My idea of a movie star is Joan Crawford, who can chew
up two directors and three producers before lunch.
The best tribute the Siren can offer Shelley Winters is this: She was an utterly fearless actress. "Never underestimate the insecurity of a star," wrote William Goldman. And there you have, probably, why Winters never attained star status. She didn't care about the kind of gilded image a true star cherishes. She was willing to play homely, desperate, grasping, foolish, irritating. They tried to turn her into a glamor girl, and she didn't give a damn. She wanted to act.
Who the hell hasn't Shelley Winters slept with?
--Bette Davis, upon reading Shelley
Late in life the fame of Winters, who died Jan. 14 age 85, rested on her girth and her celebrated love life. That, and her role in The Poseidon Adventure, where her touching, albeit oft-parodied, performance seemed the only one grounded in any recognizable form of reality.
The string of lovers contrasts with her best roles, in A Place in the Sun, The Night of the Hunter and Lolita. In all three movies, Shelley's character spends a too-short life pathetically yearning for love--and, having chosen a spectacularly unsuitable object for her affections, the woman dies for her pains. As often noted, Winters got murdered quite a lot. At other times she played baldly unsympathetic parts with gusto, including Oscar-winning turns as the horrific mother in A Patch of Blue and as Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank.
I saw Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun. She gave a very moving performance, which surprised me, because Shelley is not a sensitive girl socially.
Shelley's dedication to Method acting was such that others sometimes wondered if she went too far. Montgomery Clift reportedly thought her pathetic turn as Alice in A Place in the Sun became annoying. He was right, and it helps the movie. Not many other 1950s blondes would have gone mouse-brown and let the desperation show so nakedly that the audience wants Clift to escape almost as much as he does. Good as she was, it is hard to imagine that from Gloria Grahame, who was up for the role.
The most famous shot of Winters from Night of the Hunter was actually a wax dummy filmed underwater. But the Siren's favorite moment is Winters as she shrinks back from Robert Mitchum after being told her sexual desire is disgusting. After this rejection, as brutal as any blow, her expression of beatific resignation forms a terrifying image of a personality being erased.
For me, her greatest accomplishment is Charlotte Haze in Lolita. Every camera angle in that movie makes it obvious that the ever-icy Stanley Kubrick feels no more compassion for Charlotte than Humbert does. She's presented as blubbery, ridiculous, her middle-aged face cruelly contrasted with Sue Lyon's dewy features. And she still grabs our sympathy, because Winters doesn't condescend to Charlotte, even if Kubrick does. Her expression when confronted with Humbert's treachery is the most tragic moment in the movie.
As the last of the Golden Age dies off, we often mourn the loss of its beauty and style. This morning, without Winters, movie acting seems just a little less bold, too.