Before Maggie Gyllenhaal, before Parker Posey, there was Adrienne Shelly. Around 1990, when the first wave of the Sundance-era indie-film revolution was cresting, Shelly was the queen of the scene. With the one-two punch of The Unbelievable Truth (pictured) and Trust, she and filmmaker Hal Hartley had made put each other on the map, and those deadpan romantic comedies had made the lush-lipped actress a pin-up among indie film fanboys. She’d go on to specialize in portrayals of waifish, fringe-dwelling women who often seemed to hide a ferocious intelligence behind an offbeat exterior. In recent years, she’d largely given up acting for directing (though she appeared on screen this year in Matt Dillon’s Factotum), including a movie she’d recently directed and submitted to the 2007 Sundance Festival called Waitress, starring Keri Russell.
It seemed that the 40-year-old indie-film fixture was finally on the verge of fulfilling the potential of those early Hartley comedies, which is why her mysterious apparent suicide this week is such a shocker. It’s horrible to think she’ll now get more international press attention for the manner of her death than she did for her life’s work. It’s worth going back and watching the Hartley movies or Joel Hershman’s Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me and Deran Serafian’s The Road Killers in order to recall what a singular, sharp but sweet presence she was in movies. Meanwhile, let’s hope Sundance screens Waitress and finds a way to pay tribute to Shelly; after all, she helped lay the fest’s foundation.