Shelley Winters - Mondays in November
Shelley Winters was a dedicated Method-trained actress who sometimes seemed as irrepressible and garrulous as her characters. But whether ingratiating or annoying, Winters always brought a believable, human quality to her characters, and we’re thrilled to feature her for the first time as TCM’s Star of the Month.
Early in her career, Winters presented the image of a sassy showgirl and sex symbol. (She was painted in a voluptuous illustration by famed pinup artist Alberto Vargas in the early 1950s.) Later, as she gained weight and lost much of her glamour, she played blowsy matrons and mothers – some sympathetic and some very much the opposite. Winters often played a victim and frequently did not survive her films. In some cases, her character was killed by a lover, as happens in three of her key films: A Double Life (1947), A Place in the Sun (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955).
In addition to a generous amount of stage and TV work, Winters appeared in more than 100 feature films. She was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress for A Place in the Sun and won the award as Best Supporting Actress for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965). She was nominated again in the latter category for The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
Winters was born Shirley Schrift on August 18, 1920 to Jewish parents in St. Louis, MO. Her father, an Austrian immigrant, was a tailor’s cutter who, for a time, owned a haberdashery. At one point, after a fire in his shop, he served a year in prison for arson. Later in life, he managed Winters’ career. Winters’ mother was an aspiring opera singer who performed with the St. Louis Municipal Opera. Winters had one sibling, an older sister named Blanche.
When Winters was nine her family moved to New York, and she grew up in Brooklyn and Queens. While in high school she worked in the Garment Center and did some modeling. Always drawn to performing, she acted in school plays and sang and danced in a popular amateur revue, Pins and Needles, staged by the Garment Workers Union.
In 1938, the young Winters interviewed with producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor for the unlikely part of Scarlett O’Hara during the nationwide search for an actress to play the role in Gone With the Wind. Nothing came of the meeting, but years later Cukor would play an important role in the career of Shelley Winters.
After acting lessons and some summer stock, she made her Broadway debut in 1941 as Shelley Winter (without the “s”) in The Night Before Christmas. A small but choice role in the Broadway operetta Rosalinda brought her to the attention of Columbia Pictures studio head Harry Cohn, who offered her a film contract starting at $150 per week. She headed to Hollywood and made her film debut with an uncredited bit part in Columbia’s There’s Something About a Soldier (1943). But the studio had little use for her, and her contract soon lapsed.
She continued plugging away at various studios and appeared in a dozen or so movies in which she was uncredited – although she was billed as Shelley Winter in a couple of others. Her final unbilled bits included The Gangster (1947) and Red River (1948). The picture that made Shelley Winters a name in Hollywood was Universal’s A Double Life, filmed by the director from the Scarlett O’Hara meeting, George Cukor. Ronald Colman won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the tormented thespian, and Winters drew high praise as the pathetic waitress who becomes his victim.
Universal, where the “s” was added to “Winters,” was impressed enough to offer the blossoming actress a seven-year contract. Meanwhile, her reputation strengthened when she stepped into the smash Broadway musical Oklahoma! as a replacement in the showy role of Ado Annie. Back in Hollywood, she was loaned to 20th Century-Fox for Cry of the City (1948), a crime film starring Victor Mature.
At her home studio she played secondary roles in such prestigious films as the James Stewart Western Winchester ‘73 (1950) and leads in minor productions including South Sea Sinner and Frenchie, both released in 1950 and casting her as a dance-hall floozie. Winters called this phase of her career “my Blonde Bombshell period.”
But Paramount’s A Place in the Sun, an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy directed by George Stevens, would transform her image and career. Giving up any pretense at glamor, she played the drab factory worker who is impregnated by Montgomery Clift but earns his fatal resentment after he falls for the ravishing young Elizabeth Taylor.
Winters lost that year’s Best Actress Oscar to Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire, but her potential as a serious and powerful actress was established in Hollywood. During the 1950s, along with television and stage work, she made some two dozen movies. Once released from her Universal contract, she could freely choose her projects.
At RKO, with close friend Farley Granger, she made the crime comedy Behave Yourself! (1951). The two were reportedly engaged to be married at the time, although some claimed that it was a publicity stunt arranged by producer Howard Hughes.
Below are other 1950s films in the TCM tribute.
MGM’s My Man and I (1952) with Ricardo Montalban; MGM’s Executive Suite (1954) with an all-star cast headed by William Holden; MGM’s Tennessee Champ (1954) with Keenan Wynn; RKO’s The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955) with Rory Calhoun; Warner Bros.’ I Died a Thousand Times (1955) with Jack Palance; and United Artist’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) with Harry Belafonte.
High points of the decade for Winters included two projects of 1955: the haunting, impressionistic Charles Laughton film The Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum; and the electrifying Broadway vehicle A Hatful of Rain, with Winters as the pregnant wife of a drug addict. Future husband Anthony Franciosa played the brother-in-law who loves her.
She capped off the decade with her Oscar-winning role in The Diary of Anne Frank, George Stevens’ film version of the Broadway play about the young Jewish heroine and others hiding from the Nazis in World War II Amsterdam. Winters, who played the querulous neighbor Mrs. Van Daan, donated her statuette to Amsterdam’s Anne Frank Museum.
In the 1960s, Winters had increasing exposure on television. She won a Best Actress Emmy for her 1964 performance in “Two Is the Number,” an episode of NBC-TV’s Chrysler Theatre. During the same decade she made about 20 feature films and won her second Supporting Actress Oscar for A Patch of Blue as the viciously racist mother of a blind girl (Elizabeth Hartman) who is attracted to a black man (Sidney Poitier).
Another vivid mother role came Winters’ way in Lolita (1962), Stanley Kubrick’s film version of the Vladimir Nabokov novel about a middle-aged man (James Mason) obsessed with an underage girl (Sue Lyon). Although she was not nominated for this one, many felt that Winters’ performance as Lolita’s shrill, clueless and sexually frustrated mother was as Oscar-worthy as (if not more so than) her turn in A Patch of Blue.
Other 1960s films in TCM’s salute to Winters include: The Young Savages (1961) with Burt Lancaster; The Chapman Report (1962) costarring Jane Fonda and directed by George Cukor; Harper (1966) with Paul Newman; Enter Laughing (1967) with Jose Ferrer; and Wild in the Streets (1968) with Christopher Jones.
Winters received her final Oscar nomination, as well as a Golden Globe award, for her supporting role in The Poseidon Adventure. In this disaster movie involving a capsized passenger ship, she plays a matron who takes a heroic underwater swim to help save her fellow passengers. In filming this startling and memorable scene, Winters said, she utilized her youthful training as a swimmer.
She started off the 1970s with a bold performance in the low-budget Roger Corman production Bloody Mama (1970), playing a fictionalized version of the infamous “Ma” Barker, with a youthful Robert De Niro as one of her criminal sons. What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), a horror movie in the campy mold of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), provides Winters and Debbie Reynolds with vivid, over-the-top roles. Set in the 1930s, the story concerns two middle-aged women who open a tap-dance school together after their sons commit a gruesome murder. Reynolds, an uncredited producer on the film, claimed later that the emotionally volatile Winters “became” the character she was playing and behaved irrationally during filming: “She drove us all insane.”
Also screening are these Winters movies from the 1970s: Flap (1970) with Anthony Quinn; Blume in Love (1973) with George Segal; and Cleopatra Jones (1973) with Tamara Dobson.
Winters loved acting onstage and, over the years, racked up an impressive list of Broadway credits. Always avid to learn and improve herself, she was a perpetual participant in acting classes. She studied Shakespearean acting with Charles Laughton in Los Angeles, and in New York she attended that Method actors’ haven, the Actor’s Studio.
Winters was also a memoirist and playwright. She wrote two autobiographies: Shelley, Also Known as Shirley (1981) and Shelley II: The Middle of My Century (1989). Among the plays she wrote were a series of one-acts staged off-Broadway in 1970 under the title One-Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger. In her memoirs she recalled love affairs or sexual adventures with Farley Granger, Errol Flynn, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando, Sean Connery and others. With her uninhibited humor and fondness for saucy stories, she became a favorite guest on TV talk shows.
Winters remained active in films and on television through the 1990s, playing “Nana Mary” on the ABC-TV sitcom Roseanne in 10 episodes from 1991-96. Her final role in a theatrical feature was a bit in the Italian film La Bomba (1999).
She had four spouses: Mack Paul Mayer (1942-48), a salesman who became a captain in the Army Air Corps during World II; actors Vittorio Gassman (1952-54) and Anthony Franciosa (1957-60); and Gerry DeFord, a long-time companion whom she married just hours before her death in 2006. She had one daughter, Vittoria Gassman, who was born in 1953 and became a physician.
Winters died on January 14, 2006, of heart failure and is interred at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, CA. Until her death she remained close to soulmate and sometimes-lover Farley Granger. He remembered her in a 2007 interview as “really startlingly smart, and original, and articulate. She was terrific when in a good mood, but when not in a good mood was totally impossible!”