Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Adrienne Shelly Foundation

About two months ago, my life was irrevocably changed when I watched Adrienne Shelly's glorious final film, Waitress. Rarely have I been so moved by a film experience. You can read my original review here. I can probably count the movies that have affected me that deeply on two hands. I connected with the main character, Jenna (played exquisitely by Keri Russell), so profoundly. She's terribly unhappy and stuck in a horrible marriage with an abusive husband, she's pregnant with a baby that represents eternal bondage to her current misery, and while she knows that she deserves better in her life, she doesn't really believe in herself. She's too insecure to take the risks required to affect change. The odds seem insurmountable. Jenna is beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, and a wizard with pies. She's like a magnificent flower blooming in the midst of a garbage dump. Waitress is such a special film with a powerful message of hope and love and learning to believe in yourself. You have to save yourself and take control of your own life. I have found so much comfort in Waitress, as I'm sure many other people have. It has truly been an inspiration.

The incomparable Adrienne Shelly wrote, directed, and starred in Waitress. As Jenna's friend Dawn, she lights up the screen with her presence. It's especially fitting that she is named "Dawn," because she's as radiant as a sunrise. Tragically, Adrienne Shelly was murdered on November 1, 2006. She never knew that Waitress was accepted to Sundance, and she wasn't able to witness the amazing success the film has had. Somehow, though, I think she knows. And even though someone cruelly and heartlessly took her life way too soon, hers is a light that cannot be extinguished. Her legacy lives on, and she is still with us.

Adrienne Shelly started as an actress who got her big break in Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth (1989). She worked with Hartley again in 1990's Trust and continued to act in films and television, but she always wanted to make her own movies. She eventually wrote, directed, and starred in three features: Sudden Manhattan (1997), I'll Take You There (1999), and Waitress (2007). She also wrote Serious Moonlight (to be released in 2009), which was directed by Waitress co-star Cheryl Hines.

When she died, she was married to Andy Ostroy, and they had been together for five years. She gave birth to their daughter, Sophie Ostroy, in 2003. Sophie, a gorgeous little girl left without a mother at such a young age, also appears in Waitress. Even as a little girl, it's clear that she inherited her mother's spirit. I think it's safe to say that Waitress was her biggest passion project, and it shows. Shelly wrote the script while she was pregnant with her daughter, so I think in many ways it's a love letter to her baby. And what a letter it turned out to be. When Sophie is old enough to see the film and understand it, she will realize just what a precious gift her mother left for her. Jenna writes a letter to her unborn baby in the movie, but Waitress IS Adrienne's letter to Sophie. The film positively bursts with Adrienne's love for her daughter, and with her love for life.

In Adrienne's memory, her husband Andy Ostroy established The Adrienne Shelly Foundation to help women filmmakers realize their potential. This is from Andy Ostroy's letter on the official website:

"Adrienne was fiercely dedicated to the art of filmmaking and, at 5’1”, stood tall in an industry where women face many challenges and hurdles to climb. But she did it, and on her own terms. She was able to successfully make the transition from actor to filmmaker, having written and directed three features. Her last directorial effort, 'Waitress,' premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, was sold to Fox Searchlight Pictures within hours of its screening, and went on to become a smash box-office success nationwide. In the brief weeks and months after her death, Adrienne had finally reached the critical acclaim of which she always dreamed."

Her fierce determination is evident in every frame of her work. Waitress was her version of "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar." With the cinematic landscape so pitifully littered nowadays with sexist stereotypes and characters that embarrass me as a woman, Adrienne Shelly emphatically and thankfully provided strong female role models. That's so rare and wonderful. Waitress is a completely empowering film, and her feminine (and proud of it!) voice rings loud and clear. It's obvious that she was a tough cookie. She had to be. In an industry dominated by men, Adrienne Shelly fought her way in and proved she had what it takes. That's what women have to do. They have to fight for their dreams.

There are some great female filmmakers working today, like Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette), Hilary Brougher (Stephanie Daley), Susanne Bier (After the Wedding), Sarah Polley (Away from Her), and Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss), but there should be more. We need more female voices out there.

I've witnessed this patriarchal system firsthand. I recently graduated from college. I was one of a rare species: a female film major. I received my BA in film with a concentration in film/critical studies. My field was more co-ed than most, which isn't saying a lot, because there were times when I was the only girl in a class of 20. If I was really lucky, maybe there would be one other female. But the lack of a feminine presence was always glaringly noticeable. I felt the sting of this gap most in production classes that required making our own films and working very closely with coursemates. There would be maybe three or four girls, if that many, in a class of 16. You do the math. That's intimidating, even though it shouldn't be. The ratio alone makes women have to try harder to get noticed, no matter how progressively feminist the teacher may be. There's just a whole lot of testosterone flowing. Nobody ever said anything directly. No one ever put women down in class. Of course not. But it was always there, and as a woman, I felt it. And if it's like this in school, then amplify that by about a hundred in the "real world."

Since I've witnessed this imbalance for myself, it makes me appreciate the work of The Adrienne Shelly Foundation even more. Adrienne Shelly's career is a triumph. She was a female trailblazer, and women filmmakers owe her a great debt for her fearless pursuit of her dreams and the refusal to compromise her amazing vision. This non-profit organization is giving women opportunities that might not be, and probably wouldn't be, available otherwise. It's devoted to advancing the progress of women in filmmaking. From the website's main page: "Adrienne's passion in life was to make movies. She lived for her art; she never compromised her integrity or commitment to her vision. She always strived to help women obtain every opportunity possible to create their mark in film."

Here is the organization's mission statement: "The Adrienne Shelly Foundation supports the artistic achievements of female actors, writers and directors through a series of scholarships and grants, providing recipients with financial support and consultative access to the Foundation's advisory board of actors, directors, producers, composers, law, publicity, academic and trade professionals. Reflecting Adrienne's spirit, generosity, courage and whimsy, our goal is to recognize the tremendous passion and commitment of women artists in creating their own work, and provide them with support and guidance particularly during periods of transition and struggle."

"Support" is such a key part of that statement. The organization is doing a beautiful thing by supporting female filmmakers, and I think Adrienne would be immensely proud.

For more on The Adrienne Shelly Foundation and what you can do to help, or for information on how to apply for grants and scholarships, the official website is:

Andy Ostroy is the Executive Director of the organization, which is headquartered at:

Adrienne Shelly Foundation, Inc.
16 West 22nd Street
11th Floor
New York, NY 10010

Other methods of reaching The Adrienne Shelly Foundation:

Phone number: (212) 381-1702
Fax number: (212) 924-9949

Donations are welcome and greatly appreciated. They are also tax-deductible and can be sent via regular mail to the above address, or you can donate online through the official site using PayPal:

Adrienne Shelly blazed a path of brilliance for women filmmakers. She made the films she wanted, and we're so fortunate that she did. Even though it shouldn't have to be, Waitress is a moving memorial to a great woman. Her own words and art preserve her legacy the best. The Adrienne Shelly Foundation is continuing the work that she can no longer do, and brilliantly at that. In the film industry, a woman has to be extra special to make it. Luckily, Adrienne Shelly was, is, and always will be special.

On the main page of the organization's website, these words perfectly describe Adrienne Shelly: "Those who knew Adrienne knew her as wonderfully funky, spirited, funny, silly and smart. She believed in spreading love wherever she went. She was a truly kind and beautiful soul, whose infectious smile illuminated everything around her. There was no one else like her."

When I described the character of Jenna in Waitress in my opening paragraph, I definitely had Adrienne Shelly in mind, especially the parts about facing insurmountable odds, believing in yourself, and taking control of your own life. Adrienne faced and overcame seemingly insurmountable odds, believed in herself enough to take risks and express her unique artistic vision, and took control of her life and made her dreams a reality. Thank you, Adrienne, for being such an inspiration. Thank you for touching my heart and my life.

While everything about her phenomenal masterpiece, Waitress, is a powerful and constant reminder of Adrienne Shelly's extraordinary life, talent, and passion, two specific quotes strike me as especially poignant:

Jenna: "I was addicted to saying things and having them matter to someone."

Ogie, hopeless romantic and poet, tells Dawn, Shelly's character: "If I had a penny for everything I love about you, I would have many pennies."

Adrienne Shelly certainly said some wonderful and profound things in her short life, and they mattered to a lot of people. They still matter and resonate every single day and will continue to do so, because SHE matters to a lot of people. She always will.

And, if we had a penny for everything we loved about Adrienne...well, we would have many, many pennies indeed.

1 comment:

Bill Treadway said...

Waitress was such a great film and I hope more people discover it on DVD.

This is a great women's picture..not that insipid dreck known as 27 Dresses. Yet it's the latter that's the $100 million grosser. Bleah.