Shelley Winters

Blonde sexpot who won two Oscars
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The Independent Online

Shirley Schrift (Shelley Winters), actress: born St Louis, Missouri 18 August 1920; married 1943 Paul Mayer (marriage dissolved 1948), 1952 Vittorio Gassman (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1954), 1957 Anthony Franciosa (marriage dissolved 1960); died Beverly Hills, California 14 January 2006.

Reviewing the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, the critic Dilys Powell wrote, "Shelley Winters, with a depth of feeling new to her playing, reminds us how easy it is for a human creature to be at once heartrending and insufferable." Although she had come to public attention three years earlier as a blonde sexpot, Winters's performance as the drab, whining factory worker Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun was the start of her career as a character actress. It earned her the first of four Academy Award nominations; eventually, she would win two of the treasured statuettes.

Her career also encompassed theatre (acting on Broadway in A Hatful of Rain and The Night of the Iguana) and television (many talk shows and a recurring role in Roseanne).

Born Shirley Schrift in St Louis, Missouri, in 1920 (though her birth year was always given as 1922), she was raised in New York, in Long Island and Brooklyn. Appearing in school plays gave her a fierce ambition to act, and she financed her dramatic lessons by working at Woolworth's and modelling ("I was the worst model on 7th Avenue"). After appearing in summer theatres and dancing in a nightclub chorus, she acted in Conquest in April (1940), a play about the German invasion of Norway that collapsed during its Philadelphia tryout. She did reach Broadway in 1942 in Rosalinda, a Broadway musical based on Die Fledermaus.

Her Hollywood career began in 1943, when she was put under contract by Columbia Pictures, and cast in the comedy What a Woman! The eponymous woman was, however, Rosalind Russell, while Winters had one line ("You can't go in there now, miss") as a secretary. She made seven films the following year, but most of her roles were subliminal. On loan to United Artists, she had a singing ingénue part in the limp screen version of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday, but Columbia still dropped her option.

One of the biggest hits then gracing the Broadway stage was the comedy Born Yesterday, starring Judy Holliday. Feeling that the role of the brassy blonde Billie Dawn was ideal for her, Winters got in touch with Garson Kanin, the play's writer-director, suggesting that she understudy Holliday. Kanin had a better idea: he and his wife Ruth Gordon had just written the Ronald Colman film A Double Life (1948), and Winters seemed ideal casting for Ronald Colman's blowsy murder victim.

Her notices were excellent, and she also died in Cry of the City (1948), Take One False Step (1949) and The Great Gatsby (1949). Universal Pictures, who had made A Double Life, had put her under contract, casting her as a series of gangster's molls and dance-hall girls. After South Sea Sinner (1950) and Frenchie (1951), both tired remakes of Dietrich films, she was desperate to change her blowsy, brassy image.

This was triumphantly accomplished when she was loaned to Paramount for George Stevens's A Place in the Sun, in which she drowned. She drowned again in The Night of the Hunter (1955), the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton, whose Shakespearean acting classes Winters had earlier attended.

Again she died in The Big Knife (1955), giving a touching performance as a starlet forced by her studio to "entertain" visiting exhibitors. Although she had to put on unflattering weight for George Stevens's The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), she also gained an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. "I'll never forget the night I brought my Oscar home," she wrote in Shelley: also known as Shirley (1980), the first of her two books of memoirs. "Tony, my husband, took one look at it and I knew my marriage was over." (The "Tony" was her third husband, the actor Anthony Franciosa; he and Winters were soon divorced.)

To win the role of the nymphet's mother in Nabokov's Lolita (1962), she had to be okayed by the author in New York, which meant breaking off campaigning for the Democratic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy. Always a political zealot, she later provided a lively moment during a television debate between the right-winger William F. Buckley and the anti-war campaigner Adam Walinsky on the then-current Vietnam War. The host of the programme was David Frost, who wrote in his 1993 autobiography:

The most emotional moment came from an unscheduled participant, Shelley Winters, who had come along to listen, and was sitting in the front row of the audience. On the verge of tears, she interrupted the argument between Walinsky and Buckley and said: "No matter what facts you gentlemen muster, you have to know that millions of boys and girls tonight, all over the country, are saying, 'They've made a goddamned mess of everything, and get us out!' " The applause that greeted her statement indicated that she had spoken for much of the audience.

In 1965, she made a fleeting appearance ("I am cured! I am cured!") in George Stevens's star-laden The Greatest Story Ever Told. Later that year, telling a columnist about her role in the forthcoming A Patch of Blue, she burbled, "She blinds her daughter by accident when she's trying to blind her husband. And when the daughter grows up, she beats her. How's that for a role?" (It was juicy enough to win her a second Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.)

"The Family That Slays Together Stays Together!", trumpeted the advertisements for Bloody Mama (1970), a violent biopic about the gun-toting gangleader Kate "Ma" Barker. Winters insisted that Robert De Niro, a fellow actor from the Actors Studio, play Lloyd, her dope-addicted son, one of his first major roles. That same year she portrayed another famous Mama, the ambitious mother of the Marx Brothers, in the short-lived Broadway musical Minnie's Boys. "Miss Winters has the presence of a vacuum cleaner," wrote the Women's Wear Daily critic Martin Gottfried, "and seems to suck in rather than let out any performing."

As for her screen career, it descended to Grand Guignol quickies like What's the Matter with Helen? and Who Slew Auntie Roo? (both 1971) before being rescued by The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the all-star disaster film set on a luxury liner turned upside down by a tidal wave. Winters received another Oscar nomination for her performance as an ex-underwater swimming champion who could hold her breath for two minutes, 47 seconds. David Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (1975) doubted she could keep her mouth shut that long.

Another film devotee, Danny Pearson, reviewing Andy Warhol's Bad (1971), called Carroll Baker's role "probably the only part turned down by Shelley Winters in the last 25 years". Certainly, the lady seemed to reject precious little, appearing in blaxploitation films such as Cinderella Jones (1973), youth-rebellion films such as Wild in the Streets (1968), brothel pictures such as The Balcony (1963) and A House is Not a Home (1964), boardroom dramas such as Executive Suite (1954), Disney whimsy such as Pete's Dragon (1977), period pieces such as Portrait of a Lady (1996), comedies such as Wives and Lovers (1963), Buena Sera, Mrs Campbell (1969), Blume in Love (1973) and Stepping Out (1991 ), westerns such as Winchester 73 (1950), Untamed Frontier (1952) and The Scalphunters (1968), musicals such as Living in a Big Way (1947) and Meet Danny Wilson (1952) and British films such as To Dorothy a Son (1954), I Am a Camera (1955) and Alfie (1966). "I did a picture in England one winter," she recalled. "It was so cold, I almost got married."

She also made Italian films, French films, Israeli films, German films, Swiss films, Canadian films - in all, more than a hundred since it all began with What a Woman! You can say that again.

Dick Vosburgh

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