Today is the first anniversary of the passing of the actress and director, Adrienne Shelly, whose death at age 40 last year gained headlines not just because of her minor fame but because of the macabre circumstances surrounding it. Her death, initially thought a suicide, turned out to be a murder disguised as a self-inflicted death. Most American movie-goers didn't know her name. She appeared in mostly obscure indie movies of the 1990s and was a favorite of director Hal Hartley; in some ways, she was more the "Queen of the Indies" than Parker Posey.
On January 27, 1994, a 27 year old Shelly appeared in "A Many Splendored Thing," the second season finale of Homicide: Life on the Street. Not much has been written about Shelly's cameo on this episode, perhaps because it aired so many years ago before mass Internet usage.
Homicide was a procedural before that term became fashionable to describe such shows, and each week, Baltimore homicide detectives (or "murder police," as they called themselves) would solve, or attempt to solve, several murders over the course of any given episode. In 1994, it was still a powerful and innovative drama in its prime, several years away from its inevitable dilution at the hands of NBC network executives.
Like most episodes of the series, "A Many Splendored Thing" featured several subplots, among them Detectives Meldrick Lewis and Steve Crosetti attempting to solve a murder over a $1.49 pen as well as Detective John Munch confronting his puzzlement at the happiness of his older partner, Detective Stanley Bolander, who is dating 26 year old cellist played by Julianna Marguiles (at that time less than a year from appearing in the first season of ER.). The central plot, though, involves Detectives Frank Pembleton and Tim Bayliss working the murder of one Angela Frandina, who was apparently strangled to death. After some initial interviews with a neighbor, the detectives are led to Frandina's place of employment: the Leather Chain on Broadway, an establishment catering to enthusiasts of leather and bondage. It is there they meet Tanya Quinn (Shelly) who, in addition to maintaing a reserved comfort in her lifestyle choices, directs the detectives to her other job: Eastern Shores Telemarketing Co./Dial-Luv, a phone sex operation. Bayliss is horrified at the sordid employment choices of the victim and goes to great lengths to put his outrage on display for Pembleton, who can only shrug. The two even investigate an underground bondage club, Eve of Destruction, where Angela's last boyfriend worked. Get this: the former boyfriend character's name is Chris Novoselic.
Throughout the episode, Bayliss remains troubled. By 2007 standards, Bayliss's reaction to these underground communities seems almost quaint. But, of course, this episode aired originally in January of 1994, and was written in 1993, well before the Internet enveloped popular culture and made such things easily findable with the click of a mouse.
Upon revisiting Quinn and the Leather Store, the detectives ascertain that Frandina was strangled by something very much like the leather studded belt which comes with a certain leather jacket sold at the store. Such a jacket was purchased by Frandina's neighbor's boyfriend, who has now lost said belt. He ultimately confesses to the killing, which he believes was excusable since she enticed him into some type of seductive bondage game involving strangulation. The case solved, Bayliss returns to his work station, where he is greeted by Quinn, who has come to thank him. Explaining her lifestyle to him, she notes that ""[w]hen I've given myself over completely to the control of someone else, I'm free."
She then presents him with an unexpected reward: a leather jacket of his own. He initially refuses, but Quinn replies, forcefully, that he will indeed take it. He relents. The episode ends with a sequence involving Bayliss wandering the club scene wearing his new leather accessory.
What is it that makes Shelly's performance in an episode in which she appeared no more than a quarter of memorable after thirteen years? It boils down to this: certainty is an attractive quality, especially in someone who looks like Adrienne Shelly. She played the character with a mousy confidence of sorts coupled with a knowing comfort level in her subculture; she didn't give a damn about societal preconceptions, but there was a notable lack of pretension about those would not or could not understand.
Television critic David Bianculli certainly took notice of Shelly's performance. On the date the episode ran, he observed that "[g]uest star Adrienne Shelly, of the 1990 cult movie 'The Unbelievable Truth,' makes a stunning impression as the shopkeeper."1 A year later, when the episode reran, he noted that "[i]t's a wonderful episode, and Ms. Shelly's Tanya is a wonderful character."2 Bianculli was not the only smitten viewer. On February 1, 1994, just days after the episode's first airing, listserv poster Randy Reichardt quipped that Shelly "could put a leather jacket on me anytime." In an email earlier this week, Reichardt, now blogging here, shares that he now has but a "vague recollection" of the episode but notes that "[h]er death was beyond unfortunate, and she deserves to be with us today, still being creative and exciting to watch."
In the aftermath of her death, those who knew her established The Adrienne Shelly Foundation. (See here for a recent interview with her husband, Andy Ostroy, about both his and the couple's three year old daughter's efforts to cope over the past year.) Shelly's last film role was in 2007's Waitress, which she also wrote and directed. It was announced this week that Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines, who appeared with her in Waitress, will direct Shelly's last existing screenplay, Serious Moonlight.
"A Many Splendored Thing" can be found on the fourth disc of the DVD set, Homicide: Life on the Street: Seasons 1 & 2. (A transcription of the episode - not a formal script - can be found here.).
UPDATE (11/01/2007 6:13 PM): Jim King forwards the following clip from YouTube which features Shelly's final scene in the episode:
1. David Bianculli, "'Homicide' Faces its own Finale Tonight," The Baltimore Sun, January 27, 1994.
2. David Bianculli, "For a Reality Good Show, Sample 'VR.5'," The Baltimore Sun, March 10, 2005.