Molly Shannon’s Very Personal Queering of Emily Dickinson

Her new film, “Wild Nights With Emily,” upturns everything you thought you knew about the belle of Amherst, especially her love life.

There’s a strain of literary scholarship that suggests that much of what we knew of mystery-shrouded poet Emily Dickinson—that she was a virtual hermit, that she wanted her poems burned upon her death, that she was lonely, antisocial—is all wrong.

Wild Nights with Emily examines this premise in a sweetly comic, lo-fi, romantic alternate biopic by director Madeleine Olnek. In a Q&A following the film’s Opening Night screening at the Provincetown Film Festival, Olnek points to research that indicates that Dickinson was less a lonely spinster and more a woman of passions and appetites—decidedly queer appetites. Olnek consulted literary research relating to Dickinson’s “poems and letters, revealing her lifelong entanglements and relationships with women,” including a lifelong love affair with another woman, her childhood friend and sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson (played by Susan Ziegler).

Matthew Breen
Molly Shannon at the 2018 Provincetown Film Festival

It’s a fascinating platform in which to upend calcified notions and bring some 19th Century queerness into the 21st Century, and it’s a project that Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live, Will & Grace, Other People, Wet Hot American Summer) was drawn to. Shannon’s appearance in this film is the latest in a pattern of sorts, one presaged in at a Q&A in West Hollywood for a 2017 film, called Miles, in which she plays a mother fighting on behalf of her gay son’s efforts to join a high school girls’ volleyball team. That night, Shannon revealed something her father told her when he was 72-years-old. “He told me he was gay right before he died,” she said. “We were sitting at the pool at the Four Seasons, and I said, ‘Have you ever thought you might be gay?’ He said, ’Most definitely.’ And then we drove to Ohio and talked about it for the next 72 hours.”

NewNowNext spoke to Shannon at the Provincetown Film Festival.

I notice you’ve done a lot of gay-themed films in the past couple years.

Oh yeah.

I read about your father coming out to you late in his life. I wonder if there’s a connection. That’s such a special story.

There’s definitely a connection, without a doubt—are you kidding? I’m actually working on a book about it, so I really want to go into that more in my book, but of course that affected me deeply. And that is why I’m connected to stories about that. So what’s the question? Ha. The answer is yes yes yes! In truth I was going to wait to talk about that more in the book, but I mentioned it once in an interview, and I was like, I should have waited, because I wanted to do it the right way. I don’t want it to be misunderstood.

Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
A daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson at age 16, is displayed at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Mass.

Is this the first queer role you’ve played?

I’m trying to think if I ever did another little film that maybe people haven’t seen. But yes, yes, yes, yes! Exactly, yes. Mmm-hmm.

I was just watching Sally O’Malley [character from Saturday Night Live]. Was that character was based on your father?

Yes. My dad was such a big influence in my life that I do a lot of versions of parts of his personality in characters. The joyologist is kind of my dad a little bit, like when she gets excited about life, that’s a part of my father—inspired by. Sally O’Malley has a limp—we were all in a car accident, and his legs were badly injured, so he walked with a limp and braces on his leg, so that comes from him. The limp is actually my dad’s walk, that she has but then she seems in limping, but then she surprises you because she can kick, stretch and kick! So it was kind of my wish for my dad that he could walk faster. I wished that he could move, and I wished I could jump in his lap. So I just tried to put that in the work. Does that make sense? So it’s not so direct.

How did the filmmakers come to you with Wild Nights?

Madeline Olnek and I went to college together. And Susan Ziegler who plays Susan also went to NYU. We were all in drama school together. So Madeline and I did a comedy show… I created that character Mary Catherine Gallagher in that show. We were rehearsing and [Olnek] played a snotty director. We were supposed to be auditioning for a play—and she was like, “Come in and introduce yourself,” and I made up the characters: “Hi I’m Mary Catherine Gallagher,” and she’d be like, [dismissively] “Thank you.” She was never impressed, and we had to come in again and try and impress her. I really got into comedy through that stage show that Madeline wrote and directed.

People at NYU from drama school saw that show and said, “You should be on SNL.” But I never thought of myself as a comedian. I considered myself a very dramatic actress, so I was like really? And Madeline Olnek always used to say she wants to be the “Emily Dickinson of comedy.” So funny! It’s all connected.

I think it’s such an important movie. It’s just so fascinating that the truth about her has not been out there. That for whatever reason there have been these false stories about her—that she wanted she poems burned on her death and that she didn’t want to be published, when really in fact the opposite is true.

Stories by someone with an agenda.

With an agenda, exactly! I love that story. But really to answer your question, my dad is behind all of it, as to why I want to make those kind of movies. It’s like my heart. I grew up being a child behind those secrets, and so I have a lot to say about that, and I feel connected to gay stories. Does that make sense? Did you see Other People? And I’ve played mothers to gay sons—in Miles.

Click here for upcoming screenings of Wild Nights With Emily, directed by Madeline Olnek, and starring Molly Shannon.

Editorial director at Logo. Likes sunny spots with palm trees and drinks with umbrellas.