Hall of Hams #48: Shelley Winters

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Today is the birthday of the stupendous, the colossal (quit it!) Shelley Winters (Shirley Schrift, 1920-2006). Her screen career has always held a lot of personal meaning for me, starring as she did in the first movie I ever saw in a cinema The Poseidon Adventure (1972). I’ve long considered it my second favorite film (behind The Wizard of Oz). Winter’s heroic martyrdom in the film hit me hard emotionally at the age of seven, and it still does every time I see the movie.

Unfortunately the role became sort of iconic, and it became the version of Winters that’s remained in everyone’s minds: fat, ugly, old, annoying, complaining. A pity because when she was young and just starting out (it may surprise you to learn) she was flipping GORGEOUS. In fact when she broke into pictures her experience consisted of a handful of acting classes, some small stage roles and modelling work. It was her LOOKS (and her earthy sexiness) that got her cast. Lest ye think I exaggerate:

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Is it me, or does she seem to be offering her bosom as a sort of present in this photo? No, it’s not just me. It’s clearly what the photographer is telling her to do, if she didn’t think of that herself

I know the Duchess will forgive me for apparently getting carried away by all this Shelley Winters cheesecake. I’m hoping to erase from your mind what you think you already know about her (while looking at legs).

But there was more to Winters than good looks; she wanted to be a serious actress. After years of playing bit parts (usually as eye candy) she took Shakespeare classes with Charles Laughton and method acting at the Actor’s Studio. Then we begin to get her starring parts, often as a sexy but hapless “other woman” or “otherwise inconvenient woman” who must die for merely existing, as she played in The Great Gatsby (1949), A Place in the Sun (1951), Night of the Hunter (1955) and Lolita (1960). She was to remain beautiful if increasingly zaftig at least through the early 60s, but what made her castable was a quality of vulnerablity that could even be painful to watch. This was a quality she shared with Judy Garland and interestingly Charles Laughton, her teacher. Winters was willing to make herself ugly and embarrassing for a role, to go way out on a limb and this resulted in some truly memorable work. 

Her willingness to be big in every sense of the word meant that by the 1970s she was to star in some other sorts of “classics” (in this she was no different than many another major movie star): horror and other related schlock, and so we cherish her doubly: for her true excellence…and for her…mm…zeal in acting in more…outre vehicles. This phase began with the title role in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970), in which she played lady bank robber Ma Barker; then continued with What’s the Matter with Helen (1971) by Henry Farrell, author of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; then Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972) also directed by Curtis Harrington for AIP. In 1973 she was in The Devil’s Daughter as well as the blaxploitation flick Cleopatra Jones. In 1977, she was in the Jaws rip-off Tentacles, in which at age 57 she played a woman who was clearly meant to be about 20 years younger than herself (whose child gets eaten by a killer octopus.) In 1978 she played the housemother of a satanic sorority in The Initiation of Sarah (1978). In 1979, the disaster movie City on Fire. She was also occasionally still in good stuff. King of the Gypsies (1978) was a terrific film, although Winters didn’t get many lines. In the 90s, she got some excellent valedictory moments in Portrait of a Lady (1996) and as Roseanne’s grandmother on Roseanne, some truly brilliant stunt casting.

Winters was also a famous pistol, an entertaining loose cannon in interviews and in her three tell-all autobiographies. She liked the attention that resulted from saying outrageous things. Here she is in 1996 on the Tom Snyder show:

To learn more about  show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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2 Responses to “Hall of Hams #48: Shelley Winters”

  1. Three of my all-time favorite theatah stories evah involve La Winters.

    A friend of mine (female) used to be La Winters’s personal assistant. By this time, Shell was, well, a shell of her former self–completely bed-ridden and on innumerable medications. My friend would deliver the mail every morning to the mistress’ boudoir. Like clockwork, as soon as she entered, Shelly would look her over and on alternating days say either, “Sweetie, you look too fat” or “Sweetie, you’ look too thin.” Apparently my friend’s weight fluctuated that wildly from day to day.

    And then there’s the story of when Winters was asked to audition for a film role. She showed up at the casting session carrying a humongous shoulder bag, walked right across the studio and up to the table where the director, casting person, and producer were seated, opened the bag, and took out first her Oscar for Diary of Ann Frank and then her Oscar for A Patch of Blue, and said, “There. THAT’S my audition.”

    And last but not least, there was the time that Shelly was appearing in 84 Charing Cross Road at a summer stock theater in NJ for which she was part owner. That epistolary play is famously “split-focus” with one half of the stage representing NY and the other half London. During the London scenes, when Shelly should have been quietly doing some unobtrusive stage business on her darkened half of the set, Winter could be seen each night counting the number of people in the audience and visibly calculating what her take of the box office should be for the evening. And you KNOW she got it in cash delivered direct to her dressing room.

    They really don’t make them like they used to.

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