Special Thoughts for FILMS FOR TWO
by Alan Waldman
In her remarkable 56-year career, Shelley Winters appeared in 101 films and 44 TV series or movies, reigning as one of the most respected actresses in the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” She began her career playing beautiful blond bimbos, moved into character roles and won two Oscars for playing noisy, selfish complainers—in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (1959) and
A PATCH OF BLUE (1965). Winters earned two other Academy Award nominations for 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (in which she played a prize-winning swimmer who could hold her breath for three minutes) and 1951’s A PLACE IN THE SUN (as a non-swimmer who drowns).
Winters earned two BAFTA noms (including one for playing the Jewish mother from hell in 1976’s NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE) and six Golden Globe nods (including humorously oversexed characters in ALFIE  AND LOLITA ). Shelley also won the Venice Film Fest Jury Prize (for 1954’s EXECUTIVE SUITE), an Emmy, Italy’s Special David, a Golden Globe, two Golden Laurels and other international honors.
An outspoken Liberal Democrat, civil rights advocate and backer of many progressive humanist causes, she worked closely with President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Adlai Stevenson, among others.
Her outspoken TV talk show appearances drove censors wild, due to her language and frank opinions. On THE TONIGHT SHOW with Johnny Carson, Shelley once responded to a sexist remark by Britain’s Oliver Reed by pouring a pitcher of ice water over his head.
Born Shirley Schrift in impoverished East St Louis, Illinois, on August 18, 1920, she grew up in New York City, where her dad was a garment industry cutter. As a teenager, Shirley paid for acting lessons by working as a model and chorus girl, prior to debuting on Broadway in the 1941 comedy THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS.
She changed her first name to Shelley, took her mother’s maiden name and hit Hollywood in 1943, playing bit parts until she attracted attention in the 1947’s melodrama A DOUBLE LIFE, where she was a waitress who was murdered by a deranged Ronald Colman. Like so many of us, Colman thought he was a Negro Roman named Othello, whose wife was cheating on him with someone named Cassio.
Winters was destined to portray a murder victim in many of her movies. In 1951, as a factory girl (Elizabeth Taylor’s romantic rival), drowned by Montgomery Clift, in A PLACE IN THE SUN, she established her chops as a serious actress and took home her first Oscar nom.
Despite her good acting, good deeds and good political causes, Winters was known for her abrasive attitude on set, as early as 1950. Her normally mild-mannered
WINCHESTER '73 co-star James Stewart (an extreme political conservative), declared, after the picture wrapped, that Winters “should have been spanked.” Four men offered to do so and entered into tempestuous marriages with her. They included actors Tony Franciosa and Vittorio Gassman.
For a time, in Hollywood, she was Marilyn Monroe’s roommate. Reportedly, she taught the future sex goddess how to "act" pretty: by tilting her head back, and keeping her eyes lowered and her mouth partly opened. (Are you writing this down?)
Sick of getting too many shallow roles in cheesy flicks, Winters went back to the Broadway stage for several years, beginning in 1955. Three years later, determined to find recognition as a serious actress, she returned to Hollywood and studied with Charles Laughton at night and on weekends.
A plumper Winters, accepting less glamorous roles, was swiftly rewarded by an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. She donated her Oscar to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.
In 1970, I enjoyed her performance as the Marx Brothers' demanding stage mother Minnie, in the Broadway musical "Minnie's Boys."
In the 1980s she published two best-selling volumes of her autobiography, which named names and raised hackles.
A devoted member of The Actors’ Studio, Winters became one of the industry’s most respected acting coaches. She passed away in Beverly Hills on January 14, 2006.
MY 8 FAVORITE SHELLEY WINTERS FILMS:
|1. LOLITA (1962)
2. A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)
3. THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (1959)
4. A PATCH OF BLUE (1965)
5. NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)
6. ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959)
7. ALFIE (1966)
8. NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE (1976)
I thought Winters was brilliant in Stanley Kubrick’s black-comedy classic, LOLITA, scripted by Nobel Prize-winning author Vladimir Nabokov, based on his masterpiece comic novel of the same title. Playing opposite a terrific James Mason and a nutso Peter Sellers (doing another of his flawless American accents; hear him also in Kubrick’s wonderful DR. STRANGELOVE), Winters plays a pretentious suburban mom. She seduces a pathetic, aging, visiting British college professor/boarder (Mason) who is besotted with her 14-year-old daughter (who gave rise to the term “nymphet” in this work of art). Smoking through a cigarette holder, dropping erroneous literary references and deluding herself constantly, Winters is very funny in this bizarre black comedy (which is, after all, about statutory rape). Kubrick has a lot of fun with the script, and he gooses great performances out of Mason, Sellers (as an even sleazier seducer) and Winters. Nabokov was Oscar nominated for his script, Kubrick was nominated for a DGA, Mason got a BAFTA nod, Sue Lyons won a Golden Globe for the title role and Winters, Sellers, Mason and Kubrick earned Golden Globe noms. The later 1997 remake of LOLITA, with Jeremy Irons as the randy old prof, was not as funny—and Melanie Griffith wasn’t nearly as good as Winters as the misguided mama. The later version so outraged blue-noses that many theatres banned it—while various groups of religious busybodies picketed it. Under this assault, it totally stiffed at the box office, losing more than $50 million.
Based on Theodore Dreiser’s literary masterpiece AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, A PLACE IN THE SUN, beautifully directed by George Stevens, features a touching performance by Shelley Winters and stars striking 29-year old Montgomery Clift and stunning 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor as tragically star-crossed lovers. Until this movie, Taylor’s leading men had all been dogs and horses. Winters, who had played sexy blond floozies in all her previous roles, dyed her golden tresses a mousy brown for her first meeting with Stevens, to convince him to cast her against type. His doing so resulted in her Oscar nomination for A PLACE IN THE SUN—which won six Academy Awards and was extolled by critics as “one of the best films ever.” The Oscars went to director Stevens, the writers, the cinematographer, Edith Head’s costumes, editing and music score—plus nominations for Winters, Clift and Best Picture. It won seven other global honors, including the Golden Globe for Best Drama. I found Winters’ performance here very moving, and I enjoyed seeing the movie again recently, after many years, during which I gained numerous pounds.
Although Winters plays an unattractive character in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (as she did in many of her best roles), she is excellent in the smallish part of a materialistic woman who spoils her greedy husband. This is a very moving film about how eight people cope together, hiding from the Nazis in a small Amsterdam attic for two years. Everyone should read the book, visit the museum and see the film at least once in their lives, because it reminds us both how horrible humans can be to each other and how hope can help the victims persevere under very challenging circumstances.
A A PATCH OF BLUE
is a lovely story of the friendship between a black man (Sidney Poitier) and a blind young woman (the first role for very talented, but short-lived Elizabeth Hartman), Shelley plays Hartman’s trampy, self-involved, white-trash mother whose ambition is to start a brothel with a lowlife pal. She mistreats her lonely daughter, whose only friend is Poitier. I loved this sweet, emotional pic 40 years ago and I enjoyed it again this year. Shelley is solid, playing a narcissistic bitch.
In the classic suspenser NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, a pathetic Shelley gets killed early by a creepy Robert Mitchum (a crook posing as a minister). He then dramatically pursues her vulnerable children, seeking a cache of money hidden in a doll. It was beautifully directed by Shelley’s acting coach Charles Laughton and tautly scripted by James Agee (Oscar nominated for THE AFRICAN QUEEN).
Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley and Robert Ryan co-star in ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, co-scripted by blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky and directed by Robert Wise. Shelley is strong in her small role as a racist criminal’s girlfriend. Bitter ex-cop Begley plans a bank robbery, but has to work with two unlikely partners: racist Ryan and Negro Belefonte.
The original 1966 ALFIE (much better than the recent Jude Law remake) is a depressing tale of a callous working-class Cockney cad who collects and under-appreciates women. Featuring a great Sonny Rollins jazz score, fine performances (especially by Michael Caine and Vivian Merchant), it made a big impact in the 1960s and its closing titles song “What’s It All About, Alfie” was a big radio hit. Shelley is excellent in the small role of the amoral divorcee who gives Alfie his comeuppance, taking him as lightly as he takes everyone else. Caine humorously confides in the camera throughout the pic, at one point calling Shelley’s character “a right lust-box in beautiful condition.” ALFIE won six major global awards (including the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film). It was nominated for five Oscars; Caine, Merchant, Bill Naughton’s script, Lewis Gilbert’s direction and the Burt Bachrach-Hal David title song. Sonny Rollins was Grammy nominated for the score and Winters got a Laur
el Award nomination as well.
NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE is a fun film about a group of 1953 beatnik pals. Ellen Greene, Christopher Walken, Lois Smith and Antonio Fargas are all great; a very young Jeff Goldblum is amusing as an arrogant young actor and Lenny Baker is good in the lead, playing a Jewish boy who rebels against his controlling, guilt-inducing nightmare of a mother (played by guess who?) Shelley is very good in a hateful role, as Lenny’s whiny, kvetching, self-pitying Jewish mother stereotype, who doesn’t want him leaving their Brooklyn home for the wicked Village. Winters was BAFTA nominated for Best Supporting Actress, writer-director Paul Mazursky was nominated for the Cannes Golden Palm, Winters and Lenny Baker were Golden Globe nominees and Mazursky’s script got a WGA nomination.
Winters’ other Oscar nom came for 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. She was very good as a Jewish grandmother who sacrifices for others. The film, though exciting at times, remains a very trite, overblown disaster epic. That genre died hard, and for good reason, although some misguided souls with more money than sense are reviving it this summer.
So, as we can plainly see, Shelley’s decision to abandon glamorous tootsie parts for smaller, less flattering, dramatic roles in serious works of art succeeded magnificently, resulting in a Grecian urn-full of awards for her and her major colleagues.
I always admired Winters’ work, although some of her negative characters greatly annoyed me—as they were supposed to. Here is a true story. I met Shelley Winters at a Hollywood party, where Jonathan Winters (no relation), Gregory Peck, Carl Reiner, Red Buttons, Sidney Poitier, Henry Jaglom, Billy Bob Thornton, Stan Freberg and Karen Black all were in glittering attendance. I quipped to Sid Caesar, “What a gala night! And frankly, a gal a night is all I can handle these days.” The great Caesar smiled politely.
Until we meet again, fellows and gals of Internetland, let me leave you with my favorite Shelley Winters quote: “I think on-stage nudity is disgusting, shameful and damaging to all things American. But if I were 22 with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic and a progressive religious experience.”
© Alan Waldman (4/20/06)
After 10 years of marriage, two breakdowns, two breakouts, a few breaks and two reunions, former Houston Jewish writer/humorist/smart alecks Sharon and Alan Waldman are putting their best foots forward—together again.
Alan Waldman, soon to be re-united with his cutest and most impecunious ex-wife, Sharon—in toasty Van Nuys, California—has published more than 2000 articles on political, arts and pest-control topics. Waldman is delighted that his favorite writer and philosopher, Kurt Vonnegut, in his remarkably fine recent book MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY, has decided (after 82 years of close attention to our species) that humans DON’T need to accomplish anything in life; it is sufficient just to fart around, have fun and do no harm. “That insight justifies my life so far,” Waldman declares proudly. This is not to imply that the aging, fluffy-haired, ex-hippie jokester with the excellent penmanship and questionable personal habits has accomplished nothing. Several of his better jokes are now told by hundreds of younger, thinner people, and Waldman is self-credited with ending cable TV channel BBC America’s odious former practice of smudging out nudity on its programs, so you had to squint and twist around to see it. Two months after Waldman convinced the president of BBCA to stop covering up performers’ tits and arses, while adding a warning before such items appeared onscreen, he asked wife Sharon, “Did I just see Lenny Henry’s butt?” To which that lovely and talented gyno-American replied, “Yes, and I think you’re responsible for it being on TV.”