I’m halfway through a year of films directed by woman. This week I want to talk about the legacy left behind by Adrienne Shelly, who gifted us with this one film, before her death by homicide at the age of 40.
Shelly was a working actor, primarily in television, who originally wrote the principal role in Waitress for herself. Not only did she write, direct and act in the film in a supporting role, but she also wrote songs for it and co-designed sets and costumes. It was a labor of love and passion.
Waitress is a favorite of mine (and I know for many other people as well) because I find myself returning to it in moment of sadness or loneliness. It is comfort food, in much the same way Jenna’s pies comfort her in the midst of her sadness and loneliness. While I mourn the fact that we’ll never have another Adrienne Shelly film, this one work fully encapsulates what I think must have been her defining outlook on life. The characters are funny but sharp, the situations bleak but girded with hope, the colors transforming from muted to vibrant as Jenna bursts through her circumstances to take up her true place in the world. It is a kooky comedy laced with grim reality and keen observations. Shelly had a singular voice and style; this film is hers through and through.
Shelly barely saw her film completed and submitted to Sundance before her murder (by an undocumented office construction worker) in November of 2006. Initially ruled a suicide, it was only the persistence of her husband that pushed detectives to uncover clues leading to her killer’s identity and confession of murder, which was the result of a random attack.
Watching Shelly’s film through the lens of her death–as most everyone has–is a supremely bittersweet experience. The film itself is a joyful celebration of life and hope. Shelly turns in a poignantly funny and pitch-perfect performance as Jenna’s waitress friend Dawn. And, of course, the film’s ending never fails to elicit tears from me. As Jenna finishes a day at her pie diner and heads home into the sunset, she carries in her arms Adrienne Shelly’s two-year old daughter, who played Jenna’s daughter in the film. The little girl smiles, waves and shrieks “Bye bye!” to the other two waitresses standing outside the diner, one of whom was her mother.
Adrienne’s husband established the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, which supports women filmmakers. The film was recently developed as a stage musical and is currently enjoying a successful Broadway run. Shelly’s legacy as an artist impacted not only the audiences who saw and continue to see her work but the many other female artists who, ten years later, are still following in her footsteps.