Of Russian Jewish descent, Shelly was born Adrienne Levine in Queens. She was an actress, a director, and a screenwriter. She went to Boston University, majoring in film production, but dropped out after her junior year and moved to Manhattan.
Reading the stories about the murder of actress Adrienne Shelly in New York City, I kept thinking of a Frank O’Hara poem that begins, “Lana Turner has collapsed!”
After that he spends about half of the poem’s 17 lines talking about the weather (snow, rain, possibly hail, “but hailing hits you hard on the head/ hard so it was really snowing and/ raining and I was in such a hurry …”) and the New York City traffic. Then, “suddenly I see a headline/ LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!”
And then, in one of the most amasing verbal downshifts I’ve ever seen, O’Hara slows his poem down from a pell-mell rush to a molasses crawl, writing “there is no snow in Hollywood/ there is no rain in California/ I have been to lots of parties/ and acted perfectly disgraceful/ but I never actually collapsed/ oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”
O’Hara’s poem is maybe the best try I’ve ever seen to capture the difference between life as we all know it and life in the tabloids, where celebrities seem to do all kinds of things, like collapsing, that most of us just never get the chance to try. Not that you’d want to—all those exclamation points following your every deed.
Adrienne Shelly, 40, of course, suffered a terrible fate in no way commensurate with an actress’s collapse. Shelly was murdered by a 19-year-old construction worker with whom she argued about building noise in the apartment under her office on Abingdon Square in the West Village.
But I couldn’t help but immediately thinking of the O’Hara poem when I saw her face splashed across the front pages of two New York papers. SUICIDE ACTRESS—IT WAS MURDER read the Post headline, referring to the fact that the police revised their earlier verdict of suicide when the facts didn’t add up.
At about 5:45 p.m on November 1, 2006, Shelly's husband found her hanging by a bedsheet from a shower rod in the bathtub, in what at first appeared to be a suicide.
Shelly, who lived in Tribeca used the Abingdon Square apartment as an office. Ostroy had dropped her off at 9:30 a.m. that day, and as the building's doorman told journalists, "He hadn't heard from her and he said it was odd not to hear from her, so he was nervous. And he asked me to go up to the apartment with him, so we went to the front door, and it was unlocked".
An autopsy was performed the following day. The NYPD were suspicious of sneaker prints in the bathtub that did not match Shelly's shoes, who was found wearing only socks.
Shelly's husband also indicated that there was money missing from Shelly's wallet. He vigorously denied allegations that she could have committed suicide.
Press reports on November 6, 2006 stated that police had arrested construction worker Diego Pillco, a 19-year-old illegal immigrant who confessed to killing Shelly after she complained about the noise he was making in the apartment below hers.
Pillco said that he "was having a bad day."
Police said Pillco had made videos implicating himself in the murder, and as of November 7 was being held without bail for her murder.
The more people I talked to, the more I realised that most people didn’t have a clue as to who Adrienne Shelly was, much less how good she was. In a city where it seems like every other person is an “actor” or an “actress,” this actress’s death was written off by most people as just another cheesy tabloid tale. And the more I ran into this attitude, the more I thought about Frank O’Hara and his poem.
Adrienne Shelly’s death did not make news because she was talented or especially good at what she did. She got there because she was a show-business person with just enough glamour to make page one for a day.
And that’s a tragedy, too, because she was so good at what she did. There was something captivating about her that just made you want to watch her any time she was on screen.
Both the movies I’m thinking of were made by Hal Hartley, whose indie films are as idiosyncratically recognisable as a set of fingerprints. “The Unbelievable Truth” (1989) and “Trust” (1990) are both set on Long Island—the unposh part—and both are characterised by Hartley’s trademark staccato dialogue where characters speak in complete sentences and always say exactly what they mean and still get misunderstood.
I went back while I was writing this and watched some of “Trust” again. In an interview, Hartley once explained that he made the movie on the spur of the moment because he wanted to work with Shelly again immediately after making “The Unbelievable Truth,” so he had very little money and very little time. The movie was shot in 11 days. The reason he could do that, he said, was because so much of the direction was implied in the dialogue. The dialogue pretty much told the actors what to do. That’s true. It’s a talky movie, like all Hartley movies. But what’s interesting about Shelly’s performance are the moments where she’s not talking, where she’s just listening to another character, or thinking by herself. Emotion travels over her face like time-lapse cinematography where days turn to night and fast cars are just traces of light.
The whole movie seems like it takes place on her face.
The miracle is that while you’re watching this happen, you never once stop to think, what an actress. It’s just a girl in trouble on Long Island. When she was acting, Adrienne Shelly could make you forget all about Adrienne Shelly.
Shelly died before she would have learned a film she had directed, "Waitress", had been accepted into the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.