache just by the thought of what else she could have given us if she were still alive.
“I think the movie has a really lovely heart. I really like putting that sort of thing out. That’s important to me.”
- ADRIENNE SHELLY ON WAITRESS.
Adrienne wrote and directed three films: SUDDEN MANHATTAN, I’LL TAKE YOU THERE and WAITRESS. Her script, SERIOUS MOONLIGHT, was made into a film in 2009 after her death, starring Meg Ryan and directed by Cheryl Hines. In 2015, WAITRESS was made into a musical, and became an instant Broadway sensation that is still running today. According to a few articles I’ve read, there is at least one more completed script penned by Adrienne in existence called THE MORGAN STORIES. A film set around three sisters during different decades of their lives. I truly hope that one day we will get to see this story on our screens.
There are so many ways in which Adrienne lives on. She lives on through her films, through her family, her daughter Sophie, and also through her husband, Andy Ostroy. Shortly after Adrienne’s death, Andy established the Adrienne Shelly Foundation for female filmmakers. The non-profit foundation awards scholarships, production grants, living stipends and finishing funds. The foundation has given out more than 50 awards and vows to endlessly support women filmmakers. This work is so important. I believe Adrienne would be so proud. You can find the foundation and more about the cause HERE.
Andy still writes about Adrienne. Most recently he wrote an article and added her name to the brave women of the #MeToo movement. You can read it here. I have so much respect for Andy, and I thank him for keeping Adrienne’s legacy alive for us.
THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH and WAITRESS don’t have much in common storyline-wise, but they’re bound by Adrienne Shelly. Her first film and her last film. I am so grateful that I know of her, and though I wish she were still with us, I am so happy that she gave us incredible films while she was here.
A memorial garden dedicated to Adrienne in Abingdon Square Park in New York City:
Dedicated in loving memory of actor, writer, filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, a beautiful soul whose love, spirit and humor will be with us forever.
June 24, 1966 - November 1, 2006
Rest easy, Adrienne. You are my newfound inspiration and hero.
Thank you so much.