Adrienne Shelly was an indie promise, and despite the hardships – which included a humiliating experience on the part of Harvey Weinstein – she lifted herself and became a director, but her life was cut short at the age of 40 when she was just murdered by an unknown person. A new documentary, shot by her husband, goes back to the story of the partner, creator and mother he knew so closely before it was taken from him
The story of Adrienne Shelly’s tragic life and death could have been told as a mysterious docu-crime-style murder case, or alternatively as a cinematic indictment against Harvey Weinstein. Andy Ostroy combined these two motifs in his HBO documentary, “Adrienne” (which aired on Thursday, on HOT8 and yes docu), but as Adrienne Shelly’s partner and father-in-law, he set himself the goal of preserving her memory. Emphasize the fact that she was more of a victim of a media brutal murder, or one of the women who struggled to survive in Hollywood’s toxic male culture. She was also a talented actress and original independent creator, as well as a loving wife and a young mother to a little baby. However, in the fuzzy public consciousness in the United States she is remembered as a blonde actress who suffocated to death in the middle of one fall in November in her office in the heart of Manhattan.
Adrienne Levine was born in 1966 and grew up in the town of Jericho on Long Island with a couple of Jewish parents. At the age of 12 she lost her father Sheldon who died of a heart attack, which became a defining event in the life of the beautiful and depressed girl who made too early an acquaintance with death. His character, which inspired her in his life and death, continued to be present in her daily routine, in her work and also in her family name, which she changed from Levin to mine – the father’s affectionate nickname. She studied music and theater in high school and then joined the Film University at Boston University. After three years of study, just before completing her degree, she decided to retire and embark on an adventure as an actress, screenwriter and director in her own right in New York.
Be beautiful and undress
The sense of urgency that motivated her to leave school stemmed in part from the trauma of her father’s death, and the vision she adopted in her youth that she too would die at a young age – a prophecy that came true in a completely unexpected way when she was only 40 years old. Indeed, during her too short career she has accomplished a great many things. Whoever recognized her talent when she was only 20-plus and adopted her into his lap was director Hull Hartley, who gave her a chance as a lead actress in his first feature film in 1989 ‘Unbelievable Truth’. One year and another film after, Adrienne became a hot name in American cinema as the star of the romantic comedy “Mutual Trust”, Hartley’s second film from 1990. However, and despite their big break and praise for her performances at the beginning of her career, she failed to accelerate on the way to the forefront of the Hollywood stage. One reason for this: Harvey Weinstein and other producers of its kind.
Weinstein supported Hartley’s production of The Unbelievable Truth through Mirmax, which he headed. The fact that the great patronage of American independent cinema sponsors a modest, star-less comedic drama, which is the directorial debut of a young filmmaker and led by an anonymous 23-year-old actress, was a matter of commendable interest. However, Hartley said in retrospect that a difficult dispute arose between him and the powerful producer when the latter demanded a combination of nude scenes in the film. Shelley declined the obscene offer from above, and with Hartley’s backing the two managed to withstand the pressure and left the romantic drama as honest as they had planned in advance. But in an industry dominated mostly by men who love naked women on screen – and also beside them in bed – there is no room for reluctance. Job requirements A good-looking, slim actress who is also blonde is “Be beautiful and undress, even if you do not shut up.”
Ostroy tells in the film that this incident, which occurred already in Shelly’s first experience as a professional actress in the American film industry, remains a traumatic experience for her. He said Weinstein and his men were outraged that the actress was standing up for herself and refusing their demand to expose her body in front of the camera, while she had to deal with heartbreak and crushing peaceful illusions with many tears. This was the first case in the cinematic meat market that she became acquainted with, and she herself told in an interview with the documentary “The Search for Deborah Winger” from 2002 directed by Rosena Arquette (who was later known as one of Weinstein’s main victims) about another case: on her way to audition for the film, her agent called Which is expected to be “fuckable”. When she arrived and confronted the producer, she realized she had no chance of getting the job. “He straight looked at my chest area, and it was clear I had no chance of getting the job. The producer did not like my boobs,” she recalled.
Lives with an imaginary hourglass
Despite all the question marks that surfaced – and more importantly, the exclamation marks – there were creators and producers in New York who were more than happy to work with Adrienne. She was too cute and talented to give up her services. But the films she was cast in (usually as a supporting actress), most of them comedic dramas, did not come close to the success of her collaborations with Hartley. This period, during which she was supposed to leverage herself as a leading star in independent cinema in the United States, was grim for her. With no choice, whether to come to terms with the end of her acting career or the beginning of her directing career, she decided to direct her own feature film. She wrote, directed, produced and starred in the 1996 drama Sudden Manhattan, but when the bad reviews came, the depression only increased.
Once again it was sexism, this time of male critics, that obscured her work – so at least according to one of her friends, that recreates how she tried to encourage her and inspire her hope for the next project. “I do not have enough time,” Adrienne said, when again it was her imaginary life clock that ticked her head back. Indeed, Adrienne was able to find funding for another film she wrote and directed called I’ll Take You There from 1999, in which she also starred as an actress, this time not in a lead role. In an excerpt from Leslie Kleinberg and Ginny Reticker’s Docu In The Company of Women, Shelley surprises with new insights about the industry. “At first I told myself I would never talk about how hard it was as a woman, that’s the last thing I would do,” she says as she turned to the camera, “five years later, I said it was indeed much harder as a woman. That I want everyone to know it and I want to talk about it. “All the time. And now I think it’s just hard for everyone again. It’s hard. It’s hard business.”
In “Adrienne”, Ostroy reviews his wife’s career, the successful moments as well as the missed ones. But it also penetrates deeply into her personal affairs and the inability to maintain relationships until her matchmaking with him, a businessman and filmmaker, who was twice married and the father of three children (the two were married in 2002 in a proper Jewish ceremony). “She was an old woman in the body of a blonde girl,” a childhood friend described the contrasts in her figure. Another friend explained: “I think a lot of men thought she was this great little woman, that they would take care of her, protect her and control her. But she had no intention of that happening. She was tiny, but she had a tremendous personality and also in her actions and will.” These are exactly the feelings that Shelly felt and expressed in her letters to her daughter Sophie when she was a baby. These letters are the milestones that lead Ostroy as he recreates the past in the film along with Sophie, now a beautiful young girl, just like her mother.
To a large extent, the mental sobriety and lack of intimacy as she experienced it in her life, were in stark contrast to the relationships in which she took part on screen in the romantic dramas to which she was cast. To connect to the realities of her life, she shot an independent and modest documentary about the everyday lives of casual people in New York, and their opinions on happiness, love and relationships. These substances form a significant part of “Adrienne”. As the relationship with Austroi grew stronger, and on the other hand the disappointment from show business intensified, the conflict arose, and the dilemma that lay alongside it – between the pursuit of artistic and professional success and the desire for family life. Eventually, Adrienne decided in favor of love and found herself devoting more and more time to her partner, starting in 2003 with her daughter Sophie as well. However, she did not give up her work and kept writing all the time. In fact, during her pregnancy she came up with the idea from which the script for her most successful work ever has emerged: “Waitress” – a comedic drama that accompanies a waitress, who is both beautiful and a baker – and to her surprise discovers that she is pregnant, forcing her to face her new situation. Her co-workers, her boss and also the doctor with whom she is having a passionate affair. The film, which resonated with its release in 2007, stars Kerry Russell, Cheryl Haynes, Nathan Pelion and Shelly herself (as well as baby Sophie). Today he is even better known for his thriving musical version on Broadway.
Random and unnecessary murder
Unfortunately, Shelley did not get to see the success of her work on screen and on stage, as her life ended too soon in tragic circumstances on November 1, 2006. Ostroy himself discovered her body when he came to visit her in her office, and watched her as she hung in the bathroom. The initial assessment of the police was that Shelly put an end to her life, and so the circumstances of her death were reported in the media, especially in its yellow wings. But Austroy refused to believe it. He recounts how he put pressure on detectives to investigate in depth what happened that day, and indeed, it turned out that Shelley was murdered by a 19-year-old foreign worker from Ecuador named Diego Filco who was employed as a construction worker in an apartment in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. A shoe imprint discovered at the murder scene led officers to the basement where Philco lived in Brooklyn. He pleaded guilty and was sent to prison for 25 years.
Towards the end of “Adrienne”, in his most burdensome and significant moment, a tense encounter of the director with Filco appears within the prison walls. In front of his eyes closed from guilt and shame, Ostroy reveals to the killer his wife’s resume, showing him pictures of herself and her daughter Sophie. He’s looking for answers and not sure he finds any. It is a random, accidental, sudden and unnecessary murder committed by a confused boy who came to the United States, and was looking for a way to repay debts of his family in Ecuador. He said he panicked after Adrienne caught him breaking into a hot tub, and attacked her after threatening to call the police. Thus, in an unplanned moment, a frightened anonymous man living in the underground ended his life full of inspiration from a talented and famous woman full of dreams for the future. A gray incidental event, painted in a variety of bright shades because of the background of the victim.
And so, as Adrienne watched in her youth, time stopped reigning, her watch clock completed her life cycle too early, too soon, just before what was to be her career high: the premiere of “Waitress” at the Sundance Film Festival, less than three months after her death. “It was her dream,” says Ostroy, recounting how it came true for her. He took some of its ashes and scattered it around the town of Park City, then scattered what was left of it in the hall where the gala premiere was held. “Then Harvey Weinstein came in and some of her ashes landed on his shoulder. And all I thought to myself was how much she would think it was funny.”