Jun 23, 2020

A smart variation on the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf motif. Listen to Hope and John on Friday June 26's It's Movie Time. On Amazon Prime.


Grade: A-

Director: Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline)

Screenplay: Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell novel

Cast: Elisabeth Moss (Invisible Man), Robert Wuhl (Contest)

Runtime: 1h 47m

Rating: R

By: John DeSando

In the early 1960’s, without cellphones to distract their enclosed academic environment, Bennington English professor Stanley Hymen (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his genius fiction writer wife, Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss), take in an academic couple, Fred (Logan Lerman), Stanley’s new teaching assistant, and his wife, Rose (Odessa Young). Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is in the air of this literary icon biopic as booze works its magic on the older couple, who no longer need much to invigorate them than bottles of gin. Psychosexual tension abounds.

Shirley is the name of the film, and academic angst is the game.

This fictional take is based on Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell and adapted by Sarah Gubbins. Whether or not Jackson will publish her scary stories is really just a McGuffin in this dark tale of sex and power in the outposts of the academy. She labors over a true story about Paula, a co-ed who vanished on campus.  

In a time of female repression, Rose works her way around Stanley, becoming “little wifey” (Betty Friedan had not yet arrived). Fred, well, he’s handsome enough to be busy with co-eds and working his way into a position in this prestigious department while the camera takes to roving at a frenetic pace.

As ambitions begin to collide, cinematographer Sturla Brandth sometimes too quickly moves the camera among them with a shadowing that seems to discourage our learning too much, too close. Rose and Fred capture the gothic ambivalence and danger of the household as they assess for Shirley about her famous short story “The Lottery”: “That’s creepy,” says Fred; “It’s terrific,” says Shirley. True of the household itself.

Although this domestic drama is tightly wound like the little house it is set in, much is said about marriage, status, words, the creative process, and rivalry than first appears in the rancor and suspicions. Put your thinking cap on; class is in session, and it happens to be fun.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at