Saturday, November 21, 2015

Shelley Winters

The What a Character Blogathon is an event devoted to the great character actors of classic Hollywood and the often memorable supporting roles they played throughout film history, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, & Paula's Cinema Club. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of the host sites.

Does Shelley Winters get a bad rep sometimes, you think? She's a double-Oscar winner, who worked with some of the greatest stars and directors of the Old Hollywood era, and while she's probably better remembered for her roles in middle age and beyond, she was a total hottie in her youth. Yeah, she had her diva moments, but so did plenty of Old Hollywood actresses. Yeah, she made some crappy movies later in life, but she wasn't alone in that, either.

Was it her choice of roles? She had a knack for dying in the second act of lots of her best-known parts (she died at least three times by getting hit by a car!), including A Place in the Sun, one of her greatest films. I watched this one again a few months ago. When I first blogged about it, I had said that I didn't buy her relationship with Montgomery Clift. Truth is, though, I think that was more the fault of the story than the acting. Winters and Clift may seem like a mismatched pair, but they're both so excellent in their roles that it almost doesn't matter. It's also worth noting that Winters was turned down for the role at first because she was too sexy. She had to prove to director George Stevens that she could make herself look ordinary before he accepted her.

Winters seemed to specialize in playing plain-janes and/or jilted women: Sun, Night of the Hunter, Lolita, Executive Suite, etc. That, in and of itself, doesn't mean anything other than typecasting. (At this stage I should probably say that it's been a very long time since I last saw The Miracle Worker, and the one time I saw A Patch of Blue (it was my father's VHS copy), I thought it was super-saccharine.)

Was it her multiple marriages and affairs? This alone certainly does not make her unique, although the number of actors she claimed to have shagged reads like a Hollywood who's who: Brando, Holden, Connery, Lancaster and Flynn, for starters. Personally, I try not to get caught up in all of that kiss-and-tell gossip; like I said, Winters was gorgeous in her youth, and if that meant she went with a lot of actors, well, that's hardly a surprise.

Was it her always bragging about knowing Marilyn Monroe before the latter became a superstar? Gee, I dunno, I think I'd brag about that too, if I were her. I know I've told certain stories, over and over again, about encounters with certain celebrities, or people I knew in school before they became famous (mostly comics artists; I doubt you'd know their names).

Surely it's not for making a movie as cheesy as The Poseidon Adventure? People forget that she was Oscar-nominated for that, too. She gained 35 pounds for it (and by her admission, she was never able to lose it afterwards), and trained with an Olympic swim coach as well. We may look back on Poseidon now with a cynical and ironic gaze, but Winters took it as seriously as any of her other roles.

If Shelley Winters is remembered in a... campy way, or is perhaps not taken that seriously, maybe it's because the really good films from her youth aren't as well-remembered as they ought to be. And to be fair, she herself contributed to her image as a brassy, lusty broad - the kind of woman who would douse Oliver Reed with her drink on television for making fun of women's lib. The kind of woman known for saying things like, "I have bursts of being a lady, but it doesn't last long." And maybe her outrageous behavior had a way of obscuring her talent at times... but she had the goods. So what does it matter how people remember her?

Next: Fred Astaire

Films with Shelley Winters:
A Place in the Sun

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur   Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno   Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann


  1. Immediate response to the name Shelley Winters is Lena Gogan in Pete's Dragon for Gavin, Lola in Winchester '73 for me, and "And then I slept with..." for the hubby. In fact, neither Gavin nor I can watch those favourite movies if Garry is in the room because he just won't let that go. Shelley contributed to her own somewhat tarnished memory, but she also left some excellent work for folks to discovery.

  2. My mother took me to see PETE'S DRAGON when it came out, but I remember nothing of the movie itself. Maybe I'll revisit it one of these days.

    1. I think your "Pete's Dragon" years are past. You have to be a kid to enjoy it. It should work, but it just doesn't come together and is it loud! Take a look, but have some aspirin handy. Shelly goes all-in as the villain of the piece. I'll give her that - she never, ever phoned it in.

    2. Loud? That seems odd for a kiddie movie, but whatever. I'll take your word for it.

    3. A lot of the performers are prone to shout their lines. Subtle is not a word for "Pete's Dragon".

  3. AGREE AGREE AGREE!! A fantastic artist was Miss Winters despite her oft ill-advised taste in men in the movies. Didn't the likes of DeNiro study under her? A terrific read, Rich!! I love having Winters represented in this event!


  4. I think she might have had a fling with him but I don't remember for sure. I thought I saw his name among the long list of men she said she went with. Maybe.

  5. Yes, Shelley Winters does get a bad rep, and it is undeserved. She's remarkable in everything – even the cheesy Poseidon Adventure. I'm glad you chose to defend her!

  6. All anybody's gotta do is look at the movies.

  7. Thanks for flying the flag for Winters - I've always thought she's got less than her due. I've always admired the way she was able to transform herself from the 'dumb' blonde to a respected actress. The role that has always stayed with me was her turn as the factory girl in A Place in the Sun, she's just wonderful and it was interesting to read your take on it.

  8. The campy Shelley can be seen more in Lolita or Alfie, and I have to say some of her best roles were before that - and should be better known! Last Night Anne Frank's Diary was on TV and Shelley's acting is superb in it. I also like her short, ill-fated role in A Double Life (1947).
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  9. Definitely would like to see A Double Life at some point.


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