Who Was Adrienne Shelly, Late Subject of HBO Doc ‘Adrienne’?

Adrienne Shelly
Courtesy of HBO

Fifteen years after Adrienne Shelly’s life was cut short, the actress and filmmaker is getting another moment in the spotlight, thanks to an HBO documentary directed by her husband, Andy Ostroy. The 100-minute film Adrienne (premiering December 1) focuses on Shelly’s life, death, and legacy as a Hollywood star who was just hitting her stride.

Born Adrienne Levine in Queens, New York, Shelly got her big break in two films by indie auteur Hal Hartley, 1989’s The Unbelievable Truth and the following year’s Trust.

Adrienne Shelly Trust

Adrienne Shelly in ‘Trust’ (Fine Line Features/courtesy Everett Collection)

As her career continued, she took roles in off-Broadway productions and TV shows—guest-starring in Homicide: Life on the Street, Early Edition, Oz, and Law & Order.

Along the way, Shelly ventured behind the camera, directing Roger Rees and Tim Guinee in the 1996 film Sudden Manhattan and Ally Sheedy in 1999’s I’ll Take You There.

At the time of her death, Shelly had just wrapped production on the 2007 film Waitress, a rom-com starring Keri Russell as a woman who escapes an abusive husband and bakes her way into a better life. The film premiered to warm reviews at Sundance and posthumously earned Shelly an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Screenplay.

Keri Russell Adrienne Shelly Waitress

Keri Russell and Adrienne Shelly in ‘Waitress’ (Fox Searchlight/courtesy Everett Collection)

Shelly was found dead on November 1, 2006, in the New York City apartment she used as an office. Police suspected suicide initially but eventually ruled the 40-year-old’s death a homicide, and footprints at the crime scene led investigators to construction worker Diego Pillco, according to The New York Times.

When he pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter more than a year later, Pillco said that Shelly had caught him stealing money from her purse, and when she reached for a phone to call the cops, he grabbed her and hung her by a sheet, the Times reported. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Shelly’s star continued to shine after her death, of course. In 2009, Magnolia Pictures released the Meg RyanTimothy Hutton rom-com Serious Moonlight, which Waitress actress Cheryl Hines directed from a script Shelly had written.

Then, in 2016, Shelly’s name hit Broadway marquees with the opening of the Tony-nominated musical adaptation of Waitress, featuring music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles. The musical ran for nearly four years and more than 1,500 performances at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, and it reopened this September at the nearby Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Now, Ostroy is detailing his late wife’s life in Adrienne, with help from the couple’s daughter, Sophie, who was 2 when her mother died.

“Shaped through Ostroy’s intimate narrative, home video, and archival footage, and anecdotal interviews from those who knew and loved her, Adrienne is a powerful emotional look at Shelly’s life, detailing her determination to create art, her aspirations to uplift others, the beautiful family she left behind, and ultimately the career success she always dreamed of,” HBO says in a press release.

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“With remarkable candor, Ostroy and his now 17-year-old daughter address the void in their lives and the constant struggle to find closure after Shelly’s senseless death. … Adrienne explores the far-reaching effects of a devastating tragedy on one family and her community. It also stands as an illuminating tribute to Shelly’s bright life and enduring achievements. With this film, Ostroy creates a beautiful memoir to his wife.”

Adrienne, Documentary Premiere, Wednesday, December 1, 8/7c, HBO