Hear me out.
I know Shelley Duvall gets a lot of crap for her performance in The Shining (1980), but I think both the character and the actress came out better than people give them credit for.
Everybody knows The Shining, but I’ll recap anyway. Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson), a recovering and occasionally violent alcoholic gets hired as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, which he thinks is just what he needs to finish his book. His son as psychic powers that the cook at the Overlook, Dick Halloran, calls “the shining.” Wendy Torrence tries to hold the family together as Jack gets possessed by ghosts, who ply him with phantom alcohol (the hotel had been cleaned out for the season), and he ultimately goes on a murderous rampage. Here’s Johnny!
Back to Wendy: Steven King wanted her to be a “blonde cheerleader who never had to deal with problems before” something that really doesn’t hold up to the way he wrote her in the book– she had an abusive mother, lost a sister in a car crash, had to deal with Jack’s drinking and Danny’s powers. Even if she was a blonde cheerleader, she dealt with a lot of problems! And the movie touches on some of that without falling into an endless King-cliche interior monologue.
She is presented as trying very hard– even too hard– to make the situation they’re in work and keep the family together. She definitely loves Jack and is willing to give him another chance (one chance, the movie makes clear when she mistakes the ghosts’ violent attack on Danny for her husband’s work). She puts up with his isolation and verbal attacks, and even takes over his job overseeing the day to day upkeep of the hotel. It can still be argued, at this point, that she is weak, but her strength comes out when the scary stuff really starts to happen.
She stands up to Jack. When he attacks her, she defends herself, and manages to drag his dead weight all the way across the hotel to the pantry and lock him in. That’s not easy! In the King-approved remake she was not able to do that. Jack wakes up, but she refuses to let him trick her into letting him out of the pantry. Realizing that they are cut off from help, she rests in order to push through the snow with Danny and go get the rangers. When the ghosts let Jack loose, she gets her son to the relative safety of the outside and continues to fight with Jack. When she searches for a safe way out, she keeps her knife with her, ready to fight (like Helen in The Spiral Staircase). Not a lot of heroines get to do that. And she causes damage! Violence in Kubrick’s movie hurts.
If she was a purely ordinary character, she would have wound up like Mrs. Grady, and Danny would be playing with the twins. However, the events push her from being ordinary to extraordinary. And in total fairness, when confronted with an axe-wielding maniac, who wouldn’t scream?