Shelley Duvall’s Controversial ‘Dr. Phil’ Interview: What We Learned

Shelley Duvall, who was once a household name as the star of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and host of the Peabody Award–winning series Faerie Tale Theatre, appeared on Dr. Phil on Friday, November 18, in a tough-to-watch interview that raised difficult questions about the state of her mental health — and about host Phil McGraw's decision to air the interview, given its potentially exploitative nature. (Many people had called for a boycott of the talk show based on the episode's promos.)

The actress — who was virtually unrecognizable in a baggy black T-shirt and with her thinning gray hair tied back with several headbands — spoke at length about her recent struggles, which include what appear to be paranoid delusions that someone is out to harm her. Here's what we learned from Duvall's interview. Watch the video above to see highlights from the interview.

Duvall Says She Needs 'Help'

The most important takeaway from Duvall's interview came from the actress herself, in a moment right at the start of the hour, when she looked directly into the camera and said, "I need help."

The 67-year-old has become increasingly isolated since the 1980s, when she was at the height of her fame; now, she told McGraw, she suffers from a litany of physical ailments and is being persecuted and tortured by an unidentified antagonist. Duvall's grip on reality was variable during her conversation with McGraw; at one point, she expressed concern that she would be harmed, or even murdered, in retaliation for speaking with him. Pressed by McGraw to reveal the identity of her tormentor, Duvall became visibly emotional.

"I don't know. If I did know, I would tell you his name, and I would tell you to kill him," she said. "He's horrible."

Lucid Moments Reflecting on Her Past

Despite her evident mental-health struggles, Duvall frequently offered detailed and vivid recollections of her time in Hollywood, when she starred in films alongside major players like Jack Nicholson (1980's The Shining) and Robin Williams (1980's Popeye). Asked if she missed making movies, Duvall replied lucidly, "Yes, very much. I love film." And in rare moments, she seemed at once present-minded and painfully cognizant of her circumstances. "I was a pretty girl. I was beautiful," she said. "This is grotesque to me."

Shelley Duvall
Shelley Duvall during her interview with Dr. Phil.

A Lesson in Psychology

Among the choices McGraw made that could be perceived as questionable was to treat Duvall like a case study, and the program itself like a lecture; in one instance, he used a large screen and a written transcript of the actress' comments to illustrate Duvall's stream of consciousness–style speaking patterns, known as "clang associations." What McGraw did not say, but is worth noting, is that this way of speaking is almost always symptomatic of psychosis caused by untreated mental illness.

A Difficult Resolution After Visiting a Treatment Center

In the final segment of the show, McGraw persuaded Duvall to travel to Southern California from her home in Texas for psychiatric treatment — which she did, although there were a few hitches (including one incident requiring police intervention) along the way. (This, too, felt uncomfortably exploitative; forcing Duvall to travel across state lines and take a multihour flight in order to see a doctor, rather than finding support for her closer to home, might have made for dramatic television, but was also utterly unnecessary.)

Unfortunately, Duvall's time at the treatment center was unproductive; though she spent several days at a psychiatric facility, she refused help and medication, and eventually went home. However, despite that setback, the episode ended on a hopeful note; McGraw reported that he and his team were working with Duvall's family to address her help through "alternative methods."

Dr. Phil is distributed by CBS and airs on weekdays in national syndication. 

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