Nationality: American. Born: Shirley Schrift in East St. Louis, Illinois, 18 August 1922. Education: Attended Thomas Jefferson High School, Brooklyn; studied acting at the New Theatre School, New York, and with Charles Laughton. Family: Married 1) Mack Paul Mayer, 1943 (divorced 1947); 2) the actor Vittorio Gassman, 1952 (divorced 1955), daughter: Vittoria Gina; 3) the actor Anthony Franciosa, 1957 (divorced 1960). Career: Worked as dress model in New York, then in the chorus at La Conga nightclub and in summer stock: small roles in New York, and supporting role in Rosalinda, 1942; 1943—film debut in What a Woman! and contract with Columbia; 1948—contract with Universal; 1951—began studying at The Actors Studio, New York; continued stage work: roles in Born Yesterday, 1950, A Hatful of Rain, 1955, The Night of the Iguana, 1963, Cages, 1963, and Under the Weather, 1966; 1971—her play One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger produced in New York. Awards: Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting, Venice Festival, for Executive Suite, 1954; Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, for The Diary of Anne Frank, 1959; Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, for A Patch of Blue, 1965. Agent: ICM, 8899 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048, U.S.A.
Films as Actress:
What a Woman! (Cummings) (as secretary)
Knickerbocker Holiday (Brown) (as Ulda Tienhoven); She's a Soldier Too (Castle) (as "Silver" Rankin); Sailor's Holiday (Berke) (as Gloria); Together Again (Charles Vidor) (as girl); Cover Girl (Charles Vidor) (as girl)
Tonight and Every Night (Saville) (as Bubbles); A Thousand and One Nights (Green) (as handmaiden)
Two Smart People (Dassin) (as Princess)
The Gangster (Wiles) (as Hazel); A Double Life (Cukor) (as Pat Kroll); Living in a Big Way (La Cava); New Orleans (Lubin) (as secretary)
Cry of the City (Siodmak) (as Brenda); Larceny (Sherman) (as Tory); Red River (Hawks) (as dance-hall girl)
The Great Gatsby (Nugent) (as Myrtle Wilson); Take One False Step (Erskine) (as Catherine Sykes); Johnny Stool Pigeon (Castle) (as Terry)
South Sea Sinner (East of Java) (Humberstone) (as Coral); Winchester '73 (Anthony Mann) (as Lola Manners); Frenchie (Louis King) (title role)
A Place in the Sun (Stevens) (as Alice Tripp); He Ran All the Way (Berry) (as Peg); Behave Yourself! (Beck) (as Kate); The Raging Tide (Sherman) (as Connie Thatcher); Meet Danny Wilson (Pevney) (as Joy Carroll)
Phone Call from a Stranger (Negulesco) (as Binky Gay); My Man and I (Wellman) (as Nancy); Untamed Frontier (Fregonese) (as Jane Stevens)
Saskatchewan (O'Rourke of the Royal Mounted) (Walsh) (as Grace Markey); Executive Suite (Wise) (as Eva Bardeman); Playgirl (Pevney) (as Fran); Tennessee Champ (Wilcox) (as Sarah Wurble)
Mambo (Rossen) (as Toni Salerno); The Night of the Hunter (Laughton) (as Willa Harper); I Am a Camera (Cornelius) (as Natalia Landauer); The Big Knife (Aldrich) (as Dixie Evans); The Treasure of Pancho Villa (Sherman) (as Ruth Harris); I Died a Thousand Times (Heisler) (as Marie)
To Dorothy, a Son (Cash on Delivery) (Box) (as Myrtle La Mar)
The Diary of Anne Frank (Stevens) (as Mrs. Van Daan); Odds against Tomorrow (Wise) (as Lorry); Let No Man Write My Epitaph (Leacock) (as Nellie)
The Young Savages (Frankenheimer) (as Mary Di Pace)
Lolita (Kubrick) (as Charlotte Haze); The Chapman Report (Cukor) (as Sarah Garnell)
The Balcony (Strick) (as Madame Irma); Wives and Lovers (Rich) (as Fran Cabrell)
A House Is Not a Home (Rouse) (as Polly Adler); Gli Indifferenti (A Time of Indifference) (Maselli) (as Lisa)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (Stevens) (as woman of no name); A Patch of Blue (Green) (as Rose-Ann D'Arcy)
Harper (The Moving Target) (Smight) (as Fay Estabrook); Alfie (Gilbert) (as Ruby)
Enter Laughing (Carl Reiner) (as Mrs. Kolowitz)
The Scalphunters (Pallock) (as Kate); Wild in the Streets (Shear) (as Mrs. Flatow); Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (Frank) (as Shirley Newman); The Mad Room (Girard) (as Mrs. Armstrong)
Arthur! Arthur! (Gallu)
Bloody Mama (Corman) (as Ma Barker); How Do I Love Thee (Gordon) (as Lena Mervin); Flap (The Last Warrior) (Reed)
What's the Matter with Helen? (Harrington) (title role); Who Slew Auntie Roo? (Harrington) (as Rosie Forrest); Revenge! (Taylor—for TV) (as Amanda Hilton); A Death of Innocence (Wendkos—for TV)
Something to Hide (Reid) (as Gabriella); The Poseidon Adventure (Neame) (as Belle Rosen); The Adventures of Nick Carter (Krasny—for TV)
Blume in Love (Mazursky) (as Mrs. Carmer); Cleopatra Jones (Starrett) (as Mommy); The Devil's Daughter (Szwarc—for TV) (as Lilith Malone)
Double Indeminty (Smith—for TV); The Sex Symbol (Rich—for TV); Big Rose (Krasny—for TV); Journey into Fear (Daniel Mann) (as Mrs. Mathews)
That Lucky Touch (Miles) (as Diane Steedman)
Next Stop, Greenwich Village (Mazursky) (as Mrs. Lapinsky); Diamonds (Golan) (as Zelda Shapiro); The Tenant (Polanski) (as the concierge)
Tentacles (Hellman) (as Tillie Turner); Pete's Dragon (Chaffey) (as Lena Gogan); The Three Sisters (Bogart) (as Natalya); Un borghese piccolo piccolo (An Average Man) (Monicelli)
King of the Gypsies (Pierson) (as Queen Rachel); The Initiation of Sarah (Day—for TV) (as Miss Erica); Elvis (Carpenter) (as Elvis's mother)
Redneck Country (Robinson); City on Fire (Bakoff) (as Nurse Andrea Harper); The Magician of Lublin (Golan) (as Elzbieta)
Il visitatore (The Visitor) (Paradisei) (as Jane Phillips)
S.O.B. (Edwards) (as Eva Brown); Looping (Bockmayer); My Mother, My Daughter (Werba)
Fanny Hill (O'Hara)
Ellie (Wittman) (as Cora); Over the Brooklyn Bridge (Golan) (as Becky Sherman)
Déjà Vu (Richmond) (as Olga Nabokov)
Witchfire (Privitera) (as Lydia); The Delta Force (Golan) (as Eddie Kaplan); Very Close Quarters (Rif) (as Galina)
Marilyn Monroe: Beyond the Legend (Feldman—TV doc)
The Purple People Eater (Shayne) (as Rita)
An Unremarkable Life (Chaudri) (as Evelyn McEllany)
Helena (Vuille); Touch of a Stranger (Brad Gilbert) (as Lily)
The Linguini Incident (Shepherd); Stepping Out (Lewis Gilbert) (as Mrs. Fraser); Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (Workman—doc)
Weep No More, My Lady (Andrieu—for TV) (as Vi)
The Pickle (Mazursky) (as Yetta)
Il Silenzio dei Prosciutti (The Silence of the Hams) (Greggio)
Jury Duty (Fortenberry) (as Mrs. Collins); Heavy (Mangold) (as Dolly); Backfire (A. Dean Bell) (as Lieut. Shithouse); Raging Angels (Smithee) (as Grandma Ruth)
Marlon Brando: The Wild One (Joyce—doc for TV) (as herself); The Portrait of a Lady (Campion) (as Mrs. Touchett)
Gideon (Hoover) (as Mrs. Willows); La Bomba (Base) (as Prof. Summers)
By WINTERS: books—
Shelley, also Known as Shirley, New York, 1980.
Shelley II: The Middle of My Century, New York, 1989.
By WINTERS: articles—
Actors Talk about Acting, edited by Lewis Funke and John E. Booth, New York, 1961.
Interview in Photoplay (London), December 1971.
Interview with Jim Haspiel, in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1980.
Lilley, J., "Chilling Winters," in Scarlet Street (Glen Rock), Summer 1993.
"Shelley Winters: Idol Chatter," interview with Christine Spines, in Premiere (Boulder), January 1995.
"A Winter's Tale," an interview with G. Fuller, in Interview, May 1996.
On WINTERS: articles—
Current Biography 1952, New York, 1952.
Buckley, Michael, "Shelley Winters," in Films in Review (New York), March 1970.
Prebula, G., "Profile: Paul Mazursky," in Creative Screenwriting (Washington), Spring 1995.
Spines, C., "Shelley Winters," in Premiere (Boulder), January 1995.
* * *
Despite performances that generally rise above them, the films of Shelley Winters are overwhelmingly mediocre or forgettable. From them emerge key stock figures who, for better or worse, epitomize the role to which she became progressively typed: blond, imitation-Harlow bombshells; vulgar but vulnerable victims; slatterns; mistresses; whorehouse madames; and Jewish mothers in caftans. The offscreen image of a brassy, high-flying sexpot—fostered by Universal-International's publicity department—and reports of tantrums thrown on and off the set heightened the public's early association of the actress with the parts she played and evolved in due course into the television talk show blabbermouth regaling Johnny, Merv, Jay, and Dave.
But Shelley Winters's extensive stage and screen credits, spanning four decades, are dotted with surprises. In her aspirations and, occasionally, her achievements, she has revealed herself to be an actress of deceptive complexity. Nurtured by directors George Cukor (A Double Life, The Chapman Report) and, especially, George Stevens (A Place in the Sun, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Greatest Story Ever Told), she intuitively began to explore her roles with Method creatively before she or they fully grasped its theoretical base.
Intent on stretching her acting range beyond the level offered by most of her Hollywood assignments, Winters commuted regularly to New York, where for six years she observed Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg in action during the formative years of the Actors Studio. Upon expiration of her Universal contract, she risked a return to Broadway (where in the 1940s she had replaced Celeste Holm as Ado Annie in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Oklahoma!) to star, triumphantly, as a drug addict's wife in Michael Gazzo's play A Hatful of Rain. Officially admitted to Actors Studio membership, she continued to appear through this period, arguably the richest of her career, in important dramatic roles on Broadway, in repertory, on national tours, and on television. Until then, she once told an interviewer, "I never really believed I was an actress. It didn't matter what they said to me about A Place in the Sun. I thought it was a fluke, that it was the publicity jazz and the blonde hair and bosoms. . . . I thought it was an accident."
But A Place in the Sun was no accident. She fought aggressively for the role and, as Alice Tripp in George Stevens's adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, drew the definitive Winters screen characterization. The brash Universal late-1940s blonde, on loan to Paramount, was transformed into Dreiser's mousy, whiny mill girl in an early 1950s performance of remarkable subtlety and depth. Though she received co-star billing (and was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar), Winters's film career has been essentially fulfilled as a character actress in unsympathetic roles, as her two Best Supporting Actress Academy Awards—for grasping Mrs. Van Daan in Diary of Anne Frank and the monstrous Rose-Ann D'Arcy in A Patch of Blue—attest.
George Cukor's A Double Life, the film that triggered her rise to fame, Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (from James Agee's script), and Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (from Vladimir Nabokov's novel) also endure as landmark Winters films. In all three, she meets characteristically premature, violent—and memorable—ends. Winters's performance style and her persona, particularly as a psychotic, deluded, aging hag, has led to a cult status of sorts, particularly around several of her lesser, trashier films. Note Something to Hide, in which she plays the nagging, pathetic wife of Peter Finch (again meeting a memorable end). Also Heartbreak Motel, in which she plays the insane, possessive wife of the motel's owner. In 1971 alone she played a murderous psycho addicted to religious radio broadcasts in What's the Matter with Helen?, and the deranged maternal figure with a fetish for orphans in Who Slew Auntie Roo? Both are excellent examples of Winters's unique ability to turn even the most dismal scripts into over-the-top camp hilarity.
Like so many actors and—especially—actresses of a certain age, Winters is now rarely cast in major motion pictures. She continues to work, however, usually appearing in minimally reviewed films. Invariably, she performs competently, sometimes (as in so many of her earlier screen appearances) rising well above her material. Note her nice turn as Mrs. Fraser, the grouchy pianist in Stepping Out, adapted to the screen from the popular English stage comedy as a vehicle for Liza Minnelli.
—Mark W. Estrin, updated by Matthew Hays