Sunday, January 15, 2006

Shelley Winters, 1920-2006

My idea of a movie star is Joan Crawford, who can chew
up two directors and three producers before lunch.
--Shelley Winters

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

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.
--Joan Crawford

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.


surly hack said...

Winters also lent a great deal of sympathy to her victim role in Cukor's A Double Life.

Richard Gibson said...

Nice personal obituary. I enjoyed reading it.

The Siren said...

Surly - I confess, I just wasn't into A Double Life. Winters was the only thing in it that I enjoyed, but it was a role she probably could have played in her sleep.

Richard - Thank you! I saw your comments on a couple of my archived posts, too, so I am glad I'm getting a thorough reading. :)

Uncle Gustav said...

Nice remembrance, Siren.

Winters was the best thing about Lolita.

She had a knack for brassy parody and satire. Her over-the-top Ma Parker in Batman was pretty funny; and I think the time may be right for another look at her in Corman's Bloody Mama.

I liked her small and darkly comedic parts in Alfie and Heavy; as the agent encouraging client Julie Andrews to "get raped, or whatever the hell they want" in S.O.B.; and that surreal moment in The Tenant when she laughed to Polanski about someone jumping out a window.

The Siren said...

Flickhead, I agree wholeheartedly about Alfie, S.O.B. and the Polanski; the others I haven't seen, but I'd love to take a look at the Corman. I decided this morning to focus on just the three I liked best, or I might have been here all day (and I'm a slow writer as it is). She had one hell of a career. I also thought she was funny as all-get-out in Next Stop, Greenwich Village. And I would love it if some tribute could unearth the moment on the Tonight Show when she dumped either a drink, or a champagne bucketful of ice & water (accounts vary) over Oliver Reed's head when he made one of his notoriously sexist remarks.

Lance Mannion said...

Winters was spooky in Harper with Paul Newman. I wish I had gotten to know her as an actress first instead of as a Tonight Show regular---although she was always funny and she made Carson laugh---because it's hard for me to see her as playing it straight. I always think she's parodying herself.

goatdog said...

I just saw her in The Big Knife, where her character, too, lives "a too-short life pathetically yearning for love--and, having chosen a spectacularly unsuitable object for her affections, the woman dies for her pains." She was wonderful in it: brash, grating, and able to make Clifford Odets' overly literary dialog sound like a real person's speech.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Re: Night of the Hunter - Yes. One later performance worth watching is as Gladys Presley in John Carpenter's Elvis.

Exiled in NJ said...

From that moment you cite in Hunter, she becomes almost a Stepford Wife, 20 years before her time. She tells the Spoons she must get home to keep peace in the family, arrives at the house that is almost dragged out of Caligari, only to hear Harry threatening the children again. That frame so beautifully sums up this film that until John hurls the money at Harry, is like nothing seen for years. In some ways I would have liked to have seen Shelley Winters play Lillian Gish's Miss Pious role.

Gloria said...

For those who like actors who take their work seriously (and this requires guts and enough salmon genes to swim against the flow as often as required) Miss Winters will be greatly missed. For the rest, stars who work on a "Beats workin'" basis will suffice (if you remember the sentence from "State and Main").

It is not a coincidence that she married Vittorio Gassman, a grand actor who could do tragedy and comedy with equal ease (and as it sadly happens with really good actors, Tinseltown didn't quite know what to do with him: wisely he returned to Italy to avoid a lifetime of playing stereotypical Hollywood Latins).

BTW, "Night of the Hunter" lovers might like to read Preston Neal Jones' "Heaven and Hell to Play with" (Limelight editions, 2002). I always recomend it at the slightest chance, but, hey, the book really deserves it!

The Siren said...

Lance, I think that after the 1970s Winters did do a lot of self-parody, with some exceptions, but as Flickhead points out she had a knack for it.

Goatdog, I haven't seen The Big Knife, but Clifford Odets is getting a cameo in my Part Two Luise Rainer post. :)

Peter, I forgot Gladys Presley too! another good role.

Exiled, you are right, what happens to her is so chilling, very much like a spiritual death before physical death.

Gloria, thanks so much for the book recommendation. Night of the Hunter is simply one of my all-time favorites, so brilliant. I also share your admiration for Gassman.