from Tennessee Champ (1954)
August 18, 1920
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||January 14, 2006 (aged 85)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Paul Meyer (1942-1948)
Vittorio Gassman (1952-1954) 1 daughter
Anthony Franciosa (1957-1960)
Gerry DeFord (2006)
Shelley Winters (August 18, 1920 – January 14, 2006) was an American actress who appeared in dozens of films, as well as on stage and television; her career spanned over fifty years, until her death in 2006. Winters is probably most remembered for her roles in A Place in the Sun, The Big Knife, Lolita, The Night of the Hunter, Alfie, and The Poseidon Adventure.
Winters was born Shirley Schrift in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Jewish parents Rose (née Winter), a singer with The Muny, and Jonas Schrift, a designer of men's clothing. Her family moved to Brooklyn, New York when she was three years old. Her sister Blanche Schrift later married George Boroff, who ran The Circle Theatre (now named El Centro Theatre).
As the New York Times obituary noted, "A major movie presence for more than five decades, Shelley Winters turned herself into a widely-respected actress who won two Oscars." Winters originally broke into Hollywood as "the Blonde Bombshell", but quickly tired of the role's limitations. She washed off her makeup and played against type to set up Elizabeth Taylor's beauty in A Place in the Sun, still a landmark American film. As the Associated Press reported, the general public was unaware of how serious a craftswoman Winters was. "Although she was in demand as a character actress, Winters continued to study her craft. She attended Charles Laughton's Shakespeare classes and worked at the Actors Studio, both as student and teacher." She studied in the Hollywood Studio Club, sharing the same bedroom with another beginner, Marilyn Monroe.
Her first movie was What a Woman! (1943). Working in films (in mostly bit roles) through the 1940s, Winters first achieved stardom with her breakout performance as the victim of insane actor Ronald Colman in George Cukor's A Double Life, in 1948. She quickly ascended in Hollywood with leading roles in The Great Gatsby (1949) and Winchester 73 (1950), opposite James Stewart. But it was her performance in A Place in the Sun (1951), a departure from the sexpot image that her studio, Universal Pictures, was building up for her at the time, that first brought Winters her acclaim, earning a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Throughout the 1950s, Winters continued in films, most notably in Charles Laughton's masterpiece, 1955's Night of the Hunter, with Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish. She also returned to the stage on various occasions during this time, including a Broadway run in A Hatful of Rain, in 1955-1956, opposite future husband Anthony Franciosa. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for The Diary of Anne Frank in 1960, and another award, in the same category, for A Patch of Blue in 1966.
Notable later roles included her lauded performance as the man-hungry Charlotte in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita; starring opposite Michael Caine in Alfie; and as the once gorgeous, alcoholic former starlet "Fay Estabrook" whose emotional vulnerability the titular hero so cruelly exploits in Harper (both 1966); in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) as the ill-fated Belle Rosen (for which she received her final Oscar nomination); and in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976). She also returned to the stage during the 1960s and 1970s, most notably in Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana. Unfortunately, her prestigious work during this period tended to be undermined by her forays into camp kitsch with films like 1968's Wild in the Streets and 1971's Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?. Always conscious of her Jewish heritage—she had first learned her trade in the Borscht Belt—she donated her Oscar for The Diary of Anne Frank to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
As the Associated Press reported, "During her fifty years as a widely known personality, Winters was rarely out of the news. Her stormy marriages, her romances with famous stars, her forays into politics and feminist causes kept her name before the public. She delighted in giving provocative interviews and seemed to have an opinion on everything."
That led to a second career as a writer. Though not an overwhelming beauty, her acting, wit, and "chutzpah" gave her a love life to rival Monroe's. In late life, she recalled her conquests in autobiographies so popular they undermined her reputation as a serious actor. She wrote of a yearly rendezvous she kept with William Holden, as well as her affairs with Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando.
Winters suffered a significant weight gain later in life, frequently stating that it was a marketing tool, since there were plenty of prominent normal-weight older actresses but fewer overweight ones, and her obesity would enable her to find work more easily. In 1973, Winters even put on a short-lived Broadway musical revue entitled "The Hoofing Hollywood Heifer", co-starring Charles Nelson Reilly and Bongo, a tap-dancing chimp. Although it closed after only eight performances, this show was applauded for its sheer campy bravado by many critics, one of whom stated that Winters was a "Whale of a talent looking for a sea of applause big enough to rest her massive girth."
Audiences born in the 1980s knew her primarily for the autobiographies and for her television work, in which she played a humorous parody of her public persona. In a recurring role in the 1990s, Winters played the title character's grandmother on the ABC sitcom Roseanne. Her final film roles were supporting ones - she played a restaurant owner and mother of an overweight cook in Heavy (1995) alongside Liv Tyler and Debbie Harry, John Gielgud's wife in The Portrait of a Lady (1996), and a bitter nursing home administrator (whose charges included Charlton Heston, Carroll O'Connor and Shirley Jones) in 1999's Gideon.
Winters was married four times; her husbands were:
As stated above, mere hours before her death, Winters married long-time companion Gerry DeFord, with whom she had lived for nineteen years. Though Winters' daughter objected to the marriage, the actress Sally Kirkland performed the wedding ceremony for the two at Winters' deathbed. Kirkland, a minister of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, also performed non-denominational last rites for Winters.
Winters also had a romance with Farley Granger that became a long-term friendship (according to her autobiography Shelley Also Known As Shirley). She starred with him in the 1951 film, Behave Yourself!, as well as in a 1957 television production of A. J. Cronin's novel, Beyond This Place.
Winters died on January 14, 2006 of heart failure at the Rehabilitation Centre of Beverly Hills; she had suffered a heart attack on October 14, 2005. Her third ex-husband Anthony Franciosa died of a stroke five days later.
|1951||Best Actress in a Leading Role, nominated||A Place in the Sun|
|1959||Best Actress in a Supporting Role, won||The Diary of Anne Frank|
|1965||Best Actress in a Supporting Role, won||A Patch of Blue|
|1972||Best Actress in a Supporting Role, nominated||The Poseidon Adventure|
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