Born on August 18, 1920, in St. Louis, Missouri, Shelley Winters entered the film world in the 1940s, later landing prominent roles in A Place in the Sun and The Night of the Hunter. She won best supporting acctress Oscars for The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue, with later roles in many other projects like Alfie, The Poseidon Adventure and The Tenant. A new generation got to know the actress during her later years via her guest appearances on Roseanne. Winters died on January 14, 2006.
Shelley Winters was born Shirley Schrift on August 18, 1920 (some sources say 1922), in St. Louis, Missouri. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, theatricality came naturally to Winters, as her mother had been an aspiring opera singer. Her childhood was marked by tragedy, however, when her father was sentenced to prison for an arson he didn't commit. He was later exonerated, but the experience deeply affected Winters. "I developed a whole fantasy world ... Reality was too unbearable. This ability to fantasize has been a powerful tool in my acting," she later wrote.
In her teens, Winters tried out for the leading role of Gone With the Wind during a casting call in New York in 1938. While she didn't get the part, Winters was encouraged by director George D. Cukor to finish her schooling and study acting. Working as a model during the day, Winters took acting classes at night. She landed some small stage roles and performed at a number of resorts in the Catskills during the summer.
Her first big break came when director Max Reinhardt gave her a comedic part in his English adaptation of Die Fledermaus, which was called Rosalinda. The operetta debuted in the fall of 1942, and Winters' career soon took off. Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures, saw her in the show and hired her soon after. She crafted the stage name Shelley Winter, drawing inspiration for the name from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and her mother, Rose Winter.
Moving to Los Angeles, Winters worked as a contract player for Columbia Pictures, making $100 a week. She made her film debut in What a Woman! (1943) starring Rosalind Russell. It was just a bit part, and she was eventually dropped by Columbia after a few more screen appearances.
Determined to succeed, Winters finally got her chance to work with Cukor on the critically acclaimed drama A Double Life (1947). She gave a great performance as a waitress who meets an untimely end at the hands of a character actor (played by Ronald Colman). This role helped Winters land a new contract with Universal Pictures. "To this day I feel that getting A Double Life was a miracle. So much of a successful career depends on standing on the right corner at the exact right moment," Winters later wrote. The new studio is also said to have added an "s" to the actress' stage name, and henceforth she was known as "Winters."
More films soon followed, including 1949's The Great Gatsby with Alan Ladd and 1950's Winchester '73 with Jimmy Stewart. She usually played loose women who often were handed a gruesome fate. Winters wanted more substantial work, and spent time in New York City to study at the Actors Studio in order to learn how to shed her brassy, bombshell image.
Winters played down her sensuality and dyed her hair a dull brown to play a factory girl named Alice in A Place in the Sun. Alice found herself in the middle of a love triangle when she is impregnated by George (played by Montgomery Clift), a young man who had already set his mind on the wealthy Angela (played by Elizabeth Taylor). After trying to force George into doing the honorable thing, Alice becomes a victim to his quest for riches. The film received numerous Academy Award nominations, including one for Winters as best actress.
Despite her nomination, Winters found herself in a string of unchallenging roles and forgettable films. She played a love interest to Frank Sinatra in Meet Danny Wilson (1952) and a nightclub singer in Playgirl (1954). Occasionally Winters had the opportunity to shine, often playing a schemer. She got a chance to work with director Charles Laughton, with whom she had studied acting, on The Night of the Hunter (1955), starring Robert Mitchum.
In 1955, Winters returned to Broadway to star in the original production of A Hatful of Rain with Ben Gazzara and Anthony Franciosa, who later became her third husband. She played the wife of a drug addict in the drama, which proved to be a hit. She then went on to appear in 1956's Girls of Summer with George Peppard.
Advancing as a character actress, Winters delivered an Academy Award-winning performance in the Holocaust drama The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), which starred Millie Perkins. She played Mrs. Van Daan, a member of a Jewish family hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam with Anne and her family. The film received eight Academy Award nominations and brought home three awards, including Winters's win for best supporting actress.
Winters moved toward playing maternal figures. "You gotta play mothers. If you don't, you won't get a long career in Hollywood," she once said. Winters played Charlotte Haze, a rough, love-struck mother in Lolita (1962), starring Sue Lyon as her teen daughter and the title character, James Mason as Professor Humbert Humbert and the comedic Peter Sellers as television scribe Clare Quilty. The professor pretends to fall for Winters's character and marries her in order to get close to her daughter. This satirical Stanley Kubrick adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel raised a few eyebrows when it was released, though the film fared well at the box office even among mixed reviews. (Kubrick ultimately felt the tone of the work was compromised due to concerns over the Motion Picture Production Code and outcry from religious groups.)
Appearing on television, Winters won her first and only Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress for an episode of Bob Hope Presents: The Chrysler Theatre in 1964. Winters next played a brutally cruel mother who abuses her blind daughter in A Patch of Blue (1965), co-starring Sidney Poitier. Winters won her second Academy Award for best supporting actress for her work on this film. Other films for the decade included Alfie (1966) and Wild in the Streets (1968).
Good roles were hard to come by for Winters, and she often seemed better than the material she worked on. She became popular as a celebrity guest, making appearances on such talk shows as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and such television shows as Batman. She also taught classes at the Actors Studio for several years, training the likes of Robert De Niro. In 1971, Winters had a series of one-act plays known as One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger produced off-Broadway.
In 1972, Winters appeared in the disaster film The Poseidon Adventure with a celebrity-filled cast that included Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons and Roddy McDowall, among others. She played a rotund elderly woman and former championship swimmer who tries to escape from a cruise ship that has been turned upside-down. For her work on the film, Winters received another Academy Award nomination for supporting actress.
During the 1980s, Winters enjoyed a new form of success as a bestselling author. She wrote a tell-all autobiography, Shelley, Also Known as Shirley, which was published in 1980. In the book, Winters discussed her many love affairs with such actors as Marlon Brando, William Holden, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery and Burt Lancaster. She also wrote about her time as Marilyn Monroe's roommate in her early days in Los Angeles. She published a sequel in 1989 entitled Shelley II: The Middle of My Century.
In her later years, Winters landed a few small film roles, such as playing Nicole Kidman's aunt in Portrait of a Lady (1996). She also had a recurring role on the popular sitcom Roseanne as Roseanne's grandmother from 1991 to 1996.
In 2005, Winters' health took a turn for the worst. She had a heart attack in October and was staying at a rehabilitation center in Beverly Hills, California, when she passed away from heart failure on January 14, 2006.
Married three times, Winters' union with Paul Meyer lasted from 1943 to 1946. In 1952, she married Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. The couple had one child together, daughter Vittoria, before divorcing in 1954. Winters married actor Anthony Franciosa, her co-star from A Hatful of Rain, in 1957. The pair divorced three years later. For the last 19 years of her life, Winters was involved with Jerry DeFord.
Winters once summed up her life as "one New York apartment, two Oscars, three California houses, four hit plays, five Impressionist paintings, six mink coats, and 99 films." A fair assessment, but it lacks recognition of the range of her work. From blonde bombshells, to vulnerable yet vulgar working-class girls, to masterfully evil mothers, Winters played them all.
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