When performers die before their time, their work is forever altered: the manner of their death — be it suicide, an illness or, in this sad case, murder — forever colors the spectator’s view of them. Such is the case with the utterly adorable indie actress Adrienne Shelly, who first came onto the landscape in Hal Hartley’s terrific The Unbelievable Truth (Hartley’s work has always been a matter of taste; I have been a firm fan since the beginning, through some rather interesting and not-as-interesting permutations and experiments).
Shelly, who very easily could be described as the shorter, cuter Rosanna Arquette, played characters for Hartley that sailed on through life but were damaged, vulnerable girls trying to get control of their crappy little Long Island existence. According to her obits, Shelly was born Adrienne Levine in Queens, NY (where in Queens, though? ask we former denizens of that benighted borough). She graduated from the first two Hartley features (Trust qualifying as Hartley’s most perfect, gorgeously strange work) into appearances in a number of higher-profile indie or off-Hollywood features — somewhere in my collection of weirdness I have a preview copy of the insanely shrill Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, in which somehow Shelly was still sympathetic and cute, although the movie never, ever calmed the fuck down.
She turned to directing with Sudden Manhattan, made a second feature starring Ally Sheedy (I’ll Take You There), and had just finished a film called Waitress starring the former Felicity, Keri Russell, and Andy Griffith (you don’t get any more mainstream than scoring ol’ Anj to be in your film). I haven’t seen any of the films she directed, but respect the fact, as it was noted on one NYC-centric film blog, that she stayed here, and didn’t journey out to the Coast to play in wretched straight-to-vids and assume the kooky parts that ordinarily are given to actresses of her type (attractive but not glam-attractive). Her last performance released to date is in the Bukowski pic Factotum.
In any case, her film work as an actress is now altered by her sad, premature death at 40. The fact that her story went from a sort of NYC oddity tale (“indie actress hangs self”) to a murder case that made the cover of yesterday’s N.Y. Daily News is a sad reminder that the only way to make it into prominence for many talented folks is to be involved in, or be on the receiving end of, a crime.
As a small tribute to the lady, I include two bits from Hal Hartley’s odd and charming little short Opera No. 1 in which Adrienne plays a roller-skating angel (alongside Parker Posey) who bewitches James Urbaniak (the onscreen performers are lip-synching their songs). These bits frame the opening sequence and the bit that gives the film Trust (1990) its title.
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