SHIRLEY – Review by Susan Granger

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Now that the Academy is considering ‘streaming’ films, Elisabeth Moss could be an Oscar contender for her ferocious performance as mercurial writer Shirley Jackson, perhaps best known for her allegorical short story The Lottery in the New Yorker in 1948.

In the early 1950s, newlywed Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) Nemser arrive in Bennington, Vermont. Ambitious Fred has snagged a coveted position as teaching assistant for lecherous literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), the manipulative, domineering husband of Shirley Jackson (Moss).

Until proper housing can be arranged, they’ll live with Shirley & Stanley, doing chores around the cluttered, ivy-covered house. That job falls primarily to pregnant Rose who, instead of auditing Bennington College classes, cooks and cleans, watching Fred cavort among pretty co-eds.

Since Shirley is abusively agoraphobic, repelled by social contact, vulnerable Rose becomes her caretaker/companion, as Shirley voices the hope that Rose’s baby will be a boy, noting: “The world is too cruel to girls.”

Shirley is currently obsessed with researching a new novel (published in 1951 as “Hangsaman”), based on the real-life disappearance of Bennington student Paula Jean Welden. Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered? Or did she simply decide to disappear on a mountain hike?

Meanwhile, smarmy Stanley oozes intellectual superiority over “entitled” Fred, dismissing his dissertation as “derivative,” explaining: “Originality is the brilliant alchemy of critical thought and creativity.”

Adapted by Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel and obliquely directed as a psychodrama by Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), it’s unfocused, deliberately fragmented, pivoting around deception and betrayal.

Taking a page from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Shirley & Stanley brutally bait their hapless houseguests. And the music of Leadbelly – a.k.a. Huddie William Ledbetter – punctuates many scenes.

FYI: Shirley Jackson wrote six novels, including The Haunting of Hill House (1958) and We Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Although absent from the screenplay, Shirley & Stanley had four children.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Shirley is a slyly speculative, sinister 6, available on Hulu, iTunes and Amazon and in drive-in theaters.

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Susan Granger

Susan Granger

Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at R.K.O., M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures; her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M. As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O'Brien and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors in journalism. During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic. Her newspaper reviews have been syndicated around the world, and she has appeared on American Movie Classics cable television. In addition, her celebrity interviews and articles have been published in REDBOOK, PLAYBOY, FAMILY CIRCLE, COSMOPOLITAN, WORKING WOMAN and THE NEW YORK TIMES, as well as in PARIS MATCH, ELLE, HELLO, CARIBBEAN WORLD, ISLAND LIFE, MACO DESTINATIONS, NEWS LIMITED NEWSPAPERS (Australia), UK DAILY MAIL, UK SUNDAY MIRROR, DS (France), LA REPUBBLICA (Italy), BUNTE (Germany), VIP TRAVELLER (Krisworld) and many other international publications through SSG Syndicate. Susan also lectures on the "Magic and Mythology of Hollywood" and "Don't Take It Personally: Conquering Criticism and other Survival Skills," originally published on tape by Dove Audio.