Winters, Shelley (1922—)

views updated

Winters, Shelley (1922—)

American actress who won a pair of Oscars for her performances in The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue . Born Shirley Schrift on August 18, 1922 (also seen as 1923), in East St. Louis, Illinois; one of two daughters of Johan Schrift (a men's clothing designer and retailer) and Rose (Winter) Schrift (a singer); attended Birmingham Junior High School and Thomas Jefferson High School, in Brooklyn, New York; studied acting at the New Theater School and the Actors Studio; married Mack Mayer (a textile merchant), on January 1, 1943 (divorced 1948); married Vittorio Gassman (an actor), on April 28, 1952 (divorced 1954); married Anthony Franciosa (an actor), on May 4, 1957 (divorced 1960); children: (second marriage) daughter Vittoria Gassman.

Selected theater:

understudied Julie Hayden as Kitty Duval in The Time of Your Life (Booth Theater, 1940); appeared as Miss Holvaag in the pre-Broadway tryout of Conquest in April (Locust Theater, Philadelphia, 1940), Flora in The Night Before Christmas (Morosco Theater, New York, 1941); toured in the revue Meet the People (1941); appeared as Fifi in Rosalinda (44th St. Theater, 1942); alternated with Celeste Holm and Vivienne Allen as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! (St. James Theater, New York, 1947–48); appeared as Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Circle Theater, Hollywood, 1952), Celia Pope in A Hatful of Rain (Lyceum, New York, 1955), Hilda Brookman in Girls of Summer (Longacre Theater, 1956); succeeded Bette Davis as Maxine Faulk in The Night of the Iguana (Royale Theater, NYC, 1961); portrayed the Prostitute in Snowangel and the Wife in Epiphany on the double bill Cages (York Playhouse, 1963); appeared as Flora Sharkey in Part I, Marcella Vankuchen in Part II, and Hilda in Part III, three one-act plays billed as Under the Weather (Cort Theater, 1966); appeared as Minnie Marx in Minnie's Boys (Imperial Theater, 1970); wrote three one-act plays presented as One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger (Actors Playhouse, 1970); toured as Beatrice in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1973).

Selected filmography:

What a Woman! (1943); The Racket Man (1944); Nine Girls (1944); Two-Man Submarine (1942); Knickerbocker Holiday (1944); She's a Soldier Too (1944); Sailor's Holiday (1944); Cover Girl (1944); Tonight and Every Night (1945); A Thousand and One Nights (1945); Living in a Big Way (1947); The Gangster (1947); A Double Life (1948); Larceny (1948); Red River (1948); Cry of the City (1948); Take One False Step (1949); The Great Gatsby (1949); Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949); South Sea Sinner (1950); Winchester '73 (1950); Frenchie (1951); He Ran All the Way (1951); A Place in the Sun (1951); Behave Yourself (1951); The Raging Tide (1951); Phone Call From a Stranger (1952); Meet Danny Wilson (1952); Untamed Frontier (1952); My Man and I (1952); Saskatchewan (1954); Executive Suite (1954); Tennessee Champ (1954); Playgirl (1954); To Dorothy a Son (Cash on Delivery, UK, 1954); Mambo (It.-US, 1955); I Am a Camera (UK, 1955); The Night of the Hunter (1955); The Big Knife (1955); I Died a Thousand Times (1955); The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955); The Diary of Anne Frank (1959); Odds Against Tomorrow (1959); Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960); The Young Savages (1961); Lolita (1962); The Chapman Report (1962); The Balcony (1963); Wives and Lovers (1963); Gli Indifferenti (Time of Indifference, It.-Fr., 1964); A House Is Not a Home (1964); The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); A Patch of Blue (1965); Alfie (UK, 1966); Harper (1966); Enter Laughing (1967); The Scalphunters (1968); Wild in the Streets (1968); Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell (1969); The Mad Room (1969); Bloody Mama (1970); How Do I Love Thee? (1970); Flap (1970); What's the Matter with Helen? (1971); Who Slew Auntie Roo? (UK, 1971); Something to Hide (UK, 1972); The Poseidon Adventure (1972); Blume in Love (1973); Cleopatra Jones (1973); Poor Pretty Eddie (1975); Diamonds (Isr.-US-Switz., 1975); That Lucky Touch (UK-It.-Fr., 1975); Journey Into Fear (UK, 1975); Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976); Le Locataire (The Tenant, Fr., 1976); La Dahlia Scarlatta (It., 1976); Mimi Bluette (It., 1975); Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo (It., 1977); Tentacoli (Tentacles, It., 1977); Pete's Dragon (1977); Gran Bollito (It., 1977); The Three Sisters (1977); The Magician of Lublin (Isr.-Ger., 1979); City on Fire (Can., 1979); King of the Gypsies (1979); Redneck County Rape (1979); The Visitor (1979); Looping (1981); My Mother, My Daughter (1981); S.O.B. (1981); Fanny Hill (UK, 1983); Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1983); Very Close Quarters (1984); Ellie (1984); Deja Vu (UK, 1984); (interview) George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (1985); Witchfire (also assoc. prod., 1986); The Delta Force (1986); (interview) Hello Actors Studio (1987); The Order of Things (1988); Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (voice, 1988); Purple People Eater (1988); An Unremarkable Life (1989); (interview) Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (1990); Touch of a Stranger (1990); Stepping Out (1991); The Pickle (1992).

Over the course of her career on stage and in films, Shelley Winters transformed herself from blonde bombshell to serious actress, winning a pair of Oscars for her work in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965), and electrifying Broadway with her performance in A Hatful of Rain (1955). In the course of her metamorphosis, Winters kept the Hollywood gossip mills humming with reports of her colorful personal life. Outspoken and tempestuous, the actress had numerous affairs and was married and divorced three times, her second split, from Italian star Vittorio Gassman, making international headlines. From the 1960s, she was also a political activist.

Shelley Winters was born Shirley Schrift in 1922 in East St. Louis, Illinois, where her father Johan Schrift was a patternmaker and salesman for a large men's clothing manufacturer. Her mother Rose Winter Schrift , who once sang with the St. Louis Municipal Opera, made certain that Shelley and her sister Blanche Schrift had music lessons, despite the family's meager budget. In her first autobiography, Shelley: Also Known as Shirley, Winters recalls her mother as "the source of my strength, talent, chutzpa and ingenuity, and the lady I clung to no matter how many times I left home or got married." When Winters was 11, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she attended the Birmingham Junior High School. Never a good student, she often cut classes to attend Wednesday afternoon theater matinees, a pattern which continued in high school. By that time, she was consumed with becoming an actress. During the nationwide search for a woman to play Scarlett O'Hara in the film version of Margaret Mitchell 's Gone With the Wind, she dressed herself up in her mother's straw hat and her sister's high heels and marched into the Grand Central Building on Park Avenue, where David Selznick, George Cukor and MGM's talent scout Bill Grady were interviewing women for the part. "With complete self-confidence I slithered in to see the film moguls," Winters recalled. "They stared at the sight before them—a tall, skinny teenager in a pastel violet dress, an off-the-shoulder bargain-basement special, with a black ribbon tied around my neck and three powder puffs stuffed in each bra cup. I managed to croak, 'Lawdy, folks, I'm the only goil to play Scarlett.'" While Selznick and Grady laughed out loud, George Cukor invited her to sit down, ordered her a Coke, and then seriously explained to her that she should take some acting lessons. "He was the first person to treat me as if I were really an actress," she remembered. Cukor, as it turned out, would later be instrumental in her becoming a star.

Winters quit high school six months short of graduation to take a modeling job in the garment district. She enrolled in night acting classes at the New Theater School, and worked odd jobs to pay her way, including a summer position on the staff at a Catskills resort, Aaron and Pinya Pasher's Lake Shore Chateau. In New York City, she haunted the offices of theatrical managers, sometimes riding up and down in the elevator when they would not see her. Her persistence eventually paid off with a string of small stage parts, including a singing role in the revue Meet the People (1941), in which she also toured.

It was Winters' performance as Fifi, the coquette, in Rosalinda (1942), that led to a contract with Columbia Pictures. Between 1942 and 1944, she played a series of bit parts in some ten films without gaining much attention. When her contract ended in 1944, she set out on a self-improvement campaign, taking dance lessons to improve her grace and studying speech and acting with Charles Laughton. It was her old mentor George Cukor, however, who rescued her from obscurity, hiring her to play the waitress and murder victim in A Double Life (1948), costarring Ronald Colman. The role brought her an Academy Award nomination in the Supporting Actress category and a quick rise to stardom. She played leading roles in such films as Cry of the City (1948), The Great Gatsby (1949), Take One False Step (1949), and South Sea Sinner (1950), all of which exploited her earthy sexuality. Director George Stevens saw another side of her, however, casting her as the pregnant factory worker who is drowned by her seducer (Montgomery Clift) in A Place in the Sun (1951), the second film version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. At Stevens' request, Winters dyed her hair dark brown and abandoned all trappings of glamour for the part. She studied Dreiser's book and visited nearby factories to observe the young women workers. For her work on the film she won a second Academy Award nomination (as Best Actress) and established her reputation as a fine actress.

Winters' subsequent film roles were disappointing to her, however, as were the studio's demands about her behavior and the people she was to be seen with. In the mid-1950s, she returned to New York, convinced that her future lay in Broadway or London's West End. She enrolled in the newly formed Actors Studio, studying with Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg. In 1955, she was cast as Celia Pope, the wife of a Korean war veteran and drug addict (Ben Gazzara), in the powerful ensemble drama A Hatful of Rain (1955). Although the original play was revised a number of times in tryouts, it opened on Broadway to glowing reviews. and played to standing ovations for a year.

It was a rounder, more mature Shelley Winters who returned to films in 1959, and during the 1960s, writes Ephraim Katz, "began displaying a unique talent for portraying suffering mothers, blowsy, promiscuous matrons, and veteran whores." She won Supporting Actress Oscars for her mother roles in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965) and, in the early 1970s, also won critical acclaim as the mother of the Marx Brothers in the Broadway production of Minnie's Boys. She later had a recurring role as the dotty mother on the television series "Roseanne."

Early in her second autobiography, Winters admits that for a long time she felt undesirable unless she was attached to an attractive man. Along with numerous affairs, she attempted marriage three times. She met her first husband Mack Mayer, a textile salesman and pilot, in 1941, while in Detroit on tour in the revue Meet the People. Following a whirlwind courtship, they were married on January 1, 1942, after which Mayer left for basic training with the Army Air Corps. The marriage did not survive the separations of war or Winters' career ambitions, and ended in divorce in 1948.

In 1951, on a European publicity junket for the movie Behave Yourself, Winters met Italian actor Vittorio Gassman, who was then involved in complicated divorce proceedings with his actress wife Nora Ricci . Winters, who at the time was "engaged to be engaged" to her co-star Farley Granger, fell in love with Gassman, although she could not converse with him in Italian and he knew little English. The two married in 1952, and had a daughter Vittoria Gassman . They divorced not long afterwards, in 1954, divided by cultural differences (neither one wanted to live and work in the other's country) as well as by Gassman's affair with a 16-year-old actress. The couple remained angry with one another for some time after the divorce, but eventually established a friendship for the sake of their daughter.

"Despite many years of self-examination, I have never been able to understand my affair with and subsequent marriage to Tony," writes Winters of her three-year relationship with actor Anthony Franciosa, with whom she acted in A Hatful of Rain. "It was a kind of obsessive compulsion. Perhaps for me, the rejection and failure of my marriage to Vittorio was so deep that I was unconsciously trying to find a substitute. But Tony was nobody's substitute. I don't know how he was in other relationships in his life, but for us it was fun and fights and grand passion and low comedy. We did some of the finest acting we ever did in our lives together."

Winters was involved in politics from the 1950s, when she supported Adlai Stevenson's first run for the presidency. The actress first met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at a symposium at the home of Harry Belafonte. "My life suddenly seemed to have a different meaning after I listened to that remarkable man," she writes in Shelley II. "I pivoted back to being a woman who was conscious of her own humanity and responsibility to her brothers and sisters." Winters subsequently became friends with Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King , and began working in the civil-rights movement. Her involvement, she said, raised her self-esteem. With her new-found confidence, she wrote her first play, Hansel and Gretel in the Oven, about homosexuality and a young actor's struggle to hide it. It was performed at the Actors Studio quite successfully, after which she wrote several others. One, a series of three one-acters, One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger, was produced off-Broadway, with fledgling actor Robert De Niro in one of the roles. It did not do well, however, and Winters gave up playwriting.

During the turbulent 1960s, Winters was also involved with the new Reform Democratic Committee of New York and was one of the first celebrities to take part in a sit-down demonstration. (Along with Senator Hubert Humphrey and other civic leaders and Broadway stars, she sat in the middle of Times Square in a Ban the Bomb demonstration.) During the 1960 Democratic Convention, she supported Stevenson, then after he failed to win nomination, threw her support behind John F. Kennedy. During her political activities, she met Life photographer Paul Schutzer, with whom she had a long-distance affair and from whom she learned a great deal.

Winters continued to appear in plays and films throughout the 1980s and even into the 1990s, including interviews for several documentaries, George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (1985), Hello Actors Studio (1987), and The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (1990). During the 1980s, she also published her two autobiographies. The second, published in 1989, ends with Winters' recollection of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event which devastated the actress along with the entire nation. One evening shortly after the tragedy, she was walking through Central Park and sat down on a bench at the Bethesda Fountain. "As usual, when I am in the depths of despair some survival mechanism deep within me activates and I summon up that tough survivor, Shirley Schrift," she wrote. "We held hands and she helped me home through Central Park that cold dawn."


Current Biography 1952. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1952.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

McGill, Raymond, ed. Notable Names in the Theater. Clifton, NJ: James T. White, 1976.

Winters, Shelley. Shelley: Also Known as Shirley. NY: William Morrow, 1980.

——. Shelley II: The Middle of My Century. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts.

About this article

Winters, Shelley (1922—)

Updated About content Print Article