Shelley Winters, winner of two best supporting actress Academy Awards, died of heart failure at the Rehabilitation Centre of Beverly Hills on Jan. 14. In October, she had been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack. She was 85.
Besides her two Oscars — for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965) — Winters received two other nominations: in 1951 as best actress for A Place in the Sun (top, with Montgomery Clift) and a supporting nod in 1972 for her underwater prowess in The Poseidon Adventure (right). (Sylvia Syms played Winters’ role in the 2005 made-for-TV remake.)
Née Shirley Schrift in St. Louis, Mo., on Aug. 18, 1920 (some sources claim 1922), to an amateur soprano mother, Rose Winter, and an immigrant father, Shirley spent most of her youth in Brooklyn. When she was nine years old, her father was sentenced to Sing Sing for arson (though he was later exonerated), an event that deeply affected the young girl who from then on opted to spend much of her time in a make-believe world.
As a teenager, she became fascinated with the idea of an acting career. Made up to look older than her years, she auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara during the highly publicized nationwide search for the ideal actress. Director George Cukor (before being fired from the project) supposedly told her to take acting lessons and get some stage training before attempting movies. At about that time, Shirley dropped out of high school and began modeling during the day while developing her skills as an actress at the New Theater School at night.
A couple of summer-stock jobs followed, and in 1941 she landed a featured role in the national company of the comedy-musical Meet the People. Shortly thereafter, she played a small comic role in Max Reinhardt’s Rosalinda, the English-language version of Die Fledermaus.
After watching the show, Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, reportedly hired the young actress for US$100 (approximately $1,000 in 2006) a week. That sounds like an extremely generous amount, considering that Cohn was quite stingy, and that Winters was to be cast in (mostly uncredited) bit parts for the next three years. Either those $100 are an exaggeration, or Winters had a very good liaison at Columbia.
In any case, her first screen appearance was in the 1943 Rosalind Russell vehicle What a Woman! She had a single line. Hardly one to be discouraged, Winters forged ahead.
Besides doing bits in films as diverse as the gangster drama The Racket Man (1944), the Rita Hayworth musicals Cover Girl (1944) and Tonight and Every Night (1945), and the fantasy A Thousand and One Nights (1945), Winters took acting lessons at the studio during the day, and studied at the Actor’s Lab at night.
According to the IMDb, her only official on-screen credit were in two 1944 releases, the B-comedy Sailor’s Holiday and the Nelson Eddy musical Knickerbocker Holiday (on loan to producer-director Harry Joe Brown), both times billed as Shelley Winter. (The first name was derived from poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; the surname from her mother’s maiden name — the "s" at the end was apparently added a little later.)
Winters’ career began ascending more rapidly after she was dropped by Columbia in 1945. The following year at Universal, she had her first important role as a sexy waitress who gets strangled by deranged Shakespearean actor Ronald Colman (who won an Academy Award for the part) in George Cukor’s psychological drama A Double Life. For the next half century, Winters was to remain in steady demand.
Sometimes highly effective (Next Stop, Greenwich Village), oftentimes highly actressy (A Patch of Blue), Winters has stated that some of her best work was done under director George Stevens‘ guidance. (Both A Place in the Sun and The Diary of Anne Frank were directed by him.) During her 56-year film career, she played a wide range of characters in a variety of films, both in Hollywood and overseas, ranging from top A pictures to grade-Z productions (much more often the latter).
Among her leading men on screen were Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun), James Stewart (Winchester 73), Michael Caine (Alfie, Winters’ role was played by Susan Sarandon in the 2004 remake), and James Mason (Lolita, above, with Sue Lyon). Among her leading men off screen were husbands Anthony Franciosa and Vittorio Gassman, lovers Burt Lancaster and William Holden, and buddy Farley Granger. (Franciosa died six days after Winters, on Jan. 20.)
Besides her more than 110 feature films, the last of which were two 1999 releases, Claudia Hoover’s Gideon and Giulio Base’s Italian-made La Bomba, Winters also acted in several made-for-TV movies and guest-starred in numerous television series, including (inevitably) The Love Boat, and had a recurring role in Roseanne.
The first book of her (overlong) two-part autobiography, Shelley, Also Known as Shirley, was published in 1980. It was followed several years later by Shelley II: The Middle of My Century.
“A rocky road out of the Brooklyn ghetto to one New York apartment, two Oscars, three California houses, four hit plays, five Impressionist paintings, six mink coats and 99 films,” is how Winters once described her life.